Elder, Sambucus nigra
Our native Elder, Sambucus nigra, is a mysterious and fascinating plant. Is it a tree or a shrub? In the Middle Ages it was said to be the tree that Judas hanged himself from and then of the Cross, "ever bush and never tree/ Since our Lord was nailed t'ye". Many associated it with grief and death, as Shakespeare in Cymbeline. Burn it and you would see the Devil, but grow it by your house and it would protect you from him. It could charm away warts and rats. Elder has more practical uses. Its young hollow branches are handy for all sorts of things; the Romans used it for Pan pipes and I use it for insect houses. The older wood is hard and quick to grow. Oddly, hearse drivers used it for their horse whips, and less peculiarly it makes excellent stakes for hedge layers. Its leaves were said to keep flies away, and drovers used to tie sprigs of it around cows' necks. It's a good plant for some pollinators too; this soldier beetle seems to be enjoying himself. It's not a favourite plant in a hedgerow; I was always told to cut it out because it's allelopathic - it inhibits the growth of surrounding plants. I'm not sure I particularly like its habit, which is unstructured and messy, but it does have many virtues. It grows like the clappers and is highly decorative (particularly its many cultivars), with honey smelling umbels of white flowers followed by elderberries. Both are handy in the kitchen, of course, and not just for elderberry wine or elderflower cordial. I love elder-flower fritters, and the flowers also make a delicious sorbet. Pontack sauce was an odd sounding 19th century concoction based on elderberries but also using claret, spices and onions. Herbalists love elder too. Charles I's apothecary and herbalist John Parkinson ascribed a fantastic variety of uses for the flowers, berries, shoots, bark, roots, leaves, seeds and pith. These include treating gout, obesity, palsy, ulcers, eye inflammation, nosebleeds, adder bites... John Evelyn called it "a kind of Catholicon against all infirmities whatever". Handy to have.