This section is from the book "British Wild Flowers - In Their Natural Haunts Vol2-4", by A. R. Horwood. Also available from Amazon: A British Wild Flowers In Their Natural Haunts.
Commonly associated with human dwellings and activities, Elder occurs in deposits of Interglacial, late Glacial, Neolithic, and Roman age. In the North Temperate Zone it is distributed to-day in Europe and North Africa. In Great Britain, universal as it is, it is not found in Cardigan or the Northern Isles. From Fife and Forfar, however, it extends to the English Channel. In Yorks it grows at 1350 ft. In Scotland, according to Watson, it is only a denizen.
The Elder is so common a tree by the side of our roads and in hedgerows that it is difficult to consider it as introduced, in spite of its undoubted association with houses and human dwellings generally. It was planted here and there formerly on account of a much prevalent superstition regarding its value as a herb, etc. It is doubtless also much planted now in woods and plantations, and its distribution by birds renders it a very common species in a variety of habitats.
The Elder has the tree or shrub habit. The trunk is as much as 20-30 ft. high sometimes, and the girth 2 ft. at most, but usually it is about 10 ft. high and 6 in. to 1 ft. in girth. The bark is rough and corky, light brownish-grey. The buds are scaly.1 The branchlets are angular, and the young shoots are light green with darker corky warts.2 The leaves are pinnate, compound, in opposite pairs. The leaflets are in 2-3 or 4 pairs, egg-shaped, lance-shaped, or oblong, rarely rounded, toothed, with a terminal one. The stipules are small or absent.
The flowers are creamy-white in flat-topped, erect, terminal cymes on radiating flower-stalks, with 5 main branches. The corolla is white, wheel-shaped, with rounded lobes. The anther-stalks are slender.
1 With lenticles, or oval areas, with wide air-spaces in place of stomata.
2 The scales which protect the buds are leaf-stalks, the first very small.
The berries are small, black (hence nigra), with a purple interior, rarely green or white, round. The seeds are flattened at the margin.
The Elder is often as much as 15 ft. high,, It flowers in June. It is a deciduous tree, propagated by cuttings.
The flowers contain no honey, but are strong-scented, and the pollen is abundant. They are very conspicuous, forming inflorescences sometimes a foot across. The stigma and anthers mature at the same time. The stamens are widely spreading, and the anthers open outwards. Insects, chiefly flies and beetles, crawling over the flower touch both anthers and stigma, and so may cause cross- or self-pollination. The anthers also may shed pollen upon the stigma, and the flower is probably more usually self-pollinated than cross-pollinated.
The visitors are Sargus, Eristalis arbustorum, E. nemorum, E. tenax, E. horticola, Volucella pellucens; Coleoptera, Cetonia aurata, Trichius fasciatus.
The fruit is edible, and the seeds are dispersed by animals, blackbirds and thrushes being very fond of them. Elder grows on clayey and sandy soils.
The Jew's Ear Fungus is especially partial to growing on the Elder. It is often infested by Aphis Sambuci. A beetle, Anthobium sorbi, Macropteryx albicincta, a Hymenoptera insect, and the Lepidoptera, the Privet Hawk Moth, Sphinx ligustri, Arctia Caja, Tiger Moth, Frosted Orange (Gortyna flavago), Swallow-tailed Moth, Uropteryx sambucata, Botys sambucalis, Faliaria lacertinaria, Beaded Chestnut, Orthosia pistacina feed upon this common tree.
Sambucus, Pliny, was the Latin name of the tree, and the second Latin name refers to the colour of the fruit. The English name is supposed to come from a root meaning hollow.
It is called Acte, Alderne, Arntree, Baw-tree, Bertery, Boon-tree, Boortree, Bootry, Bore, Boretice, Borral, Bothery-tree, Bohtry, Boun-tree, Bourtree, Boutree, Bull-tree, Bur-tree, Buttery, Devil's Wood, Dogtree, Elder, Elderberry, Eldern, Ellar, Ellarne, Ellen-tree, Eller, Ellern, Ellet, Elnorne, Elren, Hilder, Hillerne, Hydul-tree, Hylder, Judas Tree, Parsley Elder, Skaw, Whitaller, Whusselwood, Winter Berries.
Because of the tradition that Judas hanged himself upon it it was called Judas Tree. Like Bothery-tree, the toy pop-guns made from the branches are called bothery-guns. Of Bourtree, Prior says: "It seems to have received its name from its being hollow within, and thence easily bored by thrusting out the pulp ".
The Elder is said to have been the tree the cross was made of. It is thought to be never struck by lightning. Witches like to lurk under it. It must not be tampered with after dark. It was used as a witch-scarer. The green juice of its bark was used to anoint the eyes, which could then discern witches. In Styria it was introduced into different rites. On January 6, the devil goes about in great force. People should make a magic circle, and stand in it themselves.
Photos. Stanley Crook