The Common Elder

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General description:

The Elder is a member of the Caprifoliaceae or the Honeysuckle family (number 131 in Stace) and has 7 genera which are all woody shrubs, small trees or climbers.

Sambucus nigra can be a large, deciduous Shrub growing rapidly to 6 m (19ft) by 6 m (19ft) and often even taller in a sheltered or shady position. It can be grown anywhere but will flower and fruit best in sun; in shade, flowering will be limited. Naturally it spreads rapidly and in awkward places when the juicy fruits are eaten by birds.

The common Elder is an attractive shrub in all seasons for the wildlife garden and in farm hedges. The inflorescence is a broad, flat umbel-like corymb up to 25 cms. (10”) across. The creamy, white flowers, usually from June onwards, are sweetly fragrant, hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and followed by round to ovoid, purplish black, fruit after pollination by flies.

Even in autumn the pungent leaves (when bruised) are attractive when they colour creamy yellow to peach and burgundy.  In winter when it’s leafless its silhouette is distinct with furrowed bark and sometimes with a common bright yellow lichen (Xanthoria parietina)  decorating its branches! It is also host of the Common Ear-fungus ( Auricularia auricula-judae often seen on dying or dead branches in older specimens.

If the common Elder is not attractive enough for the ornamental garden there are many named cultivars with various coloured and shaped leaves. ‘Hilliers Manual of Trees and Shrubs (5th Edition)’ mentions 11 cultivars including ‘Albovariegata’; leaflets with an irregular, creamy white margin. ‘Aurea’ or Golden Elder is one of the hardiest and most satisfactory of golden foliaged shrubs. ‘Laciniata’ or Fern-leaved Elder has attractive fern-like leaves and ‘Purpurea’ and other modern purple-leaved varieties such as ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Gerda’ are also very useful as a fast growing shrub where you’d like a different colour! All the ornamental varieties can be cut back hard every (other) year for best foliage effect or just leave un-pruned to get pink-flushed flowers followed by dark purple-black fruit valued by song-birds.

A bit of history:

From a ‘Modern Herbal’ by Mrs. M. Grieve page 265 says:

‘The Elder is a familiar object in English Countryside and gardens. It has been said, with some truth, that an English summer is not here until the Elder is in full flower and that it ends when the berries are ripe.’

‘Also a wealth of folk-lore, romance and superstition centre round this English tree. Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, referring to it as a symbol of grief but the Russians believe that Elder drives away evil spirits.’

The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. Aeld meant ‘fire’; the hollow stems having been used for blowing up a fire. The soft pith pushes out easily and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes – hence it was often called Pipe-Tree or Bour-Tree (in Scotland).

The popular pop-gun of small boys (more often our fathers and grandfathers nowadays) in the country has often been made of hollow elder-stems.

The generic name Sambucus occurs in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers and is adapted from the Greek Sambuca, the Sackbut, an ancient Roman musical instrument.

Edible Uses:  (most information here from ‘Plants for a future’ website (PFAF))

  • The flowers can be eaten raw and apparently a delicious crisp and somewhat juicy snack on a summer’s day, but be careful not to eat the green parts or any lingering insects. They can also be used in elderflower-fritters.
  • The flowers are used to add a muscatel flavour to stewed fruits, jellies and jams (especially gooseberry jam). They are often used to make a sparkling wine. A sweet tea is made from the dried flowers.
  • The flavour of the raw fruit is not acceptable to many tastes, though when cooked it makes delicious jams, preserves, pies and so forth. It can be used fresh or dried, the dried fruit being less bitter. The fruit is used to add flavour and colour to preserves, jams, pies, sauces, chutneys, etc. It is also often used to make wine.
  • The leaves are used to impart a green colouring to oils and fats.

Medicinal Uses:

All this information has been copied of the PFAF website-database   ( Plants For A Future and I cannot take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Anti-inflammatory ( a group of agents known to reduce inflammation); Aperient (a mild laxative); Diaphoretic (herbs that induce increased perspiration); Diuretic (agents that increase the flow of urine); Emetic (a herb to induce vomiting); Emollient (a herb usually mucilaginous, which has a protective and soothing action upon the surface of the body); Expectorant (herbs that increase bronchial mucous secretion by promoting liquefaction of sticky mucus and its expulsion of the body); Galactogogue (a herb to increase flow of breast milk in nursing mothers); Haemostatic (agents that arrest bleeding); Laxative (for non-persistent constipation); Ophthalmic (soothing the eyes); Purgative (an agent placed between a laxative and hydragogue  (a herbal cathartic that causes watery evacuation and drastic purgation) in degree of evacuation); Salve (; Stimulant (herbs that spur the circulation, increase energy, and inspirit physical function).

All meanings of the medical words above came from ‘Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine’ by T. Bartram, publ. 1998 by Robinson Publ. Ltd., London.

