All About the Elder

For most of the year the Common Elder is rather inconspicuous but around June-July our country lanes and hedgerows fill with spays of white elder flowers.

Sambucus nigra, to give this shrub its official generic Latin name, is a common shrub which can grow up to thirty feet in height, and loves damp, rich soils high in nitrogent content - which is why you find it in damp woods, hedgerows, and waste land where there's organic matter.

It's a deciduous plant; its older stems and branches having a deeply grooved bark, with younger growth having a corky bark appearance. The elder can quickly colonise an area - either from the dispersal of the seeds within the purple-black berries, from suckers, or through propogation of cuttings. Indeed, there are horticultural cultivars of elder, so the shrub at the bottom of your garden or country lane could either be a true variety or a horticultural one which has escaped.

The whole plant has been used for centuries - more likely millenia [it has possibly been in use since Egyptian times] - having a place in folk remedies, the country kitchen, and in cosmetics among other things.

The flat topped flower sprays are sometimes added to wine and summer drinks, but may also be used in homemade elderflower wine. Mixed with peppermint in an infusion, the flowers are a country remedy for colds and flu symptoms; elder flowers having diaphoretic - or perspiration promoting - properties.

Although elder flowers may be eaten raw, and the young buds pickled, elder flowers have their place in cosmetics, even today. Elder flower water is used as a skin tonic, and is said to sooth sunburn. Eye lotions are also made with elder flowers, while ointments are another possibility.

In autumn, the branches which previously gushed their sprays of creamy white flowers, will be covered in bunches of small purple-black berries. These are a favourite constituent of homemade elderberry wine, but can also become the ingredients of jams, pies and cordials, and are loaded with vitamin C. Anyone interested in home dyeing can make a bluey-lilac dye from the berries. And according to Pliny the berry juice was used by the Romans to dye hair.

The leaves of the shrub produce an unpleasant smell when bruised, but produce a green dye. Elder leaves may also be used to make a homemade insecticide, and it has been suggested that there are some fungicidal properties too.

A black dye may be made from the bark, which also contains purgative substances. The pith of the younger branches was once used in scientific experiments, and hollowed-out stems were turned into simple whistles.

Although the mature wood is hard it is not suitable as a timber but is used for making small objects.

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