Elderflowers

Short version:

Now is the perfect time to forage elderflowers if you don’t have any of your own growing. They make an excellent cordial and great fritters. They taste like they smell. Eat only the flowers. Green parts contain toxins.

This feels like a cheat because we’re not growing our own flowers, but this is definitely one for the little one. Our neighbours two doors down have an absolutely amazing elderflower tree that is around 14 feet tall. My little one looks at it longingly from our garden. Lucky us, the lovely neighbour has brought some round for us during lockdown. However, it is no hardship taking daily exercise in one of the many amazing South London parks or wooded areas. I am astounded at how many elderflower trees there are. I’m afraid I have no advice on how to grow these. We would love to grow our own, but I’m afraid our garden is much too small to accommodate another tree. To be honest our garden is too small to accommodate any trees but I was still determined to shoehorn a small pear, apple, cherry and one ever expanding fig tree. We have two mulberry bushes, but they are little dwarf things, so I don’t count them as trees.

How to harvest

If you are foraging then find a nice park, away from roads, with no obvious ownership. Even in non-COVID-19 times I would advise picking blooms that at head height and above. The elderflowers I’ve seen tend to be around the edges of parks or by railway fences. The kind of places that I’ve seen people when they’re caught short. Little one gets to harvest by sitting on hubby’s shoulders.

Look for clusters of flowers that are newly opened. Avoid any that look like they are starting to turn brown at all. Give them a little shake to dislodge any insects. I have read that picking them early in the morning is when they are most fragrant. We have just made do with whenever we have managed to persuade little madame out. She absolutely loves picking the flowers. She loves the smell and she loves the taste.

How they taste

They basically taste how they smell.

They are great in a cordial. Click here for this recipe from River Cottage we used, except (with lockdown shopping hinderances) we had no lemons so I used clementines instead. We also had no citric acid and made half the quantity and used around 350g of sugar rather than 500g.

We tried a second batch a few days later and again, with the lockdown, we used sugar that I pulled out from the back of the cupboard. As you can see, it is a much darker colour. The taste was quite different. It had the more honeyed sticky taste of brown sugar.

We also tried adding dried lavender to another batch. If you do this, add the lavender after the mixture has cooled a little. Our lavender one had a tea quality to it.

There is something rather lovely about home-made cordial, although maybe it’s the whole process of foraging with the little one, having her help with the stirring and straining and watching her wear the funnel as a hat and charge around the kitchen that just makes it wonderful. She absolutely loved the cordial. She loved it most neat. That was ok though as I had added more water and less sugar when making it. So er…. Maybe in fact we looked at the recipe and then ignored it.

We’ve also made elderflower fritters using this recipe. These were light, crispy and very tasty. We served it without the extras and it was still lovely. It would have been amazing with vanilla ice-cream though.

Warning

The only edible parts of this plant are the flowers and the RIPE berries later in the year. All other parts contain cyanogenic glycosides. This website here explains about the chemistry of it. When using the flowers for cordial or fritters cut away the large green stems. The smaller ones that hold clusters of flowers together are fine. Cooking breaks down the toxins, so elderflowers are considered safe to eat. However, as with all new (and foraged) foods, it may be wise to start with trying a little as you may have unknown allergies.  

Blackberries

Short version:

The husband proved me wrong, but I couldn’t be more pleased. Thornless blackberries are a good shade tolerant, easy to grow, easily propagated, prolific berry that can be trained to grow vertically to reach the sun better or provide an evergreen screen, taking up a small footprint.

In 2007 we moved into a one bed house. Yes, actual house with kitchen/living room on the ground floor and a spiral staircase in the corner. The garden was about 3x3m and very shaded. Despite being in the shadow of the house most of the day, we were glad to have a garden at all in London. One day the husband returned home (having gone out for paint and sandpaper) and presented me with a thornless blackberry cane. I was rather disparaging and completely ungrateful. We were fairly broke having just moved in. We were 15 mins walk from the edge of Wandsworth common. Why on earth would we pay £10 to buy a blackberry and then give it real estate in our tiny inhospitable garden?

He’d paid for it already, so I planted it next to the fence in a corner. It was of course in the shade. In the first year it did very little and we maybe had 5 or 6 blackberries. In the second year it did a bit more and we had a bowlful of blackberries. In the third year it had a large number of canes that went up over the fence into the sun and we suddenly had an explosion of fruit. We had so many we didn’t actually know what to do with them. We mostly just ate them off the bush. They were the most delicious and chubby blackberries we’d had. This completely followed the adage first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap! The second year there was lots of green but not much in the way of berries.

So here’s some helpful terminology:

PRIMOCANE – a cane that is a year old, when it has lots of leafy growth.

FLORICANE – a cane that is 2 years old and will now fruit.

So that explains why the first year there was so little fruit because of the single cane that was already in existence. The young root system would only support growth of a small primocane or two. The second year there would have been fruit on those small 2 year old canes (now called floricanes) and there would be plenty of growth of new primocanes. In the third year there would have been plenty of floricanes to provide lots of blackberries. Also, the long canes were now reaching over the fence and making it into the sun.

