Saturday, 27 August 2016


This post, like the last one, is all about a single plant that makes a major impact on the appearance of Milton Country Park.  Last time, it was hawthorn, this time is the elder.

Large 'plate' of elderflowers seen from underneath
12 June 2016
Huge plates of white blossom like this are seen throughout the park in early June.

Plates of white elderflower blossom are seen in all the hedgerows in the park during the first weeks of June.  Last year, I felt I had failed to fully capture the impact that the elderflowers have on the park.  

One reason is that the blossom faces upwards, and as much of it is above head height, particularly in the hedges in the centre of the park, only the undersides of the umbels are visible.

Elderflowers visible amongst confluent bushes and climbers
North of Park - 8 June 2016
A lot of the elder bushes are mixed in with other bushes and climbers

Another issue is that the elder bushes are often growing amongst some of the thickest vegetation in the park.   Here the elderflowers struggle to be seen amongst hawthorn bushes, ash trees and brambles.  The eye easily sees such blossom, which tends to 'disappear' when photographed.

What's in a Name?


Masses of elderflowers on bush
12 June 2016
Elderflowers can be used to make cordials, white wines and teas.

The name elder is thought to be derived from the Saxon word 'Aeld' or fire. This, and the alternative name 'Ellhorn', refer either to the use of its pithy core as tinder, or its hollowed out branches as bellows. This is quite strange in a way, when you consider that it was believed that burning elder brought death and disaster. One suggested alternative derivation for 'Elder' is from 'Hylde-Moer' the Scandinavian tree spirit who was said to inhabit elder bushes.

Food and Drink

Elder roots, stems and leaves are all toxic. Uncooked, its flowers and berries have an unpleasant bitter taste and contain low concentrations of some poisons, which are destroyed by heat. With that caveat, the flowers are used to make cordials, white wine, and tea; the berries for jellies, jams, wines and liqueurs. 

Medicine Chest 

Large bunch of elderberries hanging down
14 August 2016
Elderberries are a rich source of vitamins A and C

For centuries the elder tree has been known as the medicine chest, because almost every part of the bush has been used by herbalists.  Some uses, for instance using the bark as a purgative, have now disappeared, and only the flowers and the berries are routinely used.

Preparations of the flowers are effective against various respiratory complaints such as coughs, colds and sinusitis.  Drinking elderflower tea for two months before the pollen count rises is said to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever.

The berries are a great source of vitamins A and C.  In addition, they contain chemical compounds which reduce the duration of flu, boost the immune system, and are beneficial to diabetics as they stimulate glucose metabolism and the excretion of insulin.


Elder bush in full bloom
8 June 2016
The wood from elders is excellent for making magic wands

Through the ages, the elder has been hero and villain and all things between. At first, elder was regarded as sacred to the goddess of vegetation Hylde-Moer, and was to be honoured and treated accordingly. So, if given suitable offerings and prayers, the elder would protect the people who treasured it, and hence was planted around the house to keep out evil spirits. A collateral benefit was that the elder was never struck by lightning (or so myth had it), and hence would protect the dwelling from that as well. This protection was for life and beyond: green twigs were placed in coffins to protect the body and soul on its way to the otherworld.

The heavy smell of elderflowers was believed to be narcotic, which may well explain why sleeping beneath the tree at midsummer was such a good time to see fairies.

Then along came the Christians keen to appropriate everything pagan for themselves. So they cursed elder. It was the tree that Judas hanged himself from. It was also, highly improbably given the lightness and weakness of its wood, the tree from which the cross was made. Witches could turn themselves into elder trees, and its wood was used for making magic wands.


These snippets were gleaned from the following websites:

Elder | Trees for Life 
Elder in Profile   
Sambucus nigra (elder)  
The Elder Tree   

Next: Summer Flowers 2016

Saturday, 13 August 2016


It is almost impossible to overestimate the impact that the coming of the hawthorn blossom in May has on Milton Country Park, and the surrounding countryside.  Almost every hedge and innumerable bushes are thickly covered with creamy white flowers.

