Plant 186

Sambucus nigra L. (Adoxaceae)



Sambucus nigra is a familiar sight in the British Isles, both in gardens and in the wild. It forms a large shrub or small tree with pinnate leaves, hollow, young stems and grey, furrowed bark, often supporting the edible, brown, Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae). In early summer it is easily recognised by its conspicuous, flat-topped corymbs of small, white flowers, which later develop into black, spherical berries. Equally at home in hedgerow, woodland or waste ground, it is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, surviving from urban environments to exposed coastal sites. It is fast growing and self-seeds readily.

Its adaptability and vigour means that elder is widespread and abundant, qualities which may contribute to it serving a wider range of practical uses than many other temperate species. Encompassing every part of the plant, these include insect repellent and dye (leaves), facewash (flowers) and numerous medicines. Its healing powers were so esteemed that Martin Blochwitz's posthumously-published Anatomia Sambuci (1631; The Anatomie of the Elder) was still in print at the end of the century. The mature wood can be carved, while the hollow young stems were made into musical instruments, a practice mentioned by Pliny. They were also used as blow-pipes to supply air to fires, giving the plant its common name which is thought to derive from aeld (Anglo-Saxon, 'fire'). In more recent times, the pith from young stems has found applications in the making of scientific instruments and the preparation of specimens for microscopy.

Perhaps due to our long history of interaction with elder it has accumulated an unusual amount of folklore, often contradictory. Elder supposedly formed the cross on which Christ was crucified and was also said to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself. Planting elder by one's house could protect against lightning, but bringing it indoors was unlucky and burning it definitely taboo. A recurrent belief is the need to ask permission of the elder, or its resident spirit, before harvesting any part of it.

Despite our ancient and complex relationship with elder, in Britain today it is mainly regarded as a garden ornamental or a picturesque weed. Its sole remaining widespread use is as a foodstuff and flavouring; the berries in jam and wine, the flowers as flavouring in proprietary cordials. Showing yet another habitat which the elder has made its own; it colonises supermarket shelves as easily as hedgerows.

Further reading

Atkinson MD and Atkinson E (2002) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Sambucus nigra L. Journal of Ecology 90: 895-923.

Ruth Calder