Species of the day: Elder

18 May 2020 | Posted in James Duncan , Plants
Species of the day: Elder
Elder © Derek Middleton

By James Duncan

Learning & Engagement Officer

Now is the perfect time to see the attractive creamy-white inflorescence produced by the Elder (Sambucus nigra). It's a common shrub of hedgerows and neglected ground and will grow voraciously once established. In fact it will pretty much grow anywhere given enough light and space, where it may eventually reach ten to fifteen metres in height. The most distinctive feature of Elder is undoubtedly the plate-sized arrangement of foaming, frothy flowers, which have a rather pleasant sweetly scented aroma. This truly is in stark contrast to the smell generated by both the toothed leaves and twigs which generate an acrid, earthy, somewhat offensive smell not dissimilar to cat urine. The disparity between the two is really quite remarkable. Elder may often flourish around badger setts, rabbit warrens, abandoned dwellings and alongside roads. It all comes down to enrichment, for Elder prospers where the soil's Nitrogen content is high. This may either be the result of the breakdown of organic matter, such as dung, or perhaps the excess of Nitrogen produced by our vehicle exhausts.   

Elder is what is known as monoecious, whereby both male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower, though they still require insect pollination. Once pollinated, the individual flowers develop into a distinctive dark purple 'elder-berry' which will be mighty astringent until ripened. These berries will form obvious clusters from late summer, their weight often causing drooping of the branches. Elder has significant value to wildlife, acting as a food-plant for a number of moth larvae, a nectar source for a wide variety of insects and an excellent source of fruit for a number of birds, who consume the berries in autumn. Some rodent species will eat both the early flowers and late emerging berries and all assist in spreading the seeds far and wide (through their droppings). 

The common name of Elder likely stems from Anglo-Saxon for 'fire' or 'furnace' and may relate to the soft, spongy core of the wood in providing suitable tinder, or the hollowed stem used to aid the oxidation process as a 'fire bellow'. Though unrelated to fire, many generations of children would also have hollowed out the stems to form peashooters and whistles. Elder has always been prominent in mythology and folklore, cultivated by man for many centuries and used in domestic medicine for more than 2000 years. The leaves' pungent aroma has long been known to repel flies, so was traditionally hung around kitchens, dairies, barns and even around the manes of horses. Nowadays of course, Elder is known most extensively for its use in cordial, tea, wine, champagne and preserves, all courtesy of both its flowers and berries. Ironically, much of Elder is highly toxic, including all the green parts, the seeds and the unripe berries. They all contain glycosides, compounds that are metabolised into cyanide within the human body.  

Elder © Dave Kilbey

Elder © Dave Kilbey

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