Sandy’s Garden ... Elder

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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I do sometimes wonder what strange mental processes are in operation when, all of a sudden, some unbidden thought leaps to the forefront of my consciousness.

Why, for example, did the old Scots poem ‘The Laird o’ Cockpen’ open up in my memory recently? People of older generations, who recall the days when some poems of the teacher’s choosing had to be committed to memory, will no doubt remember that the proud and great Lord o’ Cockpen, “Wanted a wife his braw house tae keep / But favour wi’ wooin’ was fashious to seek.” The laird’s choice lit on Mistress Jean McLeish; and to her home he rode to pop the question. “Amazed was the Laird when the lady said, ‘Na,’ / And wi’ a laigh curtsie she turned awa’.”

The point of this preface is to recall that, “Mistress Jean, she was makin’ the elder-flower wine,” when the laird came calling; and the laird had made a sensible choice, for the elderflower has been regarded as a sacred flower from time immemorial, with powerful qualities in both medicinal and magical senses. Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus to the Roman authorities who were anxious to apprehend a man whom they regarded as a trouble-maker among the locals, is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree. And for that reason, the elder tree is supposed to have been adopted by witches. One should never cut its branches or bring them into the house; one should never, absolutely never, burn any part of the tree. And, just to persuade people to pay proper respect to the tree, our ancestors believed that the scent of its blossoms would induce sleep; and that, if you succumbed to the temptation and nodded off in the shade of its branches, you would fall into a sleep from which you would never awaken. Powerful stuff!

So far, so bad. But, strangely enough, our ancestors also believed that, if you treat an elder tree with respect, it will serve you well. An elder tree near the back door of the house will keep witches away, presumably because they are pleased that you are caring for their tree, though nothing will grow in its shadow. And, if you ask the tree’s permission before gathering its flowers, you will harvest some benefits, for elderflowers are supposed to be very good for you. Admittedly, this is not the right time of year to be writing about elderflowers, for they should be picked and dried in the spring of the year. Then they can be used as a substitute for tea leaves, brewed exactly like tea to make a drink which is an excellent remedy for seasonal affective disorder, that mental ailment with the splendidly-accurate acronym SAD. And if elderflower tea doesn’t seem to be cheering you up as fast as you would like, try adding half a glass of wine or a tot of whisky to each cup and see if that works better.

Elderflower brews, either as tea, as cordial, or as wine, are said to be good winter warmers; and it is said that, if you infuse a mix of dried elderflowers, peppermint and yarrow, strain it, add honey and a smidgin of cayenne pepper and drink it down, it will work wonders for relieving the symptoms of colds and flu. And what about Mistress Jean’s elderflower wine? Well, I don’t know what her recipe was, but I am indebted to Countrylife for this one. The ingredients are one pint of destalked elderflowers, eight pints of boiling water, three pounds of sugar, the juice and grated rind of one lemon and half-an-ounce of yeast. And the method is to add the lemon rind to the elderflowers, pour boiling water over them and stand for four days, stirring occasionally. Strain through a fine sieve or muslin, then stir in sugar, lemon juice and yeast. Ferment at no less than18˚C. When the bubbling has ceased, stir the wine and allow it to settle for three days. Strain again carefully. Put in a demijohn to mature for three months, then bottle. Then again, it might just be easier for us to visit a supermarket!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society