Elder has a very long history of household use as a medicinal herb and is also much used by herbalists. The plant has been called ‘the medicine chest of country people’.

  • The flowers are the main part used in modern herbalism, though all parts of the plant have been used at times.
  • The inner bark is collected from young trees in the autumn and is best sun-dried. It is diuretic, a strong purgative and in large doses emetic. It is used in the treatment of constipation and arthritic conditions. An emollient ointment is made from the green inner bark.
  • The leaves can be used both fresh and dry. For drying, they are harvested in periods of fine weather during June and July. The leaves are purgative, but are more nauseous than the bark. They are also diaphoretic (induces increased perspiration), diuretic, expectorant and haemostatic.
  • The juice is said to be a good treatment for inflamed eyes. An ointment made from the leaves is emollient and is used in the treatment of bruises, sprains, chilblains and wounds etc.
  • The fresh flowers are used in the distillation of ‘Elder Flower Water’. The flowers can be preserved with salt to make them available for distillation later in the season. The water is mildly astringent and a gentle stimulant. It is mainly used as a vehicle for eye and skin lotions.
  • An infusion is very effective in the treatment of chest complaints and is also used to bathe inflamed eyes. The infusion is also a very good spring tonic and blood cleanser. Externally, the flowers are used in poultices to ease pain and abate inflammation. Used as an ointment, it treats chilblains, burns, wounds and scalds, etc.
  • The fruit is depurative, weakly diaphoretic and gently laxative. A tea made from the dried berries is said to be a good remedy for colic and diarrhoea. The fruit is widely used for making wines, preserves etc., and these are said to retain the medicinal properties of the fruit.
  • The pith of young stems is used in treating burns and scalds.
  • The root is no longer used in herbal medicine but it formerly had a high reputation as an emetic and purgative that was very effective against dropsy.
  • A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh inner bark of young branches. It relieves asthmatic symptoms and spurious croup in children. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Sambucus nigra for cough and bronchitis, fevers and colds.

Other Uses:

Compost; Cosmetic; Dye; Fungicide; Hedge; Hedge; Insecticide; Litmus; Microscope; Musical; Pioneer; Pipes; Repellent; Wood.

  • The plant is a valuable addition to the compost heap, its flowers are an alternative ingredient of ‘QR’ herbal compost activator and the roots of the plant improve fermentation of the compost heap when growing nearby.
  • The leaves are used as an insect repellent; very effective when rubbed on the skin. They can be powdered and placed amongst plants to act as a deterrent or made into a spray when they act as an insecticide. This is prepared by boiling 3 – 4 handfuls of leaves in a litre of water, then straining and allowing to cool before applying. Effective against many insects, it also treats various fungal infections such as leaf rot and powdery mildew. The dried flowering shoots are used to repel insects, rodents etc.
  • The flowers are used in skin lotions, oils and ointments.
  • Tolerant of salt-laden gales, this species can be grown as a shelter hedge in exposed maritime areas. This is an excellent pioneer species to use when re-establishing woodlands. It is very tough and wind-resistant, grows quickly and provides shelter for longer-lived and taller woodland species to establish.
  • A dye is obtained from the fruit and the bark. The bark of older branches and the root have been used as an ingredient in dyeing black. A green dye is obtained from the leaves when alum is used as a mordant. The berries yield various shades of blue and purple dyes. They have also been used as a hair dye, turning the hair black. The blue colouring matter from the fruit can be used as a litmus to test if something is acid or alkaline. It turns green in an alkaline solution and red in an acid solution.
  • The pith in the stems of young branches pushes out easily and the hollow stems thus made have been used as pipes for blowing air into a fire. They can also be made into musical instruments. The pith of the wood is used for making microscope slides and also for treating burns and scalds.
  • The mature wood is white and fine-grained. It is easily cut and polishes well. Valued highly by carpenters, it has many used, for making skewers, mathematical instruments and toys, etc.

Finally a poem by my partner Matt Summers about the virtue of the Elder:

Poem by Matthew Summers:


Flowers of purity

Berries of beauty

Elder statesman

Standing proud…

…Yet harmonious within the green

Lichen Winter branches

Are as bare bones clutching

The grey skies in waiting

For bud-break Spring…

…Sweet symmetry within the green

Blossom bleeds heavenwards

In a cream cascade

Showering clouds of Summer

Inviting insects inquisitive…

…A blazing torch within the green

As flowers fade

Late Summer transformation

Deep dark fruits

Blink as eyes opened in the depths…

…A harvest in waiting within the green

Fast falls the Autumn

Yellowed keepsakes float with the year

The final berry’s picked clean

This icon of the hedgerow…

…grows vigilant within the green

Just found some valuable information on the Elder and how to make your own syrup to check colds and flu here

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