by James Alexander-Sinclair

Elder is a native tree with white flowers in midsummer and bunches of small black berries in autum... like many weeds, it has both a purpose and an interesting story.

ElderflowersAt this time of year hedgerows bristle with elderflowers. Elder (Sambucus nigra) is a native tree with white flowers in midsummer and bunches of small black berries in autumn. It is a bit of a weed but, like many weeds, it has both a purpose and an interesting story.

The elder has always been considered a magic plant, supposed to ward off evil and provide useful protection from witches - in some parts of the world cutting down an elder may bring the wrath of some evil sprite upon you. If that is the case I might be in trouble, as I have dug out hundreds of inappropriately placed specimens. The wood of elder has a soft centre so can easily be hollowed out for flutes and, apparently, magic wands.

It would be the wrong time of year to tell you about elderberry wine (except to say that the eating of unfermented berries is not good for the digestion as raw berries contain traces of cyanide), but there are few things more delicious in summer than elderflower cordial or elderflower sorbet. Both are relatively simple to make and many people have their own twist to the classic recipe. This one for cordial is my wife's adaptation:

• Pick 25 flower heads (they should always be picked while they are in full sun for the best taste)

• Boil 2 litres of water and dissolve 1.3kg sugar in it

• Take off the heat and add the flower heads

• Slice 2-3 lemons into a bowl (at this point you can add citric acid to prolong shelf life)

• Pour the liquid over the lemons, cover and leave for 24hrs

• Strain into a bottle

• Add ice and water to taste

• Lie back and ignore the weeding

Although they're generally unwelcome, there are two really good ornamental elders that deserve a place in most gardens. The first is Sambucus racemosa 'Plumosa Aurea', which is the glorious golden-leaved variety that will light up a shady spot like a 100w lamp. The other is Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace', which has lacy purple leaves and flowers with a slight pink tinge.

The most famous contemporary reference to the elder comes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the French defenders of a fort taunt King Arthur and his Knights by yelling "your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries" from the battlements.

P.s. - anybody who is in Northamptonshire this coming weekend should do their utmost to attend the Cottesbrooke Plantfinders Fair. It is being held all weekend (27,28,29) in the fantastic grounds of Cottesbrooke Hall. There will be some marvellous nurseries selling a great range of plants and sundries. The gardens are well worth seeing as well. I hope to see you there.

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Talkback: Elderflowers
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Gardeners' World Web User 27/06/2008 at 16:13

There is some on this site: www.best4plants.co.uk/. Might be worth emailing them to see if they will do you some cuttings.

Gardeners' World Web User 27/06/2008 at 20:56

An interesting way to propagate wild fruiting plants is to stretch a tight line across a piece of vegetable garden. The birds come and perch on the line and do their business. If you leave the ground alone the next year up will pop lots of hawthorns and elderberries etc.

Gardeners' World Web User 27/06/2008 at 23:01

James, I find it a stupid comment that eldeflower is a weed, it's got herbal properties and it is no weed whatsoever!

Gardeners' World Web User 28/06/2008 at 08:24

I was very proud to see that I have both the varieties of Sambucus mentioned in your blog. I've obviously 'arrived' as a 'real' gardener! I planted them about 3 years ago when I decided the garden needed more stuctural and foliage interest. They are indeed lovely plants. I find the dark one needs more restraint than the golden to keep its shape but is easily managable. My golden specimen doesn't produce flowers - is this always the case? The flat plates of flower on the dark plant are stunning. It's also fun to consider which plants to put near them to provide contrast and colour.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/06/2008 at 10:55

Re: Is there any where that I can get elderflower seeds or cuttings from? Obviously the easiest place is to look in hedgerows. Elder is currently in flower so the plants are easy to spot, there's a chance you may also find seedlings around (birds spread the seeds through their droppings). If you're looking for raised specimiens try google, I'm sure there are places out there you can order from.

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