Elder (All About)
The elder is a very common native tree. It grows naturally in hedges and in neglected city gardens. It is a small tree, not exceeding 15 metres in stature. A deciduous tree, it gets its new leaves early in the year, usually at the start of April. These are compound leaves. Each leaf has between five and nine oval leaflets in opposite pairs with one terminal one. The lovely creamy bunches of elderflowers open in June and attract myriads of insects. In their efforts to collect nectar these insects pollinate the flowers.Read moreRead less
The bunches of purple elderberries are formed in September. These are feasted upon by many species of birds — in particular, the woodpigeon. They void the hard seeds in their droppings and these quickly germinate into new fast-growing elder trees again. The timber of the elder tree is very soft — the centre of the twigs and branches is composed of pith, so that it does not have much value as timber. Because of its hollow twigs it is called the boo-tree or boretree in the Ulster Scots dialect and the word is used commonly in Co. Monaghan for elder trees.
There is a huge amount of superstition associated with this tree. It was considered to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself and so has been cursed by God. This is why the leaves smell so horribly rank (try them) and the timber lacks strength (so no one would ever hang themselves from this tree again). It would be exceedingly unlucky to use the timber when making a cradle or a boat as very bad luck would befall the occupants. It was also believed that if a child was struck with an elder stick, they wouldn’t grow any more. This bad luck did not extend to the blossoms from which beautiful sparkling white wine can be made, or to the berries which can be made into red wine. The tree itself is full of insect life all summer long and these can be easily dislodged and examined.
Things to do
1. Bring them out to find an elder tree and study it with them through the four seasons — leaf burst, leaf smell, leaf shape, blossoms, berries, bark rubbings, examination of foliage for insect life.
2. Look for associated fungi at the base of elder trees — a jelly-like rubbery one known as Jew’s Ear is quite common.