The elder

The elder is a common shrub in our hedgerows and woodlands. In May and June its multiple flower heads brighten the countryside. These flower heads have traditionally been collected to then fermented to make elder flower ‘champagne’ or elder flower cordial.

Elder 2
The flowerhead of elder (Sambucus nigra)

Elder is also a valuable plant for many species of insect. The larvae of the swallowtail moth and the buff ermine for example feed on it.

Buff ermine
The buff ermine

Elder 1The leaves of elder look superficially like ash – opposite paired of leaves running up the stem ending with a terminal leaf – this is known botanically as ‘pinnate’. If you rub the leaves of elder and then smell your hands you will find a rather unpleasant aroma – a key ID characteristic.

In the late summer the multiple flowerheads are  replaced by multiple black berries – these are regularly harvested to make elderberry wine.

The name ‘elder’ is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon Aeld which means fire. The stems of elder are hollow and used to be used as part of the bellow’s mechanism to blow air into a fire. Superstition has it that if you burn elder you will see the devil whereas if you plant elder by your house it will protect you from the devil.

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