Elder – Sambucus nigra

Tree of the Week

7th April 2020 | Info

Common name: Elder/Common Elder

Scientific name: Sambucus nigra 

Introduction: Elder (Sambucus nigra) are small deciduous trees that are native to the UK. They have a vast spread worldwide and a strong mythological link to the Devil. They also have many additional uses. 


Leaves: The leaves of an Elder tree are typically rich green in colour and pinnate-shaped with up to 7 serrated-edged leaflets. If leaves are touched or become bruised, then they release an unpleasant aroma – an ideal quality to have as they are poisonous.  

Buds: Buds have a rugged-like appearance, and quite often you will see Elder leaves through the bud scales. 

Bark: The bark of an Elder tree is greyish brown with a cork-like texture and furrowed appearance. 

Form: Elders are relatively small trees. They have short trunks and have a relatively small number of branches in comparison to other trees. 


Elder trees are hermaphrodites meaning that their flowers have both male and female reproductive parts contained within themIndividual flowers that are strongly scented form on large umbels and have a cream coloured appearance. They get pollinated by insects before developininto dark purple, almost black, small berries that ripen in the summer to autumn months. The berries are then eaten by birds who then excrete the seeds, helping them to disperse naturally.

[Left: Elder berries/Right: Elder flowers]

Growth Habit

While having a very fast growth rate, Elders typically have a short life span. 

Ecological Importance

Elders have strong ecological importanceTheir foliage is eaten by a range of moth species caterpillars, and their berries provide a food source for an array of birds and small mammals. Additionally, their flowers also provide pollen fomany insects. 

Properties of Elder Wood and its Uses

Mature Elder wood is hard and yellowy white in colour which makes it ideal for its use in carving.

Styling of Elder/Where to Find Them

Elders are widely spread across the UK and are commonly found in the UK in woodland, along hedgerows or being grown as small garden trees.

Associated Pests and Diseases

Elders have been known to be susceptible to Black fly and Glasshouse Red Spider Mite. They have also occasionally been known to be affected by Verticillium wilt. 

Interesting Facts

All parts of an Elder tree are an ideal component in making natural dyes. Its berries can produce a blue-purple dye, its leaves can make a yellow-green dye, and even its bark can make a grey-black dye. Additionally, mythologically the tree has heavy links to the Devil. It was once believed that if you planted an Elder tree outside of your house, then it would protect you from the Devil, however, if you were ever to burn it, then you would see the Devil.


Pruning and Pruning Qualities: Elder trees typically require pruning to help them remain healthy, but also to maintain their overall appearance. Ideally, you should allow young Elders to form naturally within the first three years, only pruning out dead or diseased canes/branches when necessary. Mature Elders should be pruned to help encourage the production of berries, and its older canes or branches should be pruned as to promote the growth of younger ones. Leaving older branches on an Elder tree typically tends to encourage winter damage which is never ideal. Elders do respond well to hard pruningYou should make sure to prune your Elder tree between late winter and early summer. 

Growth Rate after Pruning: After pruning, you can typically expect an even faster growth rate from the trees, higher production of berries and brighter foliage. 

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