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An Amateur at Large 6 Jun 2022 (Notes from the North) A 'strange' plant in the garden reveals its identity, where else it can be seen, and what it can be used for.

Last year, in a neglected corner of the garden, a rapidly growing plant appeared out of nowhere. Fearful that it might be a dreadful invasive knotweed threatening a neighbour’s outhouse, I assaulted it with various sharp tools and grubbed up most of the roots. It looked like a tree, but its insides were pithy like a draught excluder, not woody. Still intrigued by it, I left a single stem to see what would happen.

This month it burst into bloom – large round white heads of very small flowers. You may have guessed already: it’s an elder.

I have noticed far more elder blossom in the hedgerows this year, and flowering wild roses too. Insects seem more abundant. Maybe it is a combination of an unusually dry May followed by more normal June rain.  

A couple of times in previous years I have harvested the berries in the autumn to make elderberry and almond pie – a fiddly and laborious process that produced a result that no one but I was prepared to eat, struggling through it for meal after meal, including breakfast.

This year, I tried elderflower cordial with some success: easy to make, just a little too sweet. Next time. The best part of it was walking along the hedgerows gathering the flower heads and noticing all the other plantlife. Local hedges round here are often dominated by hawthorn, but there are enough elders in or near them for all who want to make use of them.[1]

Hawthorn hedges, by the way, tend to be described by consultants in the pay of developers as “species-poor”. Not so, according to John Wright in his book A Natural History of the Hedgerow. He says, “After the oak, birch and willow, the hawthorn is Britain’s most accommodating host of other species, forming a rich ecosystem of its own.” It’s just that many of the creatures participating in this ecosystem are tiny or too small to see. But they are part of the basis of the food chain.

John Wright’s book is the work of a true specialist. It would be harder to read right through if it were not for the photographs and the author’s sense of humour. It is also a book you can dip into and look things up in. Recommended. Reading it reminded me how limited my knowledge is, and how such specialists deserve recognition:

Homage to the Specialists

who can identify a sonnet of lichens on a single rock in a dry stone wall;

taraxacologists, who see 200 different dandelion species where we see no difference at all;

those who swallow Alice’s ‘Drink Me’ juice to wade through a forest of mosses and wallow in boneless immersion;

and others who peer through loupes at liverworts, psyllids and galls, mushroom spores, rust and smuts, to enlarge upon biodiversion.

PS. By ‘biodiversion’ I mean more than just biodiversity: also being pleasantly diverted by the abundance of nature, and being reminded how easily the course of life for some species is diverted into a new channel – sometimes harmful, sometimes beneficial – by the presence of other species, not least humans.


[1] See The Hedgerow Handbook: Recipes, Remedies and Rituals, by Adele Nozedar.


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