The Casual Gardener: Respect your elders
The native elder and more showy varieties are ideal for the wildlife garden or something more formal
IF THERE’s an elder tree near you – and as it's one of our most common and resilient native trees, the likelihood is high – may I suggest you go and stand beside it, before taking several deep breaths through your nose. The scores of tiny, clustered white flowers borne on abundant umbels give off a sweet, intoxicating aroma. It’s the smell of midsummer.
If you fancy making elderflower champagne, now’s the time – but hurry before this brief window closes. Ideally, the flowers should be picked on a dry, sunny day and from branches with a southern aspect. This is to ensure they contain the maximum amount of naturally occurring sugar and yeast, which will give your champers its fizz and make it mildly alcoholic.
It's recommended that you don't wash the flowers before adding them to some boiling water, sugar and lemon at the beginning of the brewing process. Adding your own yeast at this point is said to result in fewer exploding bottles, while giving your brew a greater kick.
The finished product won’t quite taste like Moët or Dom Pérignon, though if it does leave you with a sore head, at least you can be assured of the hangover’s provenance.
I love the Irish elder (Sumbucus nigra) but its popularity is far from universal. It’s effectively a substantial weed that opportunistically inhabits hedgerows and so-called waste ground, and though adept at anchoring itself in very little soil, it would never be regarded as invasive. Its soft wood means it can provide an easy breach in a thorny hedge, making it something of bane for livestock farmers.
However, the blossom, berries and cover it provides make it invaluable to wildlife. The flowers, bark, berries and leaves of the elder all have many different medicinal applications, ranging from a sore throat cure and flu preventative to hay fever and rheumatism remedies.
Across Ireland and much of Christendom the elder is said to be unlucky. This stems from its association with the Passion of Christ. Depending on who you listen to, it was the wood of the cross or the tree from which Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus – or both. Having been familiar with elder for much of my life, I find both these claims difficult to believe, as for all the tree’s qualities, it can’t be described as especially robust.
More convincing is its reputation for warding off flies, which is why cattle are thought to congregate under elders in summer – perhaps a good reason to put it in the garden?
If you have room and you’re happy to tolerate a rather unsophisticated small tree-shrub, then the elder is worth considering. They can grow quite large if not contained but are much easier to prune/manage than most.
The native species isn’t something you’re likely to see on sale in B&Q, so it’s either find a native tree nursery or grow your own.
In addition to the native elder, I’d also highly recommend one of a number of ornamental varieties. 'Black Lace’, a dark-leaved variety, makes a striking plant for the back of the border or in a mixed hedge or boundary. I’d even go as far as to suggest it can work as a specimen tree, out on its own.
It has very finely cut, almost black foliage, the perfect foil to the pink-flushed blooms that appear in June. Unfussy, tolerating both boggy land and or very chalky ground, after the berries in autumn, its leaves turn a rich red. The most vivid-coloured foliage appears on young growth, which is maximised by pruning down to ground level every spring.