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Elder - Sambucus nigra

Elder - Sambucus nigra - flowers

Main features

  • Found at woodland edges, in hedgerows, on water grounds, roadsides, garden borders

  • Leaves have two to three pairs of eye-shaped leaflets and one eye-shaped terminal leaf

  • Branches and twigs are very weak 

  • Bark looks like wine cork

  • Usually has many canes and piles of broken twigs and branches at its base

  • Covered in umbels of white flowers in late spring

  • heavily laden with dark purple-black berries in summer to early autumn

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Elder - Sambucus nigra

Edible plant - novice

Other common names: Black Elder, Common Elder, European Elder, Blue Elder, 


Scientific name meaning: A sambuca is an ancient triangular hand-harp that was most likely made from elder, and this is where Sambucus is believed to be derived from. The species name Nigra means black.  

Season all year

Habitat - where will I find it? Elder can be found anywhere birds gather to poop! underneath other trees, along fences and footpaths, underneaths telegraph poles, and in hedgerows.

It is a native of Britain

Description - what does it look like? Elder's growth habit makes it quite easy to spot at any time of the year. It is a weak tree/shrub, so tends to have many canes around its main trunk (if, indeed, this is still present). Because it breaks so readily, there is often lots of broken twigs around its base.

The bark resembles a wine cork, though only in looks.

The leaves have two to three pairs of eye-shaped leaflets, and an eye-shaped terminal leaf.

In springtime, Elder is covered in white umbels of flowers. These umbels turn to small green berries, before ripening to a dark purple-black.

Possible lookalikes Elder could be confused with Ground Elder, however this is a lower growing plant with much softer stems. 

Before and during flowering, Elder could also be confused with Rowan. However, Rowan has more pairs of leaflets and its flower heads are not uniform like Elder. Elder's flower head has four main "branches" and one central one pointing upwards. However, Rowan flowers can be used in a similar way to Elder flowers

Use as a food The flowers of Elder contain a natural bloom of yeast, so can be used to make Elderflower Champagne. Syrups, cordials and infusions can also be made from the flowers.

The green unripe berries can be transformed into Elderberry capers. Once ripened, the berries can be used to make syrups, cordials, wines, jams, jellies, sauces, chutneys, fruit leathers, and liquours

Use in herbal medicine There have been so many uses for Elder in herbal medicine it is sometimes called "The medicine chest of the countryman".

The flowers and berries are used most often. Elder has been used to treat colds, viruses, chill blains, bruises, sprains, eye conditions, water retention, chest conditions, diarrhoea, burns, dropsy, asthma, bronchitis, and fevers, amongst many other ailments 

If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner

Hazards All parts of Elder contain cyanogenic glycosides. The leaves, barks, stems and twigs should never be consumed. 

In the flowers and berries, although the risk from poisoning is considered to be low, processing such as fermenting, pickling, or heating should be formed in order to make the flowers or berries safe to consume.

It is worth noting that the glycosides that are considered to be the poisonous part of Elder, are also the compounds responsible for many of the tree's medicinal benefits. Therefore, the will be largely destroyed on processing

Importance to other species Provides a valuable nectar source for pollinators, and abundant food source for birds

Interesting facts Elder's hollow wood was used to make flutes. Tubes of elder (the wood with the pith removed) were used to blow air into the centre of fires, stoking them. This gave Elder its common name with ‘aeld’ from the Saxon for fire

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!

Elder -Sambucus nigra - berries
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