Many uses of the witch tree

June nights can reveal noctilucent clouds.
June nights can reveal noctilucent clouds.

June evenings are always special. It’s light until late, and the soft air carries sweet scents and languid birdsong. But linger until the sun goes down and you could see something extraordinary. This is the best month to see eerie blue clouds, glowing high up at the edge of space.

While everyday clouds look grey in the twilight, noctilucent clouds appear as shimmering, silvery-blue fronds. It’s thought that they’re made up of ice crystals, 50 miles up in the highest layer of Earth’s atmosphere. There, it’s cold enough for ice to form around particles left by burning meteors.

In the past many people thought elder was evil

These clouds used to be rare, seen only at the poles. Now they’re seen more widely and more often, a sign that as the lower atmosphere warms, the upper atmosphere is growing colder.

Noctilucent clouds are only visible when the sun is just below the horizon and the lower layers of the atmosphere are in Earth’s shadow. So look to the northwest during the hour after sunset, or to the northeast before sunrise.

Witch tree

Green things have been making phenomenal growth. In woods and along hedgerows the delicate flowers of dog roses are coming out. The tall spires of foxgloves are starting to rise from the heart-shaped leaves. Fields of barley ripple like lakes as the long silky whiskers bend before the wind. Roadside verges are dotted with ox-eye daisies, red campion, buttercups, and the odd field poppy. Foxtails, Yorkshire fog and other meadow grasses are sending up handsome flower plumes.

As the last petals fall from the hawthorns, leaving clusters of little green urns, it’s the turn of the elder to shine in the sun. Its flowers are very noticeable; the fragrant, plate-sized rosettes are the colour of Jersey cream.

This relative of honeysuckle is a small tree, although it’s most often seen in hedgerows as a large shrub. Although elder grows everywhere, it is now being specially planted to produce flowers for elderflower cordial.

In the past many people thought elder was evil — Judas was said to have hung himself from an elder. It was a witch tree that shouldn’t be cut, because a gash from the wood would never heal. Even its shadow was thought poisonous.

However, others said the tree was sacred. After all, the Holy Cross was made from elder wood. They planted it to keep witches away and carried elder twigs in their pockets to treat rheumatism.

In spite of these contradictory beliefs, the elder was commonly used as a medicine chest.

The bark was a painkiller, elder buds a laxative. A poultice made from the leaves soothed skin conditions like eczema. The hollow stems contain a soft pith, which was used to treat ringworm, a fungal skin infection.

Biting midges plagued everyone who worked outside, but elder had the answer to that too. Juice from the crushed leaves was applied as an insect repellent, while bunches of elder leaves were tied to bridles to deter horse flies.

The bitter leaves also worked their magic around buildings. Elder bushes planted beside dairies and privies did valuable work keeping troublesome flies at bay.