Elder – Sambucus nigra

Sambucus nigra flowers

Elder – Sambucus nigra is a classic deciduous, native, summer flowering shrub or small tree. For many it is a statement that summer has arrived. It is considered a ruderal species due to its ability to colonize disturbed and abandoned ground. As a result, it has a reputation for being undesirable, but I prefer to think “there is no such thing as a weed just a plant in the wrong place!” Certainly, in the middle of an ornamental flower border it could be deemed unwanted but as an understory woodlander it is a real cracker! Here is my case for appreciating the qualities of this pretty summer plant.

It is thought that Elder may have gained its name from the Saxon word aeld meaning fire. This theory could be due to its hollow stems that could have been used for blowing oxygen into a fire or perhaps due to Elders qualities as a friction fire material in the hand drill. These are stories and theories that broaden our knowledge and interest in plants and are key techniques that help us have a deeper understanding of nature.

Elder - Sambucus nigra
Elder – Sambucus nigra

Sambucus nigra is common and widespread throughout Britain and most readily seen in hedgerows, field margins, waste ground and woodland edges and woodland rides. It is not tolerant of deep shade and will thrive on fertile soil where available. The more fertile the ground the larger the tree will grow with capability of reaching 10 metres at full maturity with an equal spread.

Bark of the Elder
Bark of the Elder.

Its mature bark is very distinctive with deep furrows that look cork-like in appearance. The leaves are compound, arranged pinnately with five to seven leaflets in opposite pairs and a terminal leaflet. They could be confused with Sorbus aucuparia / mountain ash or Fraxinus excelsior both of which have compound leaves that are arranged pinnately. The difference is that the Elder always has five or seven leaflets whereas the Ash and Sorbus typically have more leaflets. The leaves have a distinctive odour, often described as rank, but should be used as another feature if identification is in doubt.

Sambucus nigra
Sambucus nigra
Fraxinus excelsior
Fraxinus excelsior.
Sorbus aucuparia
Sorbus aucuparia.

Sambucus nigra marks the arrival of summer with clusters of pretty, scented, small creamy, white flowers in flat heads / umbels up to twenty centimetres across. They have a distinctive sweet smell that is heightened after rain to the point where you can smell them on the breeze. The flowers are hermaphrodite and when pollinated produce clusters of drooping black berries in the autumn.

Sambucus nigra flowers
Sambucus nigra flowers.

Elder has been described as the whole “medicine-chest in one plant” and it is true that is has many uses. In bushcraft and survival I certainly think of it as a medicinal wild edible. The leaves can be processed by gently simmering in olive oil, straining and adding to melted beeswax to form ointment when cooled for the treatment of bruises, sprains and chilblains. The flowers can be used in a tea to help control fever, colds and flu, promote sweating and help with hayfever. They contain flavanoides, including rutin, sterols, triperpenes and phenolic acid that promote health.

The berries are good in cooking especially for Pontack sauce that was revered by retired military gentleman to accompany game meat and for syrups to help with coughs and colds. They contain flavonoids, anthocyanins and vitamins A and C. It is good to note that Elder contains cyanogenic glycosides and that the berries should not be consumed straight from the tree. Leave this past time to the blackbirds who also have the important job of propagating the next generation by dispersing the seeds through their droppings.

This time of year, is a celebration of the flowers, it has to be Elder flower cordial o’clock! Here is my recipe for elderflower cordial that is a seasonal classic in my household.

Elderflower Cordial

  • Pick 7-8 large flower heads full of pollen and place in a mixing bowl.
  • Add 350 g of caster sugar
  • Add 1 lime or lemon
  • Add 1 tbs of lemon juice
  • Add 15g of citric acid
  • Pour over 1 litre of boiling water and stir gently to help the sugar dissolve. Leave covered with a tea towel for 24 hours stirring occasionally.
Elderflower cordial ingredients
Elder flower cordial ingredients.
Add water
Add water.

Strain the mixture through a muslin into clean bottles.

Note the flowers are full of wild yeast so sterilizing the bottles is pointless!

It will freeze well so batch production ensures Elder flower cordial through the year. Making ice cubes to add to drinks works well too. I hope this early summer classic will sway you that Elder is a little cracker of a plant that we should all love and add to our list of useful bushcraft plants. Tick tock its Elderflower o’clock!

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