May is a glorious month for trees: the white blossoms of the Hawthorn – sometimes referred to as The May Tree – come into full bloom.
The elder with its sweet-scented blossoms hang heavy ready for keen foragers to revel in the short window of opportunity to make cordials and fermented beverages. Privets, when left to grow, produce small highly scented yellowy-white blossoms that attract the bees and pollinators. Along with the presence of heavy hanging lilacs over garden fences and hedges, May is a reminder from our resident tree community of the multi-sensual gifts of nature’s growth as buds and seedlings begin to flower and shoot, leaves of deciduous trees begin to unfurl.
Our bird community is in full nesting flow: dawn and dusk choruses sound louder with reduced traffic, the busyness of garden birds gathering nesting materials a reminder both of the importance of the ‘wildflowers’ that provide the insect habitats necessary for birds to seek food, but also a reminder that between now and September, tree cutting or felling should be halted so that resident birds are able to nest and rear their broods.
The swifts have returned. Bats have begun their warm evening flypasts for gnats. Despite the hardships that prevail in the human world, the trees in our communities remind human inhabitants that there is an abundance of affirming life, and more importantly in these hard human times, that hope remains. In these uncertain and stressful lockdown times, the mental, emotional and physical comfort gifted by the life enabled through the presence of trees (give a tree a hug, hippy sounding I know, but it feels good!), the presence of our tree community feels especially welcomed.
In this column, I want to share my love of two trees that can be found along the embankments of train tracks and along the canal towpaths. Both marker the transition from spring into summer: to warmer more abundant times whose flowers and berries help sustain through to the autumn: The Elder and the Hawthorn trees.
The Elder and the Hawthorn
These are both wonderful ‘hedge’ trees, and can be seen along canal side towpaths, railways embankments and along the edges of waste-grounds. These hedgerow trees gift a range of culinary and wellbeing gifts for those who wish to research more and forage. John Wright’s (2016) book A Natural History of the Hedgerow gives fulsome detailing of the history of both these trees in the shaping of the landscapes of the British Isles, and of their ascribed mystical properties, natural history importance as well as their well-being and culinary uses. I will summarise some of these below. As a caveat to what follows, if you do find yourself inspired and wanting to forage for the flowers, please do follow the forager’s code of practice, ALWAYS double-check anything that you might want to pick for consumption, make sure you are legally able to access the plants / have permission, that you only ever pick a few specimens from one plant, that your plants are located away from polluting roadsides and are above large dog height (for obvious non-polluting reasons!), and that what you pick is only for your consumption. When in doubt, Don’t. (see Richard Mabey’s classic book, Food For Free if you are interested further).
The Elder (Sambucus nigra)
The Elder is a remarkable tree, and can be identified at this time of year from the multiple headed tiny white flowers that produce a head of flowers all from one stem (panicle). In addition to attracting pollinating insects, ladybirds are often to be found on or near an elder for the presence of green and black aphids that are attracted to the flowers. In turn, birds and bats feed on both the flower heads and insects, and Elder attracts a diverse range of butterfly, moth and fungus – the latter most obviously the edible but highly gelatinous Jelly Ear fungus. I personally err on the side of caution around picking fungus, preferring instead to gather the Elderflower heads that can be consumed when processed, either heads individually when lightly coated in batter and fried), the flowers processed to make a light, highly fragrant sweet cordial or fermented to make a fizzy champagne-like alcoholic homebrew. One only needs to gather one or two dozen dry open flower heads to achieve such a brew, ensuring that all insects are knocked off the stems before processing). There is a wealth of recipes online, but please if you are tempted, do your research and gather responsibly as previously outlined. Flowers left to grow on the Elder will turn over the course of the summer into dark elderberries in early autumn. While these have trace toxic elements and should not be eaten raw, they can be processed to be made into a cordial or dried. Through the process of drying and cooking, toxicity is removed, retaining the rich vitamin C and antibacterial properties which has seen elderberry cordial regarded as a hedgerow staple for making cough syrups.
The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorns have a long history of being used in hedge planting. The ‘thorn’ of the name indicative of its spikey think branches that interweave, proving ideal in the history of enclosure for dividing up land and discouraging any trespassers through their tightly interwoven branches. Sometimes referred to historically as whitethorn (and so as not to confuse it with the lower-lying blackthorn from which sloe berries can be gathered), the Whitethorn’s white flowers that also gift it the colloquial name of ‘May Tree’, turn into dark red haw berries which are much beloved by birds, and can be used when processed in making a bitterish but tasty jam or jelly that goes well with cooked meats and cheeses. A word of caution though: the Haw berries are a challenge to gather (protective gloves and a lot of patience!). The young green leaves of the Hawthorn that reveal themselves before the blossom can be eaten in early spring, and in past times the hawthorn was also known as the ‘bread and cheese’ tree because of the nutty flavour of the leaves that provided excellent accompaniment to bread and cheese to supplement past rural diets – once the tree flowers, however, the leaves are too bitter to consume. Unlike the fragrant Elder, the hawthorn’s blossoms, well, stink. I might be kind and say an ‘acquired’ scent, but it has in the past been compared to rotten fish. No matter, the smaller garden birds, the Sparrows and Dunnocks, Robins, Blue and Great Tits and Wrens love this tree for its contorted branches in which to hide from predators. The blackbirds that nest in my back garden Elder love the high tips of the Hawthorn from which to sing their morning and evening song.