Saturday, 17 June 2017

Bourtree blossom time

'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.'

Coming back from Chipping Norton recently I saw a man gathering bourtree blossom. Was he planning to use it for a spritzer or for a cordial? Probably neither; an array of casual workers gather in the flowers and sell them on to commercial organisations and their output will eventually make its way to supermarket shelves. By bourtree I refer of course to the short-lived shrub commonly known as elder, Sambucus nigra, valued for its blossom and, perhaps more traditionally, for the ripe fruit. Once a member of  the Honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, genetic research has resulted in Sambucus being transferred, along with Viburnum and a handful of minor genera, into the hitherto tiny Adoxaceae family.
A mature elder. Byfield. 17 June, 2017
A year or two ago I devoted a blog to the culinary uses of elder, (failing to mention the liqueur known as Sambuca, a drink originally from India, made from aniseed and having no connection whatever with the genus Sambucus), but it has long been valued for other reasons. Judas Iscariot apparently found it quite handy when he came to hang himself*, but I'm not referring to that. Among its uses was that of  a dye, unsurprisingly producing a mauve colour. I can also remember my mother using a 'blue-bag' for whitening linen, and it seems that elderberry juice, combined with copper, was used in Germany around 300 years ago for the same purpose.
Medicinally the bark and the flowers have been 'successfully employed in epilepsy' (Potter's Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations, 3rd Edition, 1923), and in more modern times it has appeared in products sold by The Body Shop, who used the flowers in eye-gel and eyelash cream (goodness knows why).  The heartwood is extremely hard, so much so that it has been used in the making of mathematical instruments.
Elder. The individual flowers could hardly be more simple.
Daventry. 17 June, 2017
In folklore elder is associated with many beliefs and traditions. A witch could turn herself into an elder tree and the wood could be used for the making of magic wands (was Harry Potter's wand made from elder?). The trees were also planted beside houses to ward off evil spirits and in some regions a cross made of elder was placed on new graves to protect against these same spirits. The word 'elder' is related etymologically to the Scandinavian word hylde; Hyldemoer was the 'Elder Mother' who needed to be appeased via prayers and offerings lest she take her revenge - for what, is not clear. The church naturally took this body of folklore into account when establishing itself in Northern Europe and to suggest that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder was an almost predictable development.
Elder once had a reputation as a 'flu remedy and modern research suggests that a constituent in elder berries deters the virus from invading our cells as well as boosting our immune system.
Richard Mabey, in his book Flora Britannica, described Elder as a 'mangy, short-lived, opportunist and foul-smelling shrub'. Perhaps it is now time for this much-maligned tree to be re-evaluated, for it is now regularly being seen in gardens in the form known as 'Black Lace'.

Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' in a Byfield garden. 17 June, 2017
This has deeply divided (laciniate) leaves of a red-purple hue and the flowers are suffused with pink. This is altogether an attractive shrub for the larger garden, with fruit to attract birds such as thrushes and blackbirds. Their feces are often stained with purple during the season.
Elder is attacked by relatively few insects but frequently a gall fly, Plagochela nigripes, will attack the flower buds, causing them to remain closed. The spherical gall is easily recognised among the normally developing flowers.
The gall of Plagochela nigripes. The Croft, Daventry. 19 June, 2017
 I manage to find one or two examples in most years and a few days ago I located a dozen or so within ten minutes.
So, far from being an uninteresting shrub to be ignored or grubbed up, it deserves a little more scrutiny. John Clare, in a curiously ambiguous reference, spoke of it thus:
                                             Around the elder-skirted copse,
                                            The village dames, as they grow ripe and fine,
                                            Gather the branches for their elder wine.
                                                                             Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

I always reckon you can't beat a ripe and fine village dame!

* Although Sambucus nigra is found throughout Europe and across much of North America it is apparently absent from Israel and there may be more truth in the belief that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on Cercis siliquastrum - otherwise known as the Judas Tree.

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