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Plant of the month – European elder

Sambucus nigra (European elder)

Sambucus nigra is native to most of Europe and North America. In the UK it can be seen frequently used in ornamental planting and growing wild in hedgerows or scrubland as a shrub or small tree. Before it puts on its show of large white blooms of highly scented flowers, elder is quite discreet. Then, as if heralding the coming of summer, you often smell it before you see it!

The Latin specific epithet nigra means black, referring to the colour of berries it produces. The word sambucus does indeed give its name to Sambuca, the Italian liqueur made from elderberries and anise. Now you can impress your friends down the pub!


Garden apprentice Millie Woodley mingles with some Fulham Palace elderflowers

Both the flowers and berries of Sambucus nigra have been used in food and drink preparation for hundreds of years. The berries, which are mildly poisonous raw, can be cooked to make jams, chutneys and Pontack sauce. The flowers can be used in infusions which you have probably tasted: elderflower cordial. In Germany, soup made from the berries is a traditional meal (the German Fliederbeersuppe). This is just to name a few ways it has been used throughout hundreds of years.

The common name for the tree is not believed to have come from the word “old”, but from the Anglo Saxon æld, which means fire. This was because the hollow stems of the branches were used as bellows to blow air into a fire!

Mature elderberries are a lovely colour but poisonous raw - make sure you cook them first!

Garden volunteers Sarah Nicholl-Carne and Simon Titley have created brand new elderflower cordial as part of their walled garden preserves range, which will be sold on the market barrow Tuesday-Saturday, 11.00-15.00 while stocks last! Simon says, ‘The elderflower cordial is delicious when diluted and mixed with chilled sparkling water and a slice of lemon.’ Feel free to add a slug of your favourite tipple, too. It tastes like summer in a glass!

By Millie Woodley, garden apprentice

Fulham Palace's own elderflower cordial in action