Foraging,  Identification

The Wondrous Elder Tree

The Elder tree, although small, provides an abundance of useful resources and is also very common growing almost anywhere there is enough light for it. Because of this, it is possibly one of my favourite trees in the forest (shhh don’t tell the others!).

Identification

It is a small tree, normally found under 6m tall. It has dark green oval leaflets with serrated margins which grow on brittle branches with dark grey/brown bark. The bark has a slightly warty appearance which helps with identification during the winter months when there are no leaves, flower or berries in sight.

During the summer the elder is graced with beautiful umbels of tiny white flowers. The umbels are around 25cm across, and the flowers have 5 petals and 5 stamens. They cover the tree and look quite spectacular from afar. The flowers (and leaves when crushed) have an interesting smell, which has been likened to cat urine. However, don’t be put off by this, these flowers are edible and have a lovely sweet taste and can be used to make all sorts of sweet treats!

At the end of the summer, the elder provides again, this time with berries! These tiny berries also form in umbels, starting green and slowly turning to red and then a deep purple. Again, these can be harvested and used in a number of ways. However, these berries cannot be eaten raw as they contain cyanide inducing glycocides. So don’t be tempted to nibble on your walk, always cook these berries before consuming.

Uses

Edible

As mentioned before these sweet flowers can be eaten raw or collected and processed into a plethora of delicious recipes. When collected be sure to remove all the stems as these also contain the glycocides I mentioned above. When summer comes around again, I will introduce a few of my favourite recipes which include elderflower cordial, sorbet and champagne!

The berries should be collected when a deep purple, again removing all stems and debris. These can be used with other summer berries in jams, tarts, crumbles and cakes. As they can be a little tasteless it is often good to mix with other berries, which is perfect as you are likely to find blackberries growing close to your elder tree during this time of the year!

Medicinal

The large serrated leaves are toxic if eaten, however they can be collected and used to make an ointment or balm. This balm can be rubbed on old injuries, old burns, bruising and haemorrhoids.  

The flowers also have medicinal properties. When picked, hang to dry in their umbels from the stalks or dry in a dehydrator. These dried flowers can be made into a tea and used as:

  • A calming agent. Like the more famous camomile tea, elderflowers also have similar calming and relaxing properties.
  • A diaphoretic (induces sweating). This could be used prior to getting a cold or flu to try and ‘sweat it out’.
  • During a cold or heavy bout of hayfever. Elderflower tea helps to dry up the mucus membrane.
  • An antispasmodic. This property of elderflower can be used to relieve symptoms of IBS or diarrhoea. It could also be used to calm a spasmodic cough.

The berries also have medicinal properties as they contain high levels antioxidants and of vitamins A and C. A syrup or tincture can be made and taken as a medicine, or used to make tea, to heighten the immune system and protect against colds and flus. Head over to my post on Elderberry syrup to learn more about the immune boosting properties of elderberries.

Practical

Elder wood has lots of uses, however using it as firewood is not one of them. At first glance it seems prefect, its dry and brittle, easy to snap off the tree. However, when burnt it snaps, crackles and pops, producing a lot of smoke, with little heat. Ancient folklore associates the elder tree with witches which has led to the belief elder is toxic to burn and may summon the devil.  

The wonderous thing about elder wood is the soft pithy core. This core can be easily pushed out using a sturdy stick or a tent peg and used to make things like flutes, whistles and beads. I have made many decorative and useful items using elder, many of which are fantastic activities to do with kids. I will be sharing these ideas with you very soon!

Ancient folklore

The elder has long been associated with witchcraft, and was believed to be a protective tree that would ward off evil spirits and protect against the devil. The leaves would be hung outside houses, bakeries and milk parlours to keep the devil away and protect whatever was inside.

The fact that elder would be used to make flutes and whistles strongly links this tree with fairies and folklore as they would make instruments and magical music with this tree.

It is also believed that Judas hung himself from an elder tree which further propagates the connecting this tree has with death and the devil.

So, there we have it, a quick dive into the wonders of an Elder tree. Next time you are out walking, see how many you can spot and think about all the amazing uses this little tree possesses.

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