Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

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Tree Stories 11 – Elder

Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.

Elder tree

Elder tree

Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.

The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.

Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.

A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.

Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.

In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.

To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.

Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.

A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.

As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:

Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.

Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.

I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”

From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.

The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.

Ripening elder berries

Ripening elder berries

Ivy

Ivy flowers and berries

Ivy flowers and berries

I have been thinking a lot about ivy recently, for two reasons: first because of its Winter character, being evergreen and flowering when all else has finished, and second because as the trees loose their leaves I have been particularly aware this year of how the ivy has spread up their trunks and is surrounding them.

To look at the second point first, the RHS advice on ivy is that it will not harm a healthy hedge or tree. Their website states “where it grows into the crown this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying.” This does not bode well for some of the trees around me! I have pulled it from our hawthorn hedge a few times over the years, where it tries to swamp some of the older trees, or invade the flower areas, because left unchecked, the balance seems to be entirely in favour of the ivy. If ivy gets into stone walls, they generally need rebuilding. However for all the problems it causes, I have to admire its spirit.

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy is unusual in flowering in late autumn, making it ecologically important. There is an ivy bee which lives just for these flowers, basing its entire life cycle around the ivy, although sadly not this far north. Hoverflies also feed off their nectar. Then the berries last through the winter, feeding many birds when other fruits have gone. The leaves are evergreen so provide shelter for many insects, and also temperature regulation and protection for us humans when grown on buildings. Ivy is like the holly in having two leaf forms – a pointed, palmate leaf, and a smooth edged, simpler leaf on flowering shoots. However while the holly grows its points for protection against the low shoots being eaten with smooth leaves higher up, the ivy does it to increase its surface area where light levels are low.

Ivy leaves are good for removing pollution from the air, and also toxins from our bodies. They are mildly anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Their best use is in lung conditions, easing the ability to breathe by helping to relax muscle spasms as well as loosening mucus. It combines well with Thyme for this purpose. Unfortunately ivy is also poisonous, generally causing stomach upsets, so any recommendations for home preparations are limited to external uses such as skin complaints or insect stings, for which it is apparently effective. Luckily I haven’t had a reason to try this out!

Traditionally ivy is seen as female, possibly due to its spiral growth connecting it to the Goddess. It is included in bridal bouquets – and it is supposed to bring luck, fidelity and fertility. The holly is seen as its male counterpart in winter, hence there are many references to the two together, often in conflict for superiority with each other but sometimes in partnership.

Personally I have trouble with ascribing genders to trees or other plants, so to use gender as a starting point for understanding a plant or for its use is therefore problematic. (Individual tree spirits or faeries are a different matter!) So what does the character of ivy offer? I see it as tenacious, can grow anywhere from the darkest shade to bright sunshine, and will use whatever it finds to climb up and over any obstacles. It is highly adaptable and not fussy. It can wander freely, and can be binding yet is not bound itself. It can offer protection, nourishment, but also death to the unwary. Know yourself, know what you seek before asking ivy to help, but then trust in its ability to network and scramble to reach the light where it will flower regardless of the weather – even on a dull late November day as shown here!

Ivy 'hedge' in flower

Ivy ‘hedge’ in flower