Home   Dicots   White flowered trees in the hedgerow 3: The Elder Tree (Sambucus nigra)

White flowered trees in the hedgerow 3: The Elder Tree (Sambucus nigra)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier this year Dr M wrote posts on two beautiful white flowered shrubs or small trees common in the British countryside and which tend to bloom in sequence from spring into summer.  Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) starts in April, followed by Hawthorn (Crategus monogyna – flowering in May. The final plant in this trio is Elder (Sambucus nigra) usually flowering from June into July, but due to the recent warm weather has been spotted in full flower from mid-May!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIdentification: Flowering time (though very weather-dependent) helps separate these three white-flowered shrubs.  Elder is in the Caprifoliaceae or  Honeysuckle family and bears creamish-white flowers with 5 petals fused into a tube and arranged in a saucer-shaped inflorescence (a corymb). The flowers are pollinated by flies probably attracted by the gross cat-pee like Elder odour!  Elder is also easily told apart from the other two white flowered plants by its opposite leaves (Blackthorn and Hawthorn have alternate leaves) its grey bark with prominent lenticels (breathing pores) and extensive soft white pith (split the twigs to reveal this).

The Elder tree is bounteous and the flowers are used throughout Europe to make a refreshing cordial or sparkling wine or even Elder flower fritters.  The black berries ripen in Autumn and are used to make a variety of preserves, soup, champagne, wine, snaps or brandy – depending on your taste and geographical locality as well as various medicinal uses e.g. for respiratory ailments!

Of course these are just the three commonest of the white flowered shrubs in Britain, there are plenty more, how many can you spot?

Dr M on other white flowered trees and shrubs: Blackthorn here and Hawthorn here.



  • Celia

    How about Elder has compound leaves. whilst blackthorn and hawthorn have simple leaves..

    • DrM

      Yes! Actually these 3 are easy to tell apart, I was more interested in the fact that they are three lovely shrubs all with white flowers flowering usually at different times, but otherwise very different really!

  • Peter

    Came across Elder last Friday on ex-arable land, alongside a brook. It didn’t have any berries and was not yet in full flower, but the compound opposite leaves and the bark led me to what was the right conclusion.

    Not 200 yards away, but up a slope there were lots more Elder trees, only these were in full flower. Surely it won’t be long before they’re all out, competing with the Hawthorn!

    • DrM

      Peter, This is very early for Elder! I have seen Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) coming into flower alongside Hawthorn, but not Elder yet, will keep my eyes open! Dr M

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