Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder – the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 

First Build Your Bank ….

Some time ago I was asked if I could plant a hedge.  Straightforward enough, I thought and as it was to be a native hedge, I was especially keen to do it.  Using only native species is always a pleasure for not only are you maintaining a tradition that is centuries old, it is also excellent cover for twentyfirst century birds and animals.

It was only when I went to visit the site that it was mentioned that it would be rather nice if the hedge could be planted on top of a bank, reminiscent of those that are found in the West Country counties of Devon and Cornwall.

West Country banks use large amounts of stone in their construction and were built to protect livestock from the gales and snowstorms that sweep in from the Atlantic.  Over time they become encrusted in lichens and mosses with ferns, primroses and other wild flowers sprouting from every crevice.  They are usually topped with a beech hedge or, sometimes, gorse (or furze, as they call it on Exmoor).

The bank that I had to build was to be similar but faced with turf which would not be as strong. As it was to divide two halves of a garden and (hopefully) not have to keep out determined sheep or cattle, this didn’t matter.  The thing that did matter was that I had to build it in a way that would prevent it from falling down …..

I’ve always found that if you want to create an impression bring in a digger.  There is a morbid fascination in watching a digger at work for the destruction can be immediate and swift.  It certainly would have been if I had been in charge of the controls but, as is so often the case, when you need an expert it is better to bring one in.  I know where I am when it comes to shovels and forks and trowels but it is best not to let me loose with all those knobs and levers.

The ground cleared we were then able to lay out and start building the bank.  We imported the rubble and clod for the base which after being well rammed and compacted could then have a top layer of better quality topsoil spread over the surface.  All was held in place by large mesh chicken wire netting.

Next came the turf and this was laid direct onto the netting and held in place with hazel twig ‘pegs’.  These would gradually rot but not before the turf had grown its roots through the wire.   The netting, too would quite quickly rot (we didn’t use galvanised for we didn’t want it to last for years) and, by then and fingers crossed, the bank would be quite stable and self supporting.

It was with some trepidation when, a few weeks later we cut the top of the turf and the wire out so that we were able to prepare the bank for planting the hedgerow; especially so as we had had some torrential downpours giving me anxious moments about landslips and mudslides.  All, fortunately was well.

Having plants delivered, I find, is always an exciting moment.  It reminds me of when, as a child, I waited for Christmas morning and couldn’t wait any longer to open my presents.  Despite knowing what is coming out of the van, each plant or variety is met with little gasps of delight.   The thrill of knowing that, with luck, they will thrive and continue to grow for many years and may even be there long after I’ve been buried and forgotten is great.

The hedgerow was not the easiest thing to plant but the end result was pleasing.  The final combination was Hawthorn, Field Maple, Wayfaring Tree, Hazel, Dog Rose, Spindle and Hornbeam  with an occasional Honeysuckle to fill the evening air with perfume.  The birds took to it straight away and, in my imagination at least, mice and voles shelter amongst the trunks hiding from mirauding stoats and weasels.  Best of all is the knowledge that, a few years on, the bank is still standing!

Add to Technorati Favorites

Sun, Drought, Frost: at last, Rain…..

.
It has been difficult to remember, sometimes, that it is still only spring time. After the unusually early, bitter and snowy winter weather we experienced, 2011 came in cold but dry. It remained so until the end of March when, wham!, summer arrived.
.

With temperatures soaring into the mid 80’s, many plants struggled to open their buds (and the ash trees still haven’t done so properly). I had planned to write about this battle but became – as you may well know – rather obsessed with puppies ….
.
.
However, many plants did rather better than normal. Tulips, especially the fragile doubles, were better than ever with no rain to spoil their petals, as have been the paeonies. Perfume has wafted about the garden in the warm evening air – can there be anything more lovely on both eyes and nose than this paeony and wisteria combination?
.

.
.
The trees, later than has been usual for many years, finally started to come into leaf. Now the countryside is awash with May, cherry and Horse Chestnut blossom. It is all quite stunning. Or was.
.
.
Out of nowhere, on Monday night, we had frost. The first for over five weeks, this was no slight touch of cold but one that turned the secret valley into a white valley of death. Well, I admit, that is rather an exaggeration but, I imagine it is due to the very hot temperatures immediately before, some plants – and especially the trees – have been decimated. One moment their new leaves hurt the eyes with their iradescent green, the next they are brown and shrivelled. Some, depending on how the cold air lay, have come through unscathed whilst their neighbour has been hit badly. Will they recover? I expect so but, possibly, too late to help the insects and birds that rely on the food source at this very moment. Time will tell.
.
. .
.
Just when our feelings were at their most depressed, the weather gave us another surprise. Rain. The first for many weeks, we have been desperate for it. The ground has been cracking, the river getting low, plants wilting and, worst of all, the farm crops not growing. In places, the young corn has started to go yellow. And when we least expected to get any, we awoke to the sound of rain on the windows. Our only neighbour, the farmer whose corn was suffering, and I were standing in the field below our homes, getting soaked and almost hugging each other with joy. It gave me just the slightest awareness of how people in countries that really suffer from prolonged droughts must feel. And it also made me aware of this rather primitive reaction of wanting to literally dance in the rain when it first arrives.
.
. The old mortar in the garden is beginning to fill once again!
.
The paeonies have been ‘knocked for six’ but, who cares? Apparantly, we have only had 1.5mm of rain during March and April compared with the 40-50mm in an average year. Let it rain for days now to restore the balance. But – as a gardener speaking – please only at night and only fall gently……
.