Hawthorn bush covered in blossom seen through an arch of trees.
Hawthorn Blossom Framed by Arch of Trees.  By Deep Pool - 27 May 2016

Hawthorn has been an important part of the landscape for well over a thousand years: it name is derived from the anglo-saxon 'haegthorn' meaning hedgethorn.  In those times, it was not only used for hedges, but individual bushes were often important boundary markers.  It is not surprising then, that over the centuries, hawthorn has gained many names, including: hedgethorn, quickthorn, whitethorn, may, beltane, and quickset.  It has also attracted a great deal of folk lore.

Path by wetlands with hedges covered in may
Hedgerow Covered in Blossom.  Path by Wetlands - 29 May 2016

Hawthorn is perhaps most strongly associated with the month of May, and May Day celebrations in particular. Either in the evening of April 30th or early in the morning of the day itself, villagers would go out and gather armfuls of may to decorate their houses. This symbolised the start of the growing season and brought new life into the village.

Huge hawthorn bushes completely covered in may blossom
'Knots of May' on bushes in centre of park - 22 May 2016

This is the basis of the expression 'to go a'maying', and also the origin of the rhyme 'Here we go gathering nuts in May'. Like most nursery rhymes, I had recited it endlessly, but never thought about the problem at its very heart – there are no nuts in May. Here 'nuts' refers to the 'knots' of hawthorn flowers on the branches.

But May Day is also a fertility celebration, and many who collected flowers on 30th April would stay out all night love-making, causing a minor baby boom at this time of year. When the Christians came to claim this festival as their own, they wanted nothing to do with such ribaldry, and, instead, turned May into a month of celibacy and restraint. This has led one author to put rather a different interpretation on 'ne'er cast a clout till May is out'. He suggests that it is an instruction not to change one's clothes at all during the month. Why? Because any sign of sexual activity will be impossible to detect on such dirty and dishevelled clothes.

Branches of hawthorn covered in flowers
The Smell of Plague Comes to Milton Country Park.  Centre of Park - 22 May 2016
Hawthorn has more sinister associations as well.  May flowers were said to smell of plague.  This is well based as one of the components of the scent is trimethylamine, which is one of the first chemicals released by rotting corpses.

More equivocally, is its association with witches.  While some believed that witches rode on broomsticks made of hawthorn, others put sprigs of hawthorn over their doorways to keep the ladies out!

Isolated bush covered in hawthorn blossom
Drug Store or Fairy House? By Fen Road Exit - 22 May 2016

It widely believed that fairies lived in hawthorn bushes.  In the ballad of 'Thomas the Rimmer', the eponymous hero is abducted by a fairy queen in a hawthorn bush and taken to a fairy kingdom, where he was kept for seven days.  So the bush pictured here could be a Harry Potter-like portal to a magic place!

Hawthorn is held to be a veritable super drug store.  A bath in the dew of the flowers collected on May Day brings not only a better complexion, but a healthy and lucky future too.  Its leaves can be eaten, hence, 'bread and cheese' is one of its many names.  Its flowers used to make white wine, and its berries used to make jelly, tea, and a liqueur when soaked in brandy.  Its berries can be used effectively against artherosclerosis,  hypertension and cardiac arrest!

Hawthorn bush deep in the woods
A Bush Fit for a Crown  By Dickerson's Pit - 29 May 2016

Finally, spare a thought for Richard III who had a very bad day at the office on 22nd August 1485 at the battle of Bosworth.  Not only did he lose his kingdom and his life, but, also, rather carelessly left his circlet hanging around in a hawthorn bush for his enemies to find. 

All this is a fairly superficial romp through the folk lore of hawthorn, of which there is a great deal more.  Perhaps, you will be like me, that after reading such tales, you can never look at a hawthorn bush the same again.

I have culled these thoughts from the following sources:

Trees for Life