A year with Elder

This must be the most truthful publicity slogan ever: “Elderberry is underestimated”

“Getting to know all these different plant species, where do I start?” It’s a question I am asked quite often. Mostly my answer is “Well, just start with one. Choose a common plant that grows near you. A plant with lots of useful possibilities. And spend a year in its company.”

One of the plants that is such an ideal ally, is the Elder. Grows nearly everywhere, houses a whole world of folklore and legends (complete books are written about the tales of the Elder), it is as suitable as food as it is as fabric colour. On top of that, it provides ideal material to make toys with, and good medicine to boost your health. This is a plant that invites us to smell, taste, touch… and a living example of how different plant parts may contain completely different substances, each to be harvested at their own time of the year.

Every now and then, it’s good to take your own advice. So I decided at the end of last winter, when the first green Elder leaves were showing “Oh yes, the Elder, I would love to spend a whole year in her company again”. Because it’s never right to think that you know a plant entirely, even though you can’t count the bottles of elderberry syrup you’ve made anymore, or the amount of elderflower pancakes.
And yes, last year was another epiphany for me.

A couple of weeks ago, when it was snowing (quite early here for the time of the year), I had to smile… apparently someone was shaking the feather blanket of the Elder Lady! I couldn’t resist telling the whole tale once again. A quick glance to the shelves in the kitchen told me it had been a fruitful elder year. A whole range of elder preparations smiled at me. Tinctured flowers, dried flowers for tea, syrups of berries and blossom, berry marmelade, elder leaf oil and salve, klakkebuizen (no idea what the English word for that is; but the hollow twigs can be used to shoot chewed paper at a target – mostly the victim is a teacher :-), pieces of elder-coloured fabric, elder flutes (in Flemish there is the wonderful word ‘Flierefluiter’, meaning someone who plays an elder flute, or someone who doesn’t worry about a thing in the world…)

Small wind flute made from elder wood

And the dreaming had started… About the elder blossoms, picked in a lovely permaculture garden in Friesland. About the harvest of the berries, with the company of a special friend, and how the songs to celebrate the berries just flew out of our mouth and heart… The flutes we tried to make, near the water, one trial after another and another trial, until we got a bit of unexpected professional help, which resulted in a flute that imitates bird sounds so well, that even the cats were confused.

But most of all: how I got pregnant, and very aware of it right away, at the time the elder berries were ripening, and how our twins will be born once the elder blossom spreads her magical scent in the air… Yes, this year with Lady Elder was certainly a fruitful one…

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 9:22 am  Comments (3)  


Winter has arrived again, and usually we tend to ‘blindfold’ our feet a bit more at this time of the year than in summertime. But even during the summer I simply don’t manage to keep the sandals on my feet. Especially not when I’m in nature – how could you feel free in a natural environment when your feet are held prison?

I’ve noticed that I rarely forage for wild plants anymore without being barefoot. Honestly: it make things so much easier, it’s so simple to find out where the soil becomes more humid, or warm, or sandy. With your bare feet, it’s a piece of cake to find out where the sun exactly was half an hour ago, as you feel right away where the earth is still glowing. It might be the no.1 simplest way to look for plants, especially those that only grow in very specific circumstances. A quest for plants that becomes a total sensuous experience.

In the late summer, I was able to live wildly from whatever the land had to offer: wild greens, berries of all kinds, wild apples, and the most delicious mushrooms. The mushrooms, that was something new for me. Guided by a good friend we went mushroom ‘hunting’. Yes, hunting that is. Everyone who ever picked mushrooms in the wild, will agree: it is something quite different. They seem to hide sometimes, or it happens that you look at a spot where you where fruitlessly passing only five minutes ago, and it turns out that all of a sudden it’s loaded with mushrooms. “Actually, the best way to look for mushrooms, is having a beer first” I heard, “as it slows you down, and fogs your mind just the tiny bit you need in order to be able to find them”. Haven’t tried the beer yet, but barefooted, I found one mushroom after another, and another, and…

Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Ground elder – beating it by eating it!

ground elder, stinging nettle and dandelion - edible amsterdam dasarts 2008

Photo: Ground elder, stinging nettle and dandelion – Edible Amsterdam Dasarts 2008

Harvesting herbs and flowers, making ointments, enjoying the outdoors, and so much other fun things to do at this time of the year. More fun than sustaining a intimate relationship with the computer, so yes, it has been a bit quiet here. Also, I have been travelling around in Belgium and Holland like a nomad, to teach herbal classes. And all of this topless (laptopless that is, for anyone imagining other things 🙂 ).

But last Saturday, as I was exchanging some experiences about ground elder with other herbalists, one
of them exclaimed ‘But why don’t you write about that in your blog?!’ So here it goes…

Ground Elder was once intoduced here by the Romans, to supply their soldiers with fresh vegetables along the roadside. Of course they used a plant that knows how to survive in all circumstances, one that cannot be conquered. A vegetable that invented the slogan ‘all you can eat’.

