If You Go Down To The Woods Today - Issue 1 Volume 7

Spring is springing but Winter is holding on with all her might. As I type the winds are whistling and it’s bitterly cold. However, the micro climates that dot our countryside are showing what treats are in store. This week we’ll chat about a tree that’s linked to the Easter story and a herb that’s universally despised, except by me.  I love it.

We are going to have a look at elder and the fantastic stinging nettle.

The Good, The Bad and The Stingy

The Elder (Sambucus nigra) is the good and the bad this week.  It all depends where in the world you are and where on the timeline of humanity you are looking.

This short, multi-stemmed shrub grows quite prolifically but does prefer disturbed soil.  I have found quite a few within the coppice and have not cut them other than to trim them.  Why?  Well traditions that I have learned through my Bushcraft journey have taught me that to even touch Mother Elder can be bring bad luck.  So, this 21st century coppice worker is keeping pre-Christian rituals alive.  Silly or just another facet to The Woodland Story?  I’ll leave that one to you.

The blaze of white hanging flowers that occur in the late Spring and early Summer are my marmite I’m afraid.  They smell far too much like the toxic leaves.  I know that cordials, champagnes and even fritters can be made with them, but I’d rather wait for the ripe, juicy black fruits to mature from the flower.  This is where the magic is.

The deep crimson berries are so juicy that you can pick, tease off the stalk with a fork and start fermenting almost straight away, such a delicious hedgerow wine.  Those in the know say it is the closest thing to a shop bought red that you can achieve in homemade wines. 

Other foodstuffs grow on the dead or dying elder branches but more on those later.

Other uses for the elder is the use of those stinking leaves.  Drayhorses had garlands of them draped around their great necks to keep the flies away as they are repelled by the stench.  This is a reason why many old farmyards will have very old elders growing within them, especially dairy farms.

The hollow twigs and branches really don’t have any strength in them, indeed in a good Spring the tree can hardly hold the weight of the elder blossom.  However, they have a sort of fluff within them. This is used by clock and watch makers to clean the mechanism as it has a gentle coarseness to it. 

The Christians were eager to keep the bad side of the elder tree going. They said it was the tree that Judas hanged himself from after he had betrayed Christ.  This is of course nonsense as the tree doesn’t grow in The Holy Land and the branches simply couldn’t hold a person’s weight. 

The odd-looking thing has been called a few things in its time.  At the moment it is called jelly ears.  They grow on dead and dying elder and some folk like the rubbery texture.  I personally don’t.  However, I do dry them and blitz them in a food processor until they turn to dust.  Added to stews and gravy they add a different taste and a little thickness.

So, where’s the good in the elder?  The medicinal and culinary world go hand in hand here.   Food is medicine, medicine is food.  The berries are packed with vitamin C so jams, spreads, teas wines and cordials are the order of the day to keep the common cold at bay.  The flowers make a tea which when cold can be used as a cure for chapped hands and sunburn.  The bark is used in all sorts of ways including treating epilepsy.

It’s such a useful tree that I can only ever call it “good”.  I will always ask permission before I trim a branch though just incase Mother Elder gets angry…

The Stinging nettle.  Well, this truly amazing herb is often overlooked as a painful pest that lurks around anywhere children play and will always somehow manage to sting somebody.

The nettle, (Urtica dioica), is my absolute favorite wild herb.  There is so much to write about this flower that I could fill many If You Go Down To The Woods Today blogs many, many times over.

Okay, every part of the plant, except for the roots, are covered in tiny hollow hairs that are full of a pretty nasty chemical that when brushed against will break and the toxin will be scratched into the skin.  This releases the toxin and hey presto, you’re stung. This is the nettles only defense system but it’s a good one.

The reason it needs to defend itself is simple, it is such a useful plant.  I’m going to list a few as they pop into my mind;

  • Great fertilizer, both liquid and solid
  • Toothpaste
  • String
  • Cold and flu remedy
  • Food
  • Dye
  • Anti-hay fever
  • Used before paraffin
  • Sweet companies use it
  • Moths love it
  • The seeds are an energy boost
  • Contains 9% protein 

Not bad for such a painful plant. Indeed, the Romans used to use it to warm themselves with. Each to their own I suppose.

The soup has so many different recipes but I keep mine very simple and as you can see it looks rather delicious.  Dipping heavily buttered fresh bread into a steaming bowl of nettle soup has to be one of my favourite Spring treats. 

The nettle has been found in some incredibly rare and significant archeological finds. Otzi The Iceman and the Must Farm in the Cambridge fens have shown that nettle cordage has been used by sapiens for thousands of years. It is easy to make, incredibly strong and versatile. 

This is a piece I made very quickly out of older stems. Not very pretty but very strong.

As a medicine you can’t go wrong with the nettle. I will always say to drink it as a tea but never pick the leaves after the flowers come out as they will have a crystalline property that isn’t destroyed by boiling water.

Nettles are so easy to identify that I am sure you don’t need any help there but if they look wilted or yellow, leave them. Also if dogs are walked where you want to pick try somewhere else. 

Nettle seeds are so full of energy they are a perfect start to the day sprinkled on yoghurt.  Tiny but effective.

I’ve just dipped my toe into the worlds of elder and the nettle and I hope this has made you want to find out more.

So, The Next Time You Are Out And About…

Look at the nettle with different eyes.  It really is the best wildflower, so giving and generous, you just have to get past the singing façade. Look out for Mother Elder.  Do you like the smell of the blossom or is it your marmite too?

Until next time.