Elder Tree Facts and Information

  • Latin name: Sambucus nigra
  • Native words: Old Irish (tromm) Scots Gaelic (troman) Old English (ellern) Welsh (bedwen) eastern Celtic ()
  • Ogham sign: R
  • Height when mature: 9m 30ft
  • Height after 10 years: 3m 10ft

Ripe Elder Berries

Elder Tree Botanical Description:

Growing more like a shrub than a tree, Elder Trees produce a multi-stemmed trunk and is usually found growing as an understory tree in mature woods.

The heavily scented, white elderflowers appear in June and July, and the clusters cover the branches and the sweet smell drifts over long distances.

The leaves are pinnate, which means there are several opposed leaflets attached to a central rib (like Ash and Rowan).

The black fruit known as elderberries develop in August and hang in thick bunches. Bite into them and you’ll find the tiny seeds inside! The berries are borne on red stalks.

The bark of the branches and twigs is thick and pithy, with a corrugated look, yellowy green in appearance. Often these break off leaving the tree with a rather untidy appearance.

Elder Natural History and Ancient Wisdom:

The elderflower has been collected for centuries for flavouring drinks, such as elderflower cordial and whole farms are still devoted to growing elder for this purpose. Elderflower wine is made from fermenting the berries.

In pre-modern times, elder leaves were hung above horses to keep off flies; in fact, an infusion of the leaves was used as an insecticide.

Elders have a strong folklore association with fairies and witchcraft. In Ireland, they were thought to be haunted by fairies.

In Irish legend, at the festival of Samhain, Finn Mac Cool is tricked into the “house of treachery” Tir Na n’Og by the headless phantoms. Samhain represented the one time of year when the barrier between life and death was open and the living could commune with the dead.

Tir Na n’Og is really the Underworld and the phantoms are the dead; Finn has crossed the divide into the spirit world. Finn meets a blind poet Guaire at the entrance, before sitting down at a fire tended by a giant. The giant throws an elder log on the fire and tells Finn “the log of elder that is on the hearth has all but quenched the fire”. As they watch, a witch with 3 heads arises from the flames who causes Finn all sorts of trouble.

In England, ‘Old Gal’ was a witch who had to be asked for permission to cut elder.

Elder Tree Sapling

Elder Place Names:

Often difficult to separate old English place names with ‘ellern’ (elder) from those with ‘alor’ (alder).

Possibilities include:

  • Eldersfield (Worcestershire)
  • Elford (Northumberland) - ‘elder ford’
  • Elstead (Surrey)

Elder Wildlife Rating:

Poor, except for the ripe berries which are eaten by birds and small mammals in large numbers.

Elder Tree Good Points / Bad Points:

The unripe green berries are poisonous.

Elder has a shrub-like spread and its branches can crack leaving dead branches among live ones.

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