Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The flower whose smell brings back boyhood

A A A

Curious that a plant should have two separate smells: few living things present two quite different versions of themselves to our senses. Although I daresay there are more, I can think off-hand of only three which have such double identities – in sound, appearance and odour, respectively.

The first is a small, very pretty bird, the wood warbler, which has two distinct songs, a dry high-pitched trill and a melodious low whistle, so dissimilar that the first time you hear them you are sure you are listening to two separate species.

The second is the map butterfly, common in Europe, which has two broods, in spring and summer, of utterly different appearance: the first is orangey so it looks like a fritillary, while the second is black and white, so it looks like a white admiral or even a small purple emperor (when I first saw the summer version, in France, it had me stumped; the closest thing to it I could find in the reference book was the Hungarian glider).

The third, the plant with a double smell, is the elder, that big shrub or small tree common in hedgerows, waysides and waste ground. In folklore, elder is a plant of powerful magic; it was the tree on which Christ was crucified, and/or the tree on which Judas hanged himself, and legend said it could be used for summoning the devil and driving away witches, both. The folklore is forgotten now, but in the last few years elder has emerged from its relative obscurity because of the growing popularity of drinks made from elderflowers, the tree's subtly fragrant blossoms. Elderflower cordial; elderflower pressé; elderflower champagne – as summer refreshers, they seem to be rivalling Pimm's.

The tiny elderflowers bloom in flat, round, creamy inflorescences which look like dinner plates, and this year their profusion has been spectacular. Seeing them so regularly on bike rides or walks inspired me to harvest some of this bounty and put it to good use, and so one day in early June I went a-gathering elderflowers, as you might say, with the intention of making elderflower fritters, something which takes but a few minutes, as opposed to the several days it takes to make an elderflower cordial at home.

Let me say here and now that elderflower fritters are delicious; you dip the flowers in batter and fry them for less than a minute in hot oil, and the effect is the most filigree tempura you will ever experience (although the faint taste is helped by a little sugar); and let me say that when eventually I made my fritters, they were fine. But first there was a minor hiccup, because Mrs McCarthy stomped in from work and suddenly cried out in a tone which can only be described as lamentation: "Oh God. The cat's done a wee in the kitchen. You can smell it."

Somewhere deep in my brain the thought registered that this lamentation concerned me, and made me spring to my feet before my loving helpmeet discovered the real source of the smell and binned it. For it came from the bag of elderflowers I had tossed onto the kitchen table, though not from the flowers themselves, but from the leaves. I had forgotten to take a pair of scissors to snip the flowers off, so I had snapped off twigs with the leaves still attached, and as it was raining, the elder-leaf smell had been masked.

Concentrating in the bag, it had burst forth. It is entirely different from that of the honey-sweet flowers: it is powerfully, pungently sour, with an acrid edge, and many people consider it distinctly unpleasant; yet I don't, and here's why.

When I was seven my brother and I were sent to live with our aunt and uncle, and I made new friends in my new home and, as seven-year-olds did then, we formed a gang. We were called the White Panther Gang, and our enemies were the Bottom Gang who lived at the bottom of the hill. (They were regarded as especially dangerous, as some of them were eight.)

We had a peculiar marker of our gang status: we had a den. It was at the heart of a big elder bush, on a piece of waste ground, and we had hollowed out a space inside it and I remember to this day how the branches were curiously soft: they were pliable and pithy and even then I realised that elder was different from other trees.

But even more, I remember the smell, the leaf smell, acrid and sour, elder's second smell; and the reason that I do not find it unpleasant – strong, yes, like the smell of wet earth when you're playing rugby, but not repulsive – is that I at once associate it with enfolding shelter and snugness and enjoyable secrecy, all sensations that came back to me over a gap of half a century the moment I sniffed the leaves on our kitchen table.

I enjoyed my time as a member of the White Panther Gang. Nowadays, of course, we would be aged 17 and 18, not seven and eight, and would know nothing of the smells of plants: we would have gaudier markers of our status and would have knives and guns to stab and shoot and kill each other. But that was a different England.

High praise from the zoologists

This column received a signal accolade this week when the Zoological Society of London described it as "the most in-depth, regular analysis of conservation issues appearing anywhere in the UK print media". Previous Nature Studies columns are archived HERE.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; Twitter.com/mjpmccarthy

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Head Chef

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Garden Centre complex base...

Recruitment Genius: Buyer

£36000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Buyer is required to join thi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45000: SThree: SThree Group have been well es...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen