Boortree, Boontree, Battery, Dog tree, Ellern, Fairy Tree, Judas Tree, Scaw, Bour
Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a tall flowering shrub with clusters of white, fragrant flowers in late Spring and red berries in early autumn. It has a long history of uses as a source of food, for hedgerows, for keeping insects (and perhaps the Devil) at bay, and a host of other uses.
It is sometimes known as the Judas Tree, from the tale that Judas Iscariot hung himself from the bough of an Elder. There are also many (often paradoxical) folk tales surrounding the use and planting of the tree – from seeing the devil himself after burning the wood to planting Elder near a home to ward him off.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the leaves of Elder are an effective way of keeping flies at bay – most of the British Isles have some tale or other about Elder being planted near dairies to keep flies away from the milking animals, or being tied to the brow band of horses.
Where does Elder grow?
Elder is most often found in the British Isles in hedgerows and along the edges of fields, woodlands and sometimes scrub areas. It’s a distinctive tree all year round – in winter the deep, furrowed bark is unmistakeable and as the leaves, flowers and later berries develop it is easily found by visual identification and occasionally from scent alone.
Is Elder edible?
The edible parts of the Elder tree/shrub are the clusters of tiny white umbel flowers (which smell somewhat like honey when warm) and the clusters of reddish-purple berries that form from those flowers later in the year. The rest of the plant contains a toxic cyanogenic glycoside called sambunigrin. Exactly how toxic the rest of the tree/shrub is is a matter of some debate – cyanogenic glycosides are found in several other perfectly edible species but continual consumption can lead to the build up of cyanide within the body. As such it’s best to only eat the flowers/berries of Elder and as little of the stalk as possible – but as always with foraging it is wise to conduct your own research rather than relying solely on a post online.
The flowers are easily harvested and come ready-made with a ‘handle’ of stalk, perfect for dipping into a batter to make elderflower fritters or for stripping the flowers from to distil down into cordial or champagne.
Elder berries are fairly nutritious, containing hefty amounts of Vitamin A and Vitamin C – plus natural antioxidants.
The bark is often home to the mildly-edible fungus Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) and the dried wood of Elder burns well – the name comes not from ‘age’ but from the Anglo-Saxon ‘eldrun’, derived from aeld, meaning fire.
How to identify Elder
At this time of year (late May/early June) the hedgerows for miles around the Original Outdoors offices are festooned with the off-white clusters of tiny flowers of Elder. The ones that survive the Elderflower Cordial/Champagne/Ice cream harvest will live on to become pendulous reddy-purple berries that are easily harvested (providing you can fend off the competing birds), although they will probably stain your clothing and skin for a few days. Hedgerows, field edges where scrub has taken over and even old graveyards and rubbish tips are good hunting grounds.
The smell of the flowers is quite distinctive- notes of honey, nectar and best experienced on a warm day just after rain or a heavy dew. The leaves smell slightly musty, like a rodent nest, and the wood burns with an unusual and memorable scent.
Elder (Sambucus nigra, other varieties of Elder such as Dwarf Elder/Danewort can be found in gardens and the countryside of the UK) is fairly obvious but care should be taken to examine the leaves, flowers and bark if you are unsure. See below for potential misidentification.
Potential dangers and misidentification
The benign misidentification of Elder is likely to come from the flowers of Rowan trees (Sorbus aucuparia) which although quite different in most respects fits the rough description of ‘tree/shrub in a hedge with clusters of white flowers’. A bit of examination will show up the difference between the two species but it has still caught me out a few times when looking at a hedgerow from afar.
Another misidentification that I hadn’t considered until I saw someone make it is that of seeing a tall umbellifer plant that had grown up through a low hedge and then appeared amongst the Elder flowers already on display – a particularly sneaky trick and something easy to be caught out by if picking in a hurry.