Elders – they’re the bane of gardeners everywhere. They seem to grow in all the places you don’t want them. Particularly in gardens. And it’s murder trying to get rid of them because whatever you do to them, year after year, they just keep coming back.
But elders make elderflowers and, from our point of view, they’re among the most precious plants in the world. They’re also horrendously difficult cultivate. We’ve spent over 30 years trying to grow them in 100 acres of beautiful plantations. And their response? To keel over and die at every given opportunity.
The irony is that elders only flourish in certain areas. They love rich soil and thrive wherever there is lots of water. Shelter and sun are essential. So, domestic gardens make the perfect habitat for them. Hedgerows are even better – a paradise of rotted leaf mulch, always damp (because of the leaf mulch) and full of shelter.
When we first started growing elders we didn’t really appreciate any of this. We planted our young bushes in straight lines and left them to it. They were miserable. So we started feeding them manure and mulch. That helped a bit, but not much. When they died we pulled them out, and planted lovely new saplings in their place. They died even quicker! It turns out that you can’t plant an elder where one has been before because the first incumbent releases hormones into the earth so no other elder can thrive there. Who would have thought?!
We’ve had problems with the phytophthora fungus which is lethal for elders, along with many other plants. However, with trial and error, and help from an expert at Kew Gardens, we’re working out the best ways to get our elders to thrive. Now, all our new plantations are surrounded by tall hedges, or banks of other trees. We may start experimenting with different types of elders, using shrubs instead of large bushes.
We prune and strim, and spend hours every day in June harvesting the precious flowers. It’s a heck of a lot of work. But when we sit down at the end the day, with a chilled glass of elderflower presse in our hands, with its unique, delicate aroma, we know that every ounce of effort has been worthwhile.