Country diary: Elder flowers fill our hedgerows with sweet scent

The creamy-white flowers of the Elder bush.
The creamy-white flowers of the Elder bush.
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“The cuckoo comes in April, He sings his song in May, And then in June he changes tune, In July he flies away.”

It’s time to go – and we haven’t heard a single cuckoo this year. It’s sad that so many migrant birds are vanishing. I believe their numbers have been reduced by 50 per cent over the last 20 years.

Cuckoo spit has nothing to do with cuckoos. It’s the little frothy balls found on grasses etc in summertime that serves a useful purpose. The foam is produced by the nymphs of bugs which are called frog hoppers – because they jump, probably to protect themselves against dessication. The froth is produced by discharging air through a valve in the abdomen. This mixes with liquid issuing from the anus, and is often abundant on plants. If you poke inside the foam, you’ll find the tiny occupant.

A highlight this week was the viewing of a pair of jays at close quarters, in Forge Valley’s bird feeding station. With four gray squirrels occupying bird tables, a handsome jay descended, and hungrily devoured food scattered at the foot of the fence. Jays are usually secretive and wary, first heard by their loud, raucous calls before flying away. This bird remained from about 4pm to 4.20pm, and its pinkish-brown body, and white and blue wing patches were unmistakable. It was joined by its mate before flying into woodland, when the white rump and black tail were very conspicuous. Jays eat a wide variety of foods, but acorns are the most important. They’re responsible for the massive dispersal of acorns in the autumn.

Tigga led us up a damp, woodland path on the fringe of East Ayton near Scarborough. Although most flowers were now seeding, for a local orchid it was the peak time for blooming. The common twayblade is an unobtrusive plant, but very distinct in having only two leaves on its erect stem. These leaves give the plant its name. ‘Tway’ is an old form of two, and ‘blade’ refers to the leaf. The flowers are small and greenish with large numbers clustered in a spike. A single pair of large oval leaves are towards the bottom of the stem.

The meadows are now aglow with buttercups, and beside meres and marshy areas, the stately wild yellow irises flourish. The wild iris can’t be mistaken, as the flowers are like those of the garden iris, but yellow in colour.

In the hedgerows, gone are the ‘waves’ of hawthorn blossom that gladdened the heart in springtime. The berries, in their turn, are ripening. Watch the small bunches mature into round, dark red berries.

Now the elder bushes reign supreme in the hedgerows. Throughout June the shrubs have become covered with great sprays of sweet-smelling flowers with many uses. They even have an acknowledged role as an ingredient in skin ointments and eye lotions.

I love the creamy-white, frothy clusters of elder flowers, and must confess to munching them straight off the branch on a hot summer’s day. They’re so cool and refreshing.

There are many time-consuming recipes, but try making this simple drink. Put a bunch of elder flowers in a jug, stalks and all. Pour on boiling water, and leave until cool. Strain the liquid off and sweeten to taste. Do check that the flowers are insect free, but never wash the flowers, as this removes much of their fragrance. Enjoy!