Monday, 23 June 2008

Elder Weeds

This is the best of summer time but the worst of times: the evenings are cool but long – I can work in the garden till after 9 o’clock - but it’s past 21st June, the longest day. So, before the evenings warm up and I have a chance to sit out at night and enjoy the summer scents with a glass of sauvignon blanc, the long evenings will be gone.

And gone before I’ve conquered the weeds. Everything in the garden has grown like mad this year – I’m sure I say this every year – but we have had weather weeds love: warm and wet. I am in the beds and borders until dusk hacking them back, pulling them out by their roots, un-entangling them from the plants and cursing them to kingdom come.

Bindweed is my biggest problem because if I leave the tiniest piece of root in the soil it will come back sure as eggs is eggs. Then there are nettles, I like to leave some in a wild area for the butterflies, but the pesky things know no bounds and encroach on the borders. And finally, after many smug years, we have fallen prey to ground elder.

I mistakenly thought it was some angelica that had self-seeded - prettily shaped bright green leaf - but by the time I realised my mistake the stuff had spread everywhere. It had obviously sneaked its way past me in a potted plant and now I’m stuck with it. It creeps until its invaded everywhere and it’s a real menace to get rid of. I shall still be battling years from now.

But not all weeds are a total menace. Take elderflowers; not the sought after Sambucus nigra with its wonderful dark leaves or its relative, Sambucus canadensis ‘Aurea’, with its bright yellow-green ones but plain old Sambucus canadensis. Several of them have self-seeded in the garden and although they grow at an alarming rate of knots - and keep coming back if not dug up with all roots – they do produce wonderful flat white panicles that look very attractive, followed by lots of dark crimson berries that the birds love.

And those plate-like flowers make the most marvellous drinks. For years I made elderflower champagne but it was very temperamental - the gas makes the bottles unstable. I finally stopped when one batch nearly gave us heart failure as it exploded in the garden shed. Quite apart from the shock, what a mess! I also once made elderberry cordial but it took a mountain of berries to produce a very small bottle of cordial: not worth the effort.

But, elderflower cordial is quite another matter: it couldn’t be quicker or easier to make and it’s very well behaved - lasts for years! The flowers are out in mid-June in time to make the cordial and store it for a few weeks - diluted with ten times the amount of sparkling water - when it makes a very refreshing cooler on warm summer days. It’s also good poured over ice-cream or used with gooseberry puddings.

To make it, water and sugar are boiled to a syrup, citric acid and lemon juice added, and about 20 heads of flowers steeped in the mixture for 24 hours. Hey presto – elderflower cordial. Of course it always needs more bottles than I have and there is a mad scrabble emptying dregs from anything I can find: the presentable bottles make nice gifts when visiting friends. Elderflower: a weed to grapple with but a weed with a heart.


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