.
.
.
.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Shh! Don’t Tell The Weather Man!

I hardly dare mention it but I think Spring is finally coming to the Cotswolds. After I wrote about it back in February, the man from the Met Office sent us cold again. Hard frosts put spring on hold. To be fair, as I also wrote, the Cotswolds may be one of the most beautiful places to live in the south of England but the hills are also one of the coldest. Our spring is always two or three weeks later than places even as close as Oxford or Gloucester.
.

.
Early spring sunshine comes to the ancient Cotswold town of Burford
.

The past few weeks have been unusually dry which has meant that tidying up the garden – or, in my case, gardens: my own as well as clients – has progressed rather well. A nice drop of warm rain now would work a treat and not interfere with time schedules. At last, in the secret valley, leaves are unfurling properly, daffodils are blooming and the lone primrose has been joined by many more as well as purple and white violets.
.

.

.

Wherever I have lived, there has always been one hawthorn that opens its leaves days before the rest, even when planted as a hedgerow. I’ve often wondered if this is a genetic thing which means, I presume, that it could be cloned to have a whole group of early leafing ones. Or is it a combination of warmth and soil conditions in that particular spot? When I retire and have more time (a contradiction as the two never happen according to friends who are trying it) I will take cuttings and carry out a controlled experiment. It will give me the opportunity to blog about it if I am still able to sit in front of a computer!

.

.
I wonder if I could get a whole hedge of early flowering hawthorn? It will be another six weeks or more before they will be in bloom in the secret valley.
.

The snowdrops and aconites have now finished flowering. The little ruff of green leaves are all that is left of the latter. They look so similar to the taller herbaceous aconites or Monkhoods whose green ruffs are also poking through the ground now. They are all part of the buttercup family so are related but so unalike one another at their flowering time. I love the tall purple spires of the Monkshoods in mid to late summer: not as delicate as delphiniums, another favourite, but at least slugs don’t eat them and they don’t need staking, a real plus.

.

.

.

Forsythia is in full bloom. These I enjoy in other gardens but never plant them in my own unless the garden is huge and they can be planted a long way off. They show up from quite a distance and when seen too close, are too strident for my taste. The non flowering shrub later in the summer is a coarse affair too, dull and not warranting the space unless livened up by a clematis or other climbing plant. In the photo below it is grown as a wall shrub and it works well in disguising this unattractive garage. Despite being cut hard back to the wall each year in early summer it is always smothered in bloom by March.

.

The same applies to the common flowering currant. The standard pink is a wishy-washy thing and the deeper coloured, named varieties such as King Edward VIII, is as strong in colour as the forsythia – a plant to be enjoyed in other gardens. For those of you that thought the currants were always pink (although there are white flowered versions) and smelt of cat’s pee – and I include myself in this category for many years – there are three others that are well worth making space for.
.
.

Ribes odoratum, has pale yellow flowers and is beautifully scented. It is a bit of an untidy shrub in my experience, suckering freely but not a nuisance. It grows in happy neglect in a hedgerow – an ideal spot for it to do its own thing – and is really only noticed by the spicy fragrance as you wander past.
.
Ribes lauriflolium is a new plant to me. Unlike the others which all originate from the States, this currant is found in the wild in China. Looking at descriptions on the internet I wonder if they are correct or if there is a lot of variation in the stock, which is possible. I bought mine described as white, evergreen and not too hardy. It has survived -16C this winter, has been deciduous (perhaps it keeps its leaves in milder winters, I rather hope not) and is white flowered. Others are described as yellow and growing to only 1 ft – mine is already 3ft but that may be because it is tucked behind our dry stone wall. The one thing they all agree on and I can confirm is the exquisite scent of lilies of the valley. Do try to grow one if you can find it.

.

.
I have since discovered that this isn’t a ribes at all! See my next post to reveal all!!
.
My final choice of flowering currant is another favourite, Ribes speciosum. It is reminiscent in bloom of fuchsia and, like them, are pollinated in their native environment by humming birds. Hailing from California, in UK gardens it requires shelter and grows best against a warm wall where it can be trained on wires or left free growing. This photo was taken in the botanical gardens in Dublin on a glorious spring day.
.
.

Warmth, blue sky and sunshine. The clocks go forward an hour this weekend giving us more evening daylight. I’m almost feeling optimistic about the days to come – something a gardener should never be!
.
.
.
.
Add to Technorati Favorites