Written by Heather Elvidge
On warm summer evenings the heady scent of honeysuckle drifts on the air. Twilight is when the flowers release their fragrance, to attract pollinating moths.
Honeysuckle used to attract children too. They picked the narrow flower tubes and sucked nectar from the end - that’s how honeysuckle got its name. It was also called woodbine, from its habit of twisting around the stems of other plants.
Sometimes honeysuckle twists around a young tree, forcing its trunk to grow in a spiral. Saplings like this were sought after to make spiral walking sticks, because honeysuckle’s embrace would bring young men luck in love.
While we enjoy its flowers and scent, honeysuckle encourages wildlife. Moths come for the nectar and its leaves support a variety of insects. Birds feel safe to nest among its tangle of branches; in the autumn they’ll eat the sticky scarlet berries.
So every garden should have a honeysuckle. But choose a suitable spot - the plant is a determined climber and those fibrous stems are so tough that for centuries they were used to make rope.
Another useful hedgerow tree is a relative of honeysuckle. Elder’s plate-sized rosettes of tiny florets are very noticeable at the moment. They’re the colour of Jersey cream when they first open, then they grow so white they seem to sparkle.
The painter John Constable liked to see elders in bloom. Writing in 1835, he noted how the foreshortening of the flowerheads on rounded elder bushes was “quite elegant”, adding, “it is a favourite of mine and always was — but ‘tis melancholy.”
If you gaze at a flowering elder for a while, there is something dreamy or hypnotic about it. Many people thought it evil – didn’t Judas hang himself from an elder? Others said it was a witch tree. They wouldn’t cut it, because a gash from the wood would never heal; even its shade was poisonous. They certainly wouldn’t bring elder wood into the house, or burn it.
The pro-elder camp said the tree was sacred. They planted it to keep witches away - after all, the Holy Cross was made from elder wood - and carried elder twigs in their pockets to treat rheumatism.
But in spite of these contradictory beliefs, many people used the elder as a medicine chest.
The bark was a painkiller, elder buds a laxative. The leaves made a poultice to soothe skin conditions like eczema. Pith from the stems treated ringworm, a fungal skin infection.
Plagued by biting midges? Rub on elder juice – the leaves were well known to be an insect repellent. Elder bushes were a familiar sight around dairies or privies, where the bitter smell of the leaves kept troublesome flies away.
Pickers are out in the hedgerows now, collecting elderflowers to make drinks; our forebears thought of other ways to use them. Elderflower water soothed their sunburn and they sipped elderflower tea for coughs, colds, and fever. Every countrywoman’s beauty treatment was an ointment made from elderflowers and lard. But most prized of all was elderberry wine; a warm glass at bedtime was the cure for all ills.