The food, magic and medicine of the elder tree

Elderflowers in Norfolk, UK. Image by the S. Shailes. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Elderflowers in Norfolk, UK. Image by S. Shailes. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

One of the advantages of living in a small, green city with easy access to the countryside is that there are quite a few opportunities to forage wild things to eat. As a relative newcomer to a small city (I grew up in London) I’m only just starting to explore these opportunities. This week I used some flowers from some local elder trees to make elderflower cordial. It is only fitting that I feature the elder (Sambucus nigra) as the Organism of the Month.

The S. nigra is a deciduous shrub or small tree native to Europe and Asia (1). There are several other very closely-related species native to Asia and North America, such as the Mexican elderberry Sambucus mexicana. S. nigra is common in the UK and is found in woodland and hedgerows. Elder wood is soft, so not well-suited for construction, but is used to make traditional European flute instruments.

Between May-July, S. nigra produces many tiny, pale yellow flowers. The flowers are fragrant and are commonly used to make cordials and tea. From the elderflowers, dark purple berries are produced and ripen in September-October. They are used to make a variety of food products including jams, chutneys and wine. The raw berries and flowers contain a poisonous alkaloid (2), which is broken down during cooking.

Elderflowers and elderberries have been long used in herbal medicine to treat a variety of ailments including coughs, colds and constipation. There is some evidence from medical studies that elderflower may be effective at treating sinusitis. It has also been reported to be able to lower blood sugar levels, which could be useful to treat diabetics (2). Another study found that extracts containing elderberries could reduce the duration of flu symptoms (2).

With elder having so many uses to humans, it is perhaps not surprising that it is subject of folklore. Prior to the arrival of Christianity in Europe, the elder was long revered as a protective tree, warding off evil spirits. English and Scandinavian tales tell of the Elder Mother, who guards elder trees and deals out punishments to any who fell the trees without her permission. However, after Christianity arrived, the elder was reviled as the tree from which Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself. Since elder trees aren’t native to Palestine area, this story is probably not true and is more likely to have been told to discourage people from practicing their traditional pagan beliefs. More recently, elder is known for being the wood from which the most powerful wand, known as The Elder Wand, was made from (in the Harry Potter series at least).

Regardless of its potential magical or medicinal properties, food products made from the flowers or berries of elder are can be really tasty so I would recommend trying some if you haven’t already. Elderflower cordial is easy to make so if you live near any elder trees I would recommend giving it a go. Just make sure you know how to identify elder  before you begin.


1) Wikipedia: Sambucus nigra (retrieved 01/06/14)

2) Kew gardens: Sambucus nigra (elder) (retrieved 01/06/14)


3 thoughts on “The food, magic and medicine of the elder tree

  1. Not to mention the elder-flower lemonade that my other half makes for parties…
    Usually it gets people in a good mood, rather magically 😉
    (I suspect that the alcohol content of this “lemonade” must have a role in the merriment)

  2. The alkaloid is sambunigrin (I think), which is a cyanogenic glucoside closely related to those in apple seeds and peach kernels and bitter almonds. It’s basically glucose sugar stuck to benzoic acid with the =O replaced by cyanide, and when it’s eaten, or cooked, it releases cyanide, presumably discouraging herbivores (or in the case of fruit-seeds, encouraging herbivores to eat the flesh and drop/defecate the seed unharmed somewhere where it can grow?). Or maybe it just discourages herbivores who haven’t learnt to cook.

  3. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 06/06/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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