Urban gardener, Cleve West: Elder and better

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The Independent Online

Our large elder ( Sambucus nigra) has just received a stay of execution for another year. Positioned at the back of our allotment, it serves a dual purpose. First, that of shelter and food for small birds, and second, to make our social area under an adolescent oak even more intimate and private. Together with hawthorn and cow parsley, elder bolsters the potency of summer's fanfare, adding not just fragrance but a tantalising ghostly shimmer at twilight. Like everything else so far this year, the unusually warm spring has forced our elder into an early display, but it has dithered by conjuring up a mere spluttering of flowers that weren't going to get out of bed for anyone.

The elder, like buddleia (though perhaps less tolerated), is promiscuous in its ability to self-seed and hovers precariously on the definition of a weed ('a plant in the wrong place'), but ours has managed to survive by making itself reasonably good-looking and useful. The flowers make great cordial, wine and sparkling champagne if you catch them before they lose their virgin sweetness to rank tom-cat. The berries, while mildly toxic until cooked or fermented, are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, and are used to make Sambucol, a liquid extract which is claimed to boost the immune system. Red wine from the berries in late summer is also a favourite among home brewers (in my experience they carry too much tannin and iron, and need blending with blackberries or plum if you want to keep the roof of your mouth intact) and when flavoured with anise, the Italian liquor sambuca is made.

Magnificent as they are, the flowers on our tree are too high in the canopy for us to pick safely and even when the berries weigh down the branches in late summer pigeons will always beat us to it. The rest of the plant is poisonous. A useful piece of knowledge seeing as the pithy stems have given it a certain notoriety where primitive musical whistles and pea shooters are concerned.

Few will intentionally plant S. nigra, but most of us will have some experience of whether or not to remove one that had either remained invisible until it reached 3m in height, or formed the backbone of a wilderness at the back of a new property. It may be the sub-conscious that stays the hand of an otherwise chainsaw-wielding gardener when faced with the humble elder, for, as a back-up in self preservation, it seems to have subversively bolstered its kudos by getting mixed up in myth and magic. Those of you who are well-versed in folklore and old wives tales will know that elders are, in fact, nothing less than witches in tree form and that taking an axe to one can result in bad luck.

Burning an elder is said to be even worse as it will release pure evil (the Devil himself apparently) and cause all sorts of trouble. This is an odd assumption, since the name 'elder' comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'ellaern' or 'aeld' meaning 'fire' or to 'kindle a fire'; the pith is used as tinder and the hollowed stems are used to blow through and fan the flames. The leaves are also useful - they can be rubbed on skin or clothing as an insect repellent (great for keeping midges at bay at this time of year) - and the timber can be fashioned into combs, needles and other delicate carpentry.

Able to survive a damp, shady position, the resourceful S. nigra can adapt admirably as an urbanite, but despite its flowers and berries, it struggles to make the top of most gardeners' lists. There are, however, some beautiful ornamental elders that are extremely adaptable in the urban garden including the dark purple foliage of 'Black Lace', golden leaves of 'Aurea', and for those with a thing for variegation, the silvery-white variegated 'Marginata'.

If you do have to take down a tree - and provided you've made your peace with the spirit world - be warned. Cutting dead branches with loppers is a tricky business and the demons within the hardened wood and pithy stems might seem to have the last word by foiling the tool's ability to cut cleanly, and then acting like a spring sending splinters flying in all directions. But don't let superstition get the better of you, just tool yourself up. Not even the devil can argue with a small Sandvik bow saw.