I once read in a homemade pamphlet some time ago, that the elder tree is more than just a plant, it is gift. A gift that keeps on giving, a gift to us all and one that we should all rejoice in. Which to be frank is just a touch too corny and twee for my liking. Gawd knows where I got it from. Probably off some grubby hippy, selling his foraged wares from a stall at a farmers’ market. Or maybe it was a festival? Like I said, I can’t exactly remember where. But I do recall tossing the multi-coloured piece of paper into a nearby bin and dismissing it all as claptrap whilst bitterly ruing a handsome young man, who was doing a rather decent trade, selling pots of jams and chutney with a glorious swish of his matted locks. I think I might have even wanted to punch him.
I may have just been overly jealous back then though. I lost my hair far too early see and did go through a rather angry stage. Still, I like to think I’ve become more subdued, enlightened and peaceful since then because I am quite a fan of the elder now and sort of understand the sentiment, for it really is a generous tree. It’s not a particularly attractive tree to look at mind and it does have a tendency to simply stand there idle, doing nothing, until a gust of wind catches its leaves and wafts a peculiar aroma of cat pee into the surrounding air. However, there are two periods in the year (not one but two) when the elder tree redeems itself by erupting with bountiful flowers and beautiful fruit.
And right now, lots of hunter- gather types across the land are keeping their eyes firmly focussed on the elders because at any given moment, the delicate, star-like flowers are about to come bursting out of their pods. Due to the fickle nature of Mother Nature, the blossom does seem to be quite late this year but if you look around carefully, you might just begin to see some bright white sprays popping out through the canopy.
I went to look for some earlier this week in the fields that surround my home and at first, it looked as though I was going to come back empty handed. But then I spotted a cluster in a bunch of trees, on some land where a local farmer keeps his goats. He saw me snooping around and asked what I was up to, so I told him and he gladly let me into the paddock to pick away, whilst the cheeky goats nipped at my shirt. Don’t be fooled by that rather bucolic scene I just created by the way. The farmer in question is a local rogue on the estate who acquired said land at the back of the houses through illicit means. And the goats forever run riot by escaping and jumping into people’s gardens, biting heads off petunias, generally terrorising old ladies with their freaky eyes. The main point is that elder trees can grow almost anywhere and you usually don’t have to go far to find one and by my reckoning, there will be an explosion over the coming weeks. I know this because a bloke down the pub told me.
Harvested flowers, which have great medicinal properties as well, can be put to all sorts of uses once in bloom. They are predominantly used in desserts, as an ingredient in fools, custards, creams and sorbets, and are often served with sharp fruit such as gooseberries to counterbalance the fragrant floral flavour that elderflowers give. The elderflower is also robust enough to be fried in tempura batter and can be used in stocks to poach chicken but otherwise, elderflowers are usually used to make drinks such as cordial, punch and volatile champagne.
Actually, the elder tree has quite a symbiotic relationship with booze and it does make you wonder whether it’s folkish, mystical reputation comes down to centuries of getting plastered on the alcohol you can make from its flower and fruit. Bearded druids, wretched hags and midsummer fairies are all characters, fictional or true, that have had an association with the tree in the past. Add into the mix, warnings of poison from cyanide in the leaves and wood (don’t eat them!), well does make you wonder how many brethren accidentally slid away from this world whilst deliriously drunk and saw mysterious things on the way out.
I can imagine some poor soul right now, from way back in the middle ages, lying under a tree, with an empty clay bottle in his hand, muttering incomprehensibly about witches and sprites. Suddenly he sits upright and shouts “THE ELDER IS A GIFT! A GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING” and then he pegs it.
It’s the sort of motto that would last down through the ages. And it is certainly something that some scruffy, stinking hippy would pick up on; in order to sell his cutesy-wutesy ickle little jars of preserves.
Hmm, maybe I am still upset about the hair.
If you have never used elderflowers to cook with before, this is a very simple recipe as an introduction. Once they do come out in bloom it is better to pick them in the morning before the sun makes them too pungent. Shake well to remove any insects and rinse very quickly by dipping in water and then gently shake again. If you can’t find any elderflowers, you can always substitute with shop-bought cordial.
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