Quick facts

Common name: elder

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra

Family: Adoxaceae

Origin: native

Mature elder trees grow to a height of around 15m and can live for 60 years. Elder is characterised by its short trunk (bole), and grey-brown, corky, furrowed bark. It has relatively few branches.

Look out for: leaves which have 5–7 pairs of leaflets with sparsely serrated edges.

Identified in winter by: the green, unpleasant-smelling twigs which are hollow or have a white pith (spongy tissue) inside. Buds have a ragged appearance, often with leaves showing through the bud scales.

What does elder look like?

elder leaves in bright light

Credit: Alan Belton / WTML

Leaves

Pinnate (resembling a feather), with 5–7 oval and toothed leaflets which smell unpleasant when touched or bruised.

elder flowers

Credit: Alan Belton / WTML

Flowers

Borne on large, flat umbels, 10–30cm across, the individual flowers are creamy-coloured, highly scented, and have five petals.

elder berries

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Fruits

After pollination by insects, each flower develops into a small, purple-black, sour berry, which ripens from late-summer to autumn. Elders are hermaphrodite, meaning both the male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower.

Watch elder leaf and flower budburst

Not to be confused with:

Walnut (Juglans regia). Elder has oppositely arranged leaves whereas walnut has alternately arranged leaves.

Child and parent looking at autumn leaves with magnifying glass

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Where to find elder

Elder is widespread in many temperate and subtropical regions of the world. It’s widespread across the UK, growing in woodland, scrub, wasteland and along hedgerows.

It’s often found near rabbit warrens or badger setts, where the animals distribute the seed via their droppings.

Value to wildlife

The flowers provide nectar for a variety of insects and the berries are eaten by birds and mammals. Small mammals, such as dormice and bank voles, eat both the berries and the flowers.

Many moth caterpillars feed on elder foliage, including the white-spotted pug, swallowtail, dot moth and buff ermine.

Mythology and symbolism

It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the Devil, but if you planted elder by your house it would keep the Devil away. It is also known as the ‘Judas tree’ as Judas Iscariot is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree.

Did you know?

It is thought the name elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'aeld', meaning fire, because the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the centre of a fire.

Uses of elder

Elder wood is hard and yellow-white. Mature wood is good for whittling and carving, while smaller stems can be hollowed out to make craft items.

Elder foliage was once used to keep flies away and branches were often hung around dairies.

The flowers and berries are mildly poisonous, so should be cooked before eating. The leaves are also poisonous.

The flowers are often used to make wine, cordial or tea, or fried to make fritters. The vitamin C-rich berries are often used to make preserves and wine, and can be baked in a pie with blackberries.

Elder is also a great source for a variety of coloured dyes and historically it was used to make lushly patterned Harris Tweed. Blue and purple dye was obtained from the berries, yellow and green from the leaves, and grey and black dye was made from the bark.

Elder is a popular small tree for gardens, and many cultivated varieties exist with different coloured foliage and flowers.

Threats and conservation

Elder may be susceptible to black fly and the sap-sucking red spider mite.