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Wednesday 20 November 2019

Flu fix found in the hedgerows

LAST week I conjured up a harvest mouse, which I imagined I could see in my mind's eye, but which, in reality, was a grass mouse or shrew. An alert reader spotted the error (See Letters Page).

The little harvest fellow, in its brown furriness, had been staring at me from the cover of an old Observer's Book of Wild Animals, pocket-sized Penguin from the Eighties. But he is solely a British boy,and will not be found clinging to Irish wheat stalks!

These days, the little Observer's books are collectors' items, especially the earlier ones published by Frederick Warne in the Sixties. They are as scarce as, it seems, are the wild fruits of the hedgerows this year.

There is a chill in the air now though some brave souls may still be seen in shorts. But it's wool sweater time for these old bones as blackberries await pickers and crab apples, sloes, elder berries and mushrooms offer themselves to foragers.

Although vegetation growth has been phenomenal, those many wet and stormy weeks of summer took their toll of budding bushes as well as the lives and futures of many songbird species. It is not a bountiful year with dark bunches of fruit hanging heavy on the hedge along with haws and rose hips and may be a sign, you hear, of a winter of some moderation ahead. The soothsayers come and go.

The fruit of the elder (sambucus niger) is not harvested as once it was by country people. This is a pity as it is rich in vitamin C and there are many old recipes for its inclusion in wines, cordials, puddings and jams. The legendary Mrs Grieve, in her Modern Herbal (1931) devotes 11 pages to the plant with recipes and cures from medieval times.

Elderberry wine has a curative power of established repute and when taken in the early stages of shivering and sore throat, "is one of the best preventatives known against the advance of influenza", she maintains.

A more contemporary source claims an extract of the fruit can smote the demon flu and boost the immune system. Reported lab tests on flu victims treated with fruit extract showed patients make earlier recoveries than those receiving a placebo.

The elder plant has always had an element of mystery about it, associated in folklore with fairies and magic. A hedgerow opportunist, it has swung between the poles of usefulness and distaste.

The young leaves smell stale yet the virginal flower heads are fragrant (and are the source of an excellent sparkling wine); the roots and heartwood are hard as ebony yet the branches are soft and pithy and used to be sought as peashooters when I was a boy. The plant is too big to be a bush, too small to be a tree.

Folklore places it as the wood of the Cross -- or of the tree from which Judas hanged himself. An old Scottish 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."

Some country people would have an elder near the door to ward off evil -- though this could also include flies! Cattle will loiter under elders in summer. And, ambivalence again, the white perfumed parasols were the basis of an old beauty product. There was a time when a little bottle of elderflower water could be found on every lady's dressing table.

Sunday Independent

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