Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Also known as: borral, bour-tree, Devil’s wood, eller, God’s stinking tree, Judas tree
KingdomPlantae
PhylumAnthophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderDipsacales
FamilyCaprifoliaceae
GenusSambucus (1)
SizeHeight: up to 10 m (2)
Flowering inflorescence diameter: 10 - 20 cm (2)

Not threatened (3).

The elder is not quite large enough to be classed as a tree, but is too large for a bush (4). It is a strange ‘tree’ of many contrasts. The heartwood is extremely hard, yet the branches are weak and barely able to support themselves. It produces clumps of creamy-white sweet-smelling flowers (2) but the leaves give off an unpleasant pungent smell, similar to the smell of mice nests, as the alternative name ‘God’s stinking tree’ attests (4). Elder berries are small, globe shaped and a deep purplish-black in colour, and have been harvested for centuries for a huge range of purposes (4). Elder is the focus of a rich wealth of folk lore, and has many magical associations (5). The name ‘elder’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word 'aeld', meaning fire. This may have arisen from the practice of using the hollow stems of the elder as bellows to encourage fires (4) (5). It was, however, extremely bad luck to burn elder wood; if this happened the Devil was said to appear, explaining another local name ‘Devil’s wood’ (5). Conversely it was said to keep the Devil away if planted close to a house (4). Some of these old superstitions linger today; many modern hedge-cutters refuse to attack an elder for fear of bad luck (6). The hollow branches are the origins of yet another (this time Scottish) name ‘bour-tree’; bour means pipe (4).

Common throughout Britain with the exception of northern Scotland up to elevations of 470 m (2) (3) and has been introduced to Orkney and Shetland(1). It is widespread in Europe but becomes scarce in the extreme north. It is also found in western Asia, North Africa and the Azores (2).

Thrives in disturbed fertile soils in a wide range of habitats including waste ground, roadsides, woods, grassland and railway banks (3). It is very tolerant of rabbit grazing and is a common feature around warrens (2).

Elder is a deciduous shrub that grows very quickly. Leaves are present from March through to November and it is in flower from June to July, the berries ripening from August to September (7). The aromatic flowers are pollinated by small flies and other insects (2).

The uses of elder, of leaves, bark, wood, flowers and berries are many and varied. The shrub has been used for centuries as a fast-growing hedgerow plant (6). The hard heart wood was highly valued and the pith, one of the world’s lightest natural solids, is still used today for holding small biological specimens in microscopy (4). The leaves have been used to protect livestock from flies, and for various medicinal purposes, including soothing wounds, bruises and headaches. Indeed, elder was something of a cure-all, with every part of the shrub being used to treat a plethora of ills ranging from toothache to the plague. The use of the bark as a purgative dates back to Hippocrates, while today, elder flower water is still used for skin problems and as an eye wash (6). The main surviving uses for elder are culinary. Elder-flower cordial and wine (once known as elder-flower champagne) are still popular today. The berries are made into jellies, jams, syrups, wines, and relishes and the flowers can be battered, fried and eaten as fritters (5).

The elder is not currently thought to be threatened.

There are not currently known to be any conservation measures in place for the elder.

For more on British native plants and for details of how to get involved in plant conservation visit the website of Plantlife, the wild plant charity:
www.plantlife.org.uk

For more on the rich folklore centred on the elder see Botanical.com:
http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (January, 2004):
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nbn
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G., and Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. and Dines, T.D. (2002) New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  5. Grigson, G. (1996) The Englishman’s Flora. Helicon Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
  6. Botanical.com (January, 2004):
    http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/e/elder-04.html
  7. Plants for a Future (January, 2004)
    http://www.pfaf.org/database/plants.php?Sambucus+nigra