Connecting with Nature #5; Respect Your Elders
21st June 2016
You’ve got to respect the Elder tree; vitamin-rich berries, gnarly climbable branches and brittle sticks of kindling that will get the fire going – it’s the tree that keeps on giving throughout the year, but its at its finest right now in June with its white froth of perfumed blossom filling up the hedgerows. It was once believed to be the most magical of plants with the power to ward off evil, so its often to be found at gates and entrance ways. Growing in hedgerows and wastelands we’re never far from an elder tree, which is handy as there are plenty of ideas for forest schools and anyone looking to get creative outdoors.
Pea shooters: the stems of Elder are filled with a soft spongy pith which can be pushed out, making it ideal for a variety of uses. The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘aeld’ meaning fire, as the hollowed-out stems were used like bellows to blow air into the fire. As generations of children have discovered, a length of elder can also make an ideal peashooter. Just cut a short length of wood, (making sure the white pith running down the middle is at least the diameter of your dried pea) and push out the middle with a hard stick or tent peg. It takes a bit of effort but eventually you’ve a perfect hollow tube. You can easily remove the bark and carve to decorate the outside, or just set up your target and fire away!
Puppets: At a forest school gathering this weekend I was asking trainer Lily Horseman of Kindling Play and Training about Elder projects and she showed me a fantastic pop up reindeer puppet she had made, so I decided to have a go.
Its a bit fiddly, but an easy project that would suit older children and adults. Its just a matter of hollowing out various lengths of elder, using a tent peg, then threading them together from the top and securing the ends through a drilled disc. Lily used stone weights to make the puppet pop up but I couldn’t find any with holes in so found a draw string fastener instead. I like the idea of a permanently standing elder reindeer so made another one with wire, which also looks cute.
Elderflower syrup: There are a bunch of delicious elderflower recipes that capture their aromatic, summery flavour, but I like this one my friend Forager Cath showed me as its an easy one to do over the campfire and doesn’t contain the dreaded instruction ‘leave to stand for 24 hours’ which doesn’t translate well into a weekly forest school session.
- Collect the freshest of elderflower heads where the buds are beginning to open. If there is the slightest cat pee smell about it, steer well clear as the flowers have gone over and will taste no better than they smell.
- Gently shake and inspect them for insects then remove the flowers from the green stems.
- Mix equal proportions of sugar and water in a pan and warm slowly to a rolling ball over the campfire until the sugar has dissolved.
- Plunge the flower heads into the pan and take off the heat. The longer you leave the mix, the more the flavour will infuse so go and do something else, such as making a pancake mix.
- When you’re ready to, strain the mix through a fine sieve or piece of muslin, or even a clean pillowcase. You now have a delicious syrup which goes well on campfire cooked pancakes or can be diluted with sparking water and lemon juice for a refreshing midsummer drink
Elderflower is supposed to have many medicinal purposes too, including the treatment of colds and hayfever, whose peak season co-incides with the blossom. With the Autumn berries to look forward to too, no wonder this beauty is known as the Queen of the Hedgerow.