Dwarf elder differs from the more familiar red elderberry (S. racemosa) in being a perennial, not a woody species. The stems, which don’t branch, can grow to two metres in a single summer. It produces 10-15 cm wide corymbs of white flowers at the tips of the stems in late summer, and these later develop into black berries. It is not the best species for small gardens because it spreads aggressively.
Dwarf elder is often marked ”all parts poisonous” in nursery catalogues, and perhaps to emphasise this the plant has a strong, unpleasant smell. In earlier times there was a belief that strong smells meant strong effects; all parts of dwarf elder have been used in medication. It was a complete chemist’s shop, providing a cure for almost every ill. In addition, it could be used for dying hair and cloth.
The alternative common name Danewort dates back to the 1500s, when it was believed the plant generated from Danish blood. This was because the plant occurred on the sites of ancient battles between the English and the Danes. Perhaps a more everyday explanation might be that it had been planted in memory of the fallen.