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In the latest of our series about native British trees to be found growing in the Heart of England Forest, we focus on the unassuming elder, which despite maintaining a low profile throughout much of the year, bursts into life in spring and fills the Forest with a glorious display of white flowers.

With mature trees growing to a height of around 15 metres, elder is characterised by its short trunk, or bole, heavily furrowed grey-brown bark and relatively few branches. The leaves are pinnate (meaning they resemble a feather) and usually have between five and seven oval and toothed leaflets. The best places to find elder growing are in woodland, hedgerows or on scrub or wasteland. It is also widespread near rabbit warrens or badger setts where the animals distribute the seeds in their droppings.

An ancient provenance

The name ‘elder’ is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire, because its hollow stems were used as bellows to blow hot air into the centre of a fire. It was also believed that when elder was burned one could see the devil, although if elder was planted near a house it was thought to keep the devil away!

With its mature wood found to be ideal for carving and whittling, the smaller stems can also be hollowed out and used for crafting. In winter, though the green twigs have an unpleasant smell and are characterised by the white, spongy pith inside. The leaves of the elder are also notable for their rather pungent odour when they are touched.

A fruity friend

The elder is hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower. After they have been pollinated by insects, each elder flower develops into a small, purple-black berry which ripens in late summer to autumn. The flowers provide nectar for a variety of insects and the berries are a popular feast for birds and mammals – some small mammals such as dormice and voles eat both the berries and the flowers and many moth caterpillars feed on the foliage, including the white spotted pug, swallow moth, dot moth and buff ermine.

While elder flowers and berries are mildly poisonous to humans and should ideally be cooked before eating, extracts of the flowers have long been used in medicine, and they have traditionally been thought to reduce the duration of colds and flu, although the evidence is only anecdotal. Medicinal purposes aside, though, there can be little doubt that its most popular use is in the manufacture of a refreshing cordial! 

See if you can spot elder when you are in the Heart of England Forest. If you take some elder flowers home, be sure to consult a guide on how to use them safely