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

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The Independent Online

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.;