Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
This week, I thought I would indulge myself by writing about Elder, one of my very favourite shrubs. I love the blowsy white blossoms with their nose-prickling scent, half-way between gooseberry and cats pee. I love the dark berries in the autumn, and the enthusiasm of the starlings as they strip the shrub bare. I like the simple elegance of the leaves, and the fact that, unlike so many of the ‘weeds’ that I’ve been investigating, this one has been in England since records began.
Although the individual plants do not live very long, Elder feels venerable to me. It is a wild plant with real presence. Maybe it’s the weight of magical reference and practical use that gives it such heft. In some parts of the country, it was known as the Fairy Tree. If you burned it, you would see the devil, but grown by the house, it would keep the devil at bay. In the Middle Ages it became the tree on which Judas hanged himself, but it was also said to be the tree of the Cross.
In addition to being used for Elderberry wine and cordial, its branches have been used as switches to keep the flies from cattle on their way to market, and its stems, which are hollow, have been used as peashooters for generations (with an elderberry as a ‘bullet’ you can get a gratifyingly ‘bloody’ result).
Elderberries have been shown to be efficacious in treating flu, colds and congestion, and every part of the plant has been used in one way or another. But there is something about Elder that encourages me to be particularly respectful when I am cutting some blossom for cordial or harvesting berries. I almost expect it to reprove me if I take more than I need, or behave with undue levity.
‘It is hard to understand how this mangy, short-lived, opportunist and foul-smelling shrub was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of plants’.
Well, we’re all entitled to our opinion, but if I was Richard Mabey, I think I’d walk carefully around any Elders that I happened to meet.