Elder Tree 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
Elder tree botanical description:
Growing more like a shrub than a tree, elder produces a multi stemmed trunk, and is usually found growing as an understorey tree in mature woods. The heavily scented, white flowers 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 have 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 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 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.