Mother Elder

24th May 2008

Jack Watkins defends a tree that once captivated the imagination of Hans Christian Andersen but seems to have few other admirers…

I visited a man recently who told me he had the largest known elder in Britain. It was the first time that I’d ever heard the specimen mentioned in anything other than dismissive terms. Next to the great trees of the English countryside, such as the mighty oak, the elegant beech and the graceful willow, the elder draws few admiring glances. There it lurks, unnoticed in the hedgerows, a bit-part player in the landscape.

If the elder grows in your garden, on the other hand, it’s often considered as little more than a troublesome weed, tenaciously recurring no matter how often you cut it down. The scent of the leaves reminds a lot of people of the smell of mice nests, and its general shapelessness offends the eye of gardeners desirous of a more manicured look. Like nettles and docks, elders are ruthless colonisers, sprouting up on waste tips or disturbed, nitrogen-rich patches of ground with seemingly remorseless ubiquity.

Even the elder’s right to be termed a tree can be called into question. My Collins Field Guide to Trees of Britain & Northern Europe makes a point of excluding it. Its wood, of course, is soft and pithy, and it is seldom that you see one growing straight up from a single stem – yet I’ve seen enough rising to 20ft tall to believe it nitpicking to deny the definition.

In fact, in the right place, elder can be a quite endearing visual element in the countryside, full of local interest, and a fine indicator of the changing seasons. From January to March, the rather ragged leaf shoots are among the first signs of new vegetative life after Christmas. Then in May or June come the heavy, flat-topped ‘umbrels’ of creamy flowers. In late summer the dark berries, ripening from purple to black from late August, start to show. In autumn, the leaves turn yellow tinged with red. Countryfolk of old used to say that summer was never fully established until the elder was in flower, and that it ended when the berries were ripe, a reminder of the fact that the tree has a place in European folklore that is greater than any other.

Early cultures regarded it as a mother tree, and planted it to ward off evil forces and plagues. It could, they believed, deflect lightning. The Anglo-Saxons took reverence for it a step further by planting it by the graves of executed criminals to purify their souls. It was considered sacrilege to chop one down, a superstition that lingered long with foresters. As with many tree specimens, though, there was curious duality about it, for it was also said to harbour evil spirits.

Elders, it must be said, are not particularly long-lived, and the wood holds little timber value, though old heartwood can stand for decades as a makeshift fence or gate post. You can get a sense of that stubborn, enduring quality if you keep your eyes open for old specimens in the hedgerows or along footpaths. There’s an art to training the eye – and the mind – to observe the more commonplace vegetation around us, rather than allowing it to drift off in search of more striking vistas, but, if you succeed, you find that there are as many riches to be had in the immediate shrubs and hedges around you as in any great landscape, and the elder might be the emblem tree of that.

Mature elders, bowing and bending in the gales, grow into all sorts of sinewy contortions, and the bark quickly becomes gnarled and ancient in appearance. Frequently coated in orange and green lichens, its tendency to send up many shoots from a low level off the central trunk means it often forms an ideal protective thicket for birds

Fred Hageneder, in his book The Spirit of Trees, describes elders, along with limes, as the ‘great healing trees of the temperate climate’, the only trees, he says, of which every part is beneficial to man. The leaves of elders can act as insect repellent if gently rubbed on the skin, and have been viewed as a remedy for tension headaches if fresh ones are placed on the temples. Elder berries are rich in vitamins A and C, and are beneficial to the immune system. Elderberry wine is believed to have curative properties for catarrh and sore throats, and for flu in its early, shivering stages. Its health benefits, and its mysterious influence, form the basis for Hans Christian Andersen’s delightful tale Mother Elder.

But while the berries make good ingredients in plum and apple pies, and are suitable for making home-made jams, it is the popularity of elderflower cordial or pressé – gathered from a dozen or so flowers in full bloom in late May or June, placed in a bucket with two or three sliced lemons, left overnight to ferment, and sweetened according to taste – that has soared in recent years. From a refreshing countryman’s drink it has turned into lucrative big business, with accumulated sales from commercial producers reported to have exceeded £10 million last year – a threefold rise in profits within a decade.

This growth hasn’t been without its sticky moments. In the mid-90s, the French Champagne Association took one British maker to court for labeling its product ‘elderflower champagne’, sniffily arguing that the term ‘debased and cheapened’ the reputation of true champagne. Who, apart from that particular manufacturer, should have a care? Elder was always the tree of the proletariat, and rather proud of it.

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