The Romans continued their travels, but ground elder stayed. To invade all possible places in the countryside, forest and city: in lawns, under trees, in hedges.
This made the herb famous and well known by different names: rampant champion, gardener’s sadness. Bishop’s Weed (as this plant was used by monks to treat gout). Jack-jump-about. Or the poetic the expanding green hell. In other words: hard to exterminate. Even pesticide manufacturers risk a nervous breakdown, dealing with ground elder.

I know I’m risking my credibility here, but: I seem to have eaten so much of it in the parental garden over the past few years, that it disappeared.

Feel free to reread that sentence.

Yes, indeed, ground elder. Gone. Only by preparing and eating it, in vegetable pies, soups, salades, mashed potatoes, pancakes, bread, pesto,… Not one milligram of poison was needed, on the contrary: I was nourished by all the good things that it has to offer: vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, carotene (especially when eaten young).

It’s very versatile, the young tender leaves are delicious eaten raw, the older leaves can be cooked and have a parsley-like taste.

I know other gardeners would start an extatic dance of joy, but I am not so sure if there’s a reason to be so happy about this. Even more: I miss my trusted ground elder. I hope I can re-introduce it. What could be easier than a vegetable of which you can continually harvest without having to worry about diseases or special plant needs? Those Romans weren’t so stupid after all…

And as it turns out, I am not the only one: Goethe was also an enthousiastic ground elder collector. His collection of weeds can still be admired in the Goethe museum in Weimar.

Dandelion Festival

~ A veritable army of weed killers and tools has been employed to get rid of this lawn ‘spoiler’, but have you ever seen a field made a glorious sheet of gold by millions of dandelions? ~

Adrienne Crowhurst (1972)

Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 8:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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The sowers and the planters

Image from: Keri Smith, The Guerilla Art Kit, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2007.

It all started one afternoon in the library, many years ago. I was browsing through some books about foresting, and opened a photo book on the subject. Somewhere in the middle there was a picture of a man standing on the top of a hill. Curious as I was, my eyes followed his stretched arm and index finger, pointing at the green hill right next to it, offering ground to hundreds or maybe even thousands of trees. The comment underneath the picture read ‘This man shows us the trees he has been planting during his life’. Not only was I heavily impressed, I was flabbergasted, I was melting.

Later I was standing in the kitchen with my mother-in-law, and she told me the story of The man who planted trees, ‘truly something for you’. She was right, I was hanging at her lips.

But fairy tale-like stories were not satisfactory for me; soon I turned these things into practice myself, albeit on a very small scale. The railway verges where I passed by daily, got loaded with seeds of St.-John’s Wort, malva , evening primrose and their colleagues, and yes: it worked! I saw the landscape gaining colour, and becoming an attraction for butterflies, bees, and other crawling, flying and buzzing little creatures.

Next, during one of the editions of our Edible Brussels project, I heard a man tell about his favorite occupation: the reintroduction of the wild leek… in Brussels.

“Just a matter of leaving some tiny bulbs here and there”, he claimed.

At least as inspiring as that, is to me the story of a girl that went along on a wood walk:

“My father got nearly arrested by the police once on the road. He was in the car, window open, with a huge bucket of acorns by his side. You see, he collects those in Autumn. And when the bucket is full, it goes into the car.

-Ehm…Hmm… Excuse me, but what kind of filth is it that you have been throwing out of the window all the time, into the central reservation?

– Eh… filth? I am planting oak trees, sir.”

Some readers will laugh at the previous, and perhaps even say out loud that there are some surprisingly naive creatures on this planet.
Fact is: all this green is very much needed. More so: the green can make it perfectly without us, but it just won’t work the other way. Some people seem to be more aware of that than others.

In the seventies the foundation was laid of the Guerilla Gardening movement. They even invented ‘Seed Bombs’ to invade roof tops, fenced areas and hard to access spots with the green cure.

Even The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation gives sustainability a new dimension through planting fruit trees: oxygen, shade, decreasing erosion of the soil, and delicious, nutritious fruits.

But the seeds that have touched me most, must have been the tomato seeds that a friend took out of his pockets after the funeral of a very good friend. “Well, look what I find here in my pockets”, he said, “tomato seeds”. That’s about all I needed to realise deep inside that life went on, and that it was good.

And I still sow and plant… amidst the busy traffic, or when people look the other way for just a moment…

… who’s joining me?

Aelmoesenije wood walk

-“How about that herb lady? Is she coming over here or are we going to see her?”

– * snicker*

– “Eh… what? Oh, I’m sorry, I had this old herb crone in mind. You know, crooked and…”

I often have to disappoint people about the warts they expected on my nose, but I do take them on walks.

And this was a fabulous one…

Published in: on December 19, 2007 at 10:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Conversation in the woods

Says the nature guide: “Look, the impatiens. See these flowers? They’re hats for the elves.”

Says the little girl that already knows so much: “Pfff, elves don’t exist!”

Says the nature guide at least an hour later “Look, these are birch trees. They are easily recognizable with their white barks.”

Says the same little girl that already knows so much: “Pfff, these aren’t white barks, these are regular barks that have been painted white”.

Says the nature guide: “Do you really think so? And who on earth would do that, painting all these birch trees?”

Says the same little girl that knows increasingly much: “Well duh, the lepricorns of course!”

Published in: on September 21, 2007 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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