Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra. It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance. Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.
This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found. It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring. Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost. Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!
Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour. These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters. Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form. Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come. By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied. According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes. The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness. As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries of the elder – the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names. A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from. It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.