Mystery plant is a real treat
Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30
"A scent of drenching leaves, of briar and beech and lime, white elderflower and thyme" wafted along the rich, green riverside of the Boyne.
A kingfisher pair were back at their nesting hole, dragonflies sped over the water and, in the shallows, an abundance of minnow or pinkeens.
A fullness of summer had emerged, though not without disappointment at the lack of honey bees, as scattered as cuckoo-spits, and a butterfly sighting to be greeted with a gasp of surprise.
Last year when on a one-track boreen in Mayo, I came upon a woman plucking doilies of the white lace of elderflower (sambus niger) from a hedgerow.
The rain and sun helped these ditch stalwarts produce sweet-smelling clusters from a bush that folklore shrouds in mystery.
In Ireland, the lacy flowers are generally ignored and foragers wait until the scarlet berries emerge and ripen, but occasionally they are collected to make a refreshing drink.
The naturalist Richard Mabey says elder flowers probably have more uses than any other blossom. He is enthusiastic. He prefers to eat the flowers straight from the bush - having shaken off any insects first - and claims they are "as cool and frothy as an ice-cream soda".
There are almost a dozen pages in Mrs Grieve's famous work, A Modern Herbal (published in the 1930s), about elders with recipes for bloss-oms and berries (packed with Vitamin C) as ingredients in desserts, jams, tarts, soft drinks and, of course, famously in wine.
There is a preserve made with gooseberries and elderflower which I have sampled as a puree with fresh cream. Elder flower cordials are commercially marketed. The food and drink possibilities of the flower and fruit appear to be abundant.
The elder has always been a shrub of some mystery, associated with superstition, and not everyone is keen to see it in their garden.
I once bought a cultivated plant for a house I lived in. It may have been a "black beauty", an excellent fragrant species with a vibrant pink blossom that can grow up to 50pc bigger than its hedgerow brethren.
The family who followed me at that house did not care for it at all and promptly dug it out.
In the countryside, farmers value mature, cut-back elder wood as a sturdy hedge support. The timber is iron-hard, yet the young shoots are soft-pithed and in my schooldays provided first-class pea-shooters for battles with bursting fruit balls.
This opportunist plant turns up in old graveyards, on rubbish heaps, roadsides and drains and has always swung between the poles of acceptability and distaste.
The young leaves have an unpleasant smell, like old mouse nests, but the flowers are fragrant and the fruit beneficial. It is too small to be a tree yet too sturdy to be a mere bush.
Once, country people would have an elder near the door to ward off evil, they would say, though for practical reasons it keeps flies away. Cattle will loiter near elders to avoid summer insects.
Scottish folklore has it that elder was the wood of the Cross - or the tree on which Judas hanged himself. A verse goes: "Boor-tree, boor-tree, crookit rung/Never straight and never strong/Ever bush and never tree/Since Our Lord was nailed to ye."
A wild growth of some ambivalence, certainly.