Country: Nature Notes

Click to follow
CREAMY WHITE elder flowers are starting to weigh down the hedges, and boys from the villages are out gathering them, earning pounds 1 a pound from the makers of cordials and water ices. The season lasts only two or three weeks, depending partly on the weather, so that activity is fast and furious while the blooms are at their best; purists say they should be picked only when the sun is full on them.

Some conservationists deplore the despoliation of the hedges, for every flower removed now means many fewer berries for birds to eat in autumn. In fact millions are always left untouched, and in any case, nature is now being reinforced by a few enterprising farmers who have diversified into elder as a crop. The bushes take five or six years to establish themselves, but once they have got going, they should have a productive life of up to 30 years, producing healthy income. Because elder smells foul and is unpalatable to animals, sheep can be put to mow the grass between the rows of bushes.

Elder has long been revered for its magic powers. A plant grown inside a house was thought to keep the devil away, and mature wood, which is extremely hard, was used by the drivers of horse-drawn hearses for the handles of their whips.