Weeds. They’re an inevitable fact of life for any gardener, despite the claims by some that it's possible to have a entirely weed free garden. Last weekend an article in my local property guide declared in bold type “Give weeds the flick for good”. Frankly, this is utter bollocks.
I'm yet to visit a garden that is entirely devoid of weeds, and the fact is, not all weeds are evil monsters intent on taking over. Many are virtuous. Some might even be described in glowing terms. The late British nature writer Richard Mabey called weeds “outlaw plants”, and it’s a phrase I’ve become fond of using. Outlaws have long held a romantic fascination in western society (does the name Ned Kelly ring a bell?), and I like the way Mabey uses it as a term of endearment for otherwise vilified plants.
One of my favourite outlaws is elderberry, Sambucus nigra. The plant is very tough, grows in a wide climatic range, has poisonous foliage, self seeds, and has a notorious tendency to sucker. Some people think it’s a pest, but in my view, elder’s virtues outweigh its faults. For one, the flowers and berries are medicinal. Studies have shown that a syrup made from the berries helps when recovering from the flu, and in Europe the flowers are sold in chemists for the relief of congestion.
Elderberries can be distilled or made into wine, and can be used as the main ingredient in jams and jellies. But the supreme culinary use for elderberry plants, in my opinion at least, is to make elderflower cordial. Nothing on God’s green earth is quite as refreshing, and if there's a hint of lemon in the mix, all the better.
To make it combine six cups of sugar with three cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved. Reduce the heat, add the zest of three lemons and two cups of lemon juice to the syrup and mix in a tablespoon of citric acid. Add about forty elderflower heads, bring back to the boil and simmer for five minutes.
Leave the cordial to cool before straining it through a sieve lined with muslin to separate the flowers. Pour into the sterilised bottles, seal and store in the freezer for a year, or in the fridge for three months. If you can’t wait, combine the cordial with soda water and some icecubes in a tall glass and down it after a hard day’s graft in the vegie patch. You'll never call elderberry a weed again!
By: Justin Russell
First published: March 2013