Elder (Sambucus nigra)

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Elder is a small deciduous tree, native to the UK and in much of Europe.

Common name: elder

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra
Family: Adoxaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: it is thought the name elder comes the Anglo-saxon 'aeld', meaning fire, because the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.

A year in the life of an elder tree

What does elder look like?

Overview: mature trees grow to a height of around 15m and can live for 60 years. Elder is characterised by its short trunk (bole), and grey-brown, corky, furrowed bark. it has relatively few branches.

Leaves: pinnate (resembling a feather), with 5-7 oval and toothed leaflets and smell bad when touched.

Flowers: borne on large flat umbels, 10-30cm across, the individual flowers are creamy coloured, highly scented, and have five petals.

Fruits: after pollination by insects, each flower develops into a small, purple-black, sour berry, which ripens from late-summer to autumn. Elders are hermaphrodite, meaning both the male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower.

Look out for: leaves have 5-7 pairs of leaflets with sparsely serrated edges.

Could be confused with: walnut (Juglans regia), however, elder has oppositely arranged leaves whereas walnut has alternately arranged leaves.

Identified in winter by: the green unpleasant smelling twigs are hollow or have a white pith (spongy tissue) inside. Buds have a ragged appearance often with leaves showing through the bud scales.

Where to find elder

Elder is widespread in many temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It grows in woodland, scrub, hedgerows and on wasteland.

It often grows near rabbit warrens or badger setts, where the animals distribute the seed via their droppings.

Value to wildlife

The flowers provide nectar for a variety of insects and the berries are eaten by birds and mammals. Small mammals such as dormice and bank voles eat both the berries and the flowers.

Many moth caterpillars feed on elder foliage, including the white spotted pug, swallowtail, dot moth and buff ermine.

Mythology and symbolism

It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the devil, but if you planted elder by your house it would keep the devil away.

How we use elder

Elder wood is hard and yellow-white. Mature wood is used for whittling and carving, while smaller stems can be hollowed out to make craft items.

The flowers and berries are mildly poisonous, so should be cooked before eating. The leaves are also poisonous.

The flowers are often used to make wine, cordial or tea, or fried to make fritters. The vitamin C rich berries are often used to make preserves and wine, and can be baked in a pie with blackberries. They are also used to make natural dyes.

Elder is a popular small tree for gardens, and many cultivated varieties exist with different coloured foliage and flowers. 

Threats

Elder may be susceptible to black fly and the sap-sucking red spider mite.

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