ELDER TREE (O. Eng. ellarn; Ger. Holunder; Fr. sureau). Elder is the popular designation of the deciduous shrubs and trees constituting the genus Sambucus of the natural order Caprifoliaceae. The Common Elder, S. nigra, the bourtree of Scotland, is found in Europe, the north of Africa, Western Asia, the Caucasus, and Southern Siberia; in sheltered spots it attains a height of over 20 ft. The bark is smooth; the shoots are stout and angular, and the leaves glabrous, pinnate, with oval or elliptical leaflets. The flowers, which form dense flat-topped clusters (corymbose cymes), with five main branches, have a cream-coloured, gamopetalous, five-lobed corolla, five stamens, and three sessile stigmas; the berries are purplish-black, globular and three- or four-seeded, and ripen about September. The elder thrives best in moist, well-drained situations, but can be grown in a great diversity of soils. It grows readily from young shoots, which after a year are fit for transplantation. It is found useful for making screen-fences in bleak, exposed situations, and also as a shelter for other shrubs in the outskirts of plantations. By clipping two or three times a year, it may be made close and compact in growth. The young trees furnish a brittle wood, containing much pith; the wood of old trees is white, hard and close-grained, polishes well, and is employed for shoemakers' pegs, combs, skewers, mathematical instruments and turned articles. Young elder twigs deprived of pith have from very early times been in request for making whistles, popguns and other toys.
The elder was known to the ancients for its medicinal properties, and in England the inner bark was formerly administered as a cathartic. The flowers (sambuci flores) contain a volatile oil, and serve for the distillation of elder-flower water (aqua sambuci), used in confectionery, perfumes and lotions. The leaves of the elder are employed to impart a green colour to fat and oil (unguentum sambuci foliorum and oleum viride), and the berries for making wine, a common adulterant of port. The leaves and bark emit a sickly odour, believed to be repugnant to insects. Christopher Gullet (Phil. Trans., 1772, lxii. p. 348) recommends that cabbages, turnips, wheat and fruit trees, to preserve them from caterpillars, flies and blight, should be whipped with twigs of young elder. According to German folklore, the hat must be doffed in the presence of the elder-tree; and in certain of the English midland counties a belief was once prevalent that the cross of Christ was made from its wood, which should therefore never be used as fuel, or treated with disrespect (see Quart. Rev. cxiv. 233). It was, however, a common medieval tradition, alluded to by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare and other writers, that the elder was the tree on which Judas hanged himself; and on this account, probably, to be crowned with elder was in olden times accounted a disgrace. In Cymbeline (act iv. s. 2) "the stinking elder" is mentioned as a symbol of grief. In Denmark the tree is supposed by the superstitious to be under the protection of the "Elder-mother": its flowers may not be gathered without her leave; its wood must not be employed for any household furniture; and a child sleeping in an elder-wood cradle would certainly be strangled by the Elder-mother.
Several varieties are known in cultivation: aurea, golden elder, has golden-yellow leaves; laciniata, parsley-leaved elder, has the leaflets cut into fine segments; rotundifolia has rounded leaflets; forms also occur with variegated white and yellow leaves, and virescens is a variety having white bark and green-coloured berries. The scarlet-berried elder, S. racemosa, is the handsomest species of the genus. It is a native of various parts of Europe, growing in Britain to a height of over 15 ft., but often producing no fruit. The dwarf elder or Danewort (supposed to have been introduced into Britain by the Danes), S. Ebulus, a common European species, reaches a height of about 6 ft. Its cyme is hairy, has three principal branches, and is smaller than that of S. nigra; the flowers are white tipped with pink. All parts of the plant are cathartic and emetic.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)