When we moved I couldn’t bear to leave this amazing plant behind so I took cuttings, stuck them in soil and hoped they’d root. Only 1 did due to my lack of knowledge, lack of time and the stress of moving. It then lived in a pot on a shaded balcony for 4 years as the new place had no bare soil. I think we had about 10 blackberries in those 4 years. It moved with us to our current house and this is what we have just 2 years later:

Blackberry Hedge

I knew that it was evergreen, was fine with shade and was still lovely and thornless. We have a short fence which I’m grateful to my neighbour for as it allows our garden more sun. We get on really well with the neighbours and in order to keep it that way I’ve made our blackberries into a living screen that gives them some protection from the bare bottom of our child (why do toddlers like being naked so much?), her tantrums and the general cacophony of our household.

I started this hedge by putting this green wire frame up all round 2 sides of the garden to support vertical growing.

I only started with the one blackberry plant (unfortunately I don’t know the variety) so I bought another variety of thornless blackberry (Oregon thornless). The first year, being the incredibly impatient person that I am, I propagated with some serpentine layering. The next year I had 5 blackberry plants. I wove the newly grown 10 ft long green canes in and out of the wire frame. Over winter they lost a few leaves but mostly remained intact and a couple went a lovely red. This year we have a what looks to be a bumper crop.

Reasons to Grow Thornless Blackberries

So… despite my initial reaction at being bought a thornless blackberry I would whole heartedly recommend them because:

  • They use a small footprint if you train it up, which only requires tying it up a couple of times in the summer when it’s turning into a triffid.
  • They make a great living screen all year round if your winter isn’t too harsh.
  • They do fine in the shade. The berries are bigger and sweeter if they can reach some sun though.
  • Despite the ease of blackberry foraging, often when picking blackberries you have to pick at height to ensure no animals have weed on them (including the drunken animals who couldn’t wait till they got home!) Also, I’ve found that sometimes even the yummiest looking wild blackberries can taste very tart or bland. You must find a good patch and hope that some other forager who knows about it hasn’t beaten you to it.
  • The thornless-ness makes them a pleasure to pick and train. This is not something you can often grow from seed. Even if you take a berry from a thornless bush it may have be pollinated by a prickly variety as there are brambles hiding in the corners of most gardens I’ve seen.
  • They do fine with a large amount of neglect and don’t need special conditions like the ericaceous soil (acidic conditions) required for blueberries and raspberries.
  • Out of the fruits I’ve grown, blackberries provide the largest crop in the shortest time from propagation.

Propagation

They are easily propagated.

I would however not recommend going crazy with the propagation. I think I’m going to have to dig a plant or two up as they are really prolific. If you can find someone who blackberries already, I’m almost certain they wouldn’t mind you having a cutting. After the second year they won’t be short of canes. You can then also check that they’re tasty before growing it.

Mid to late summer is usually best for propagating. 

Tip layering

This is the easiest way. In fact, if you don’t keep the canes off the ground they can naturally root where tips touch the soil. 

  1. Find a healthy primocane.
  2. Where the tip easily touches the ground, dig a hole (either straight into the ground or in a large pot) and bury the tip about 10cm deep.
  3. Keep it watered (a larger pot is easier to keep moist).
  4. In about 2-3 months (depending on conditions) roots should have grown (just dig up where the cane goes into the ground to see) and you can sever the new plant from the old cane which will still go on to grow blackberries on it.

Serpentine layering

This isn’t quite as easy as tip layering, but it is useful for propagating lots of plants in one go. 

5. In about 2-3 months (depending on conditions) roots should have grown and you can sever the connections between the new plants. It would be advisable to move them further away from the parent plant. 

Cuttings

The reason my first attempt at cuttinsg weren’t hugely successful is because I literally cut off stems and stuck them in soil.

  1. Choose a healthy primocane. Summer is best but cuttings taken the rest of the time may just be less successful. Cut the top few inches using a clean knife or secateurs. I haven’t a magic number of inches but somewhere between 4-8 would probably do it. Cut it about 2cm below a leaf bud. This will be where the roots will grow from.
  2. You can also take a cane and cut it into sections. Each section could grow you a new plant.
  3. Remove most of the leaves of each cutting. Leave the leaf buds.
  4. Stick into any type of damp compost. There are arguments for using soil less growth medium thingys as there will be less chance of it going mouldy – but honestly I don’t have the all the fancy bits and bobs professionals do and I certainly don’t have the space to store all of it. You can dip it into rooting hormone if you like but I’ve found that blackberries do fine without.
  5. Leave in a shady spot for a few months. 
  6. It’s ready to plant out once roots have grown.

Cuttings tend to be less successful than layering as the cutting does not have any nutritional support from the parent plant.

Pruning

After the canes have fruited and been harvested the floricanes should be cut down at the base of the plant and removed to make space for the primocanes to fruit the following year.

You may spot the very large design flaw to this blackberry hedge. All the growth was woven into the frame when they were the primocanes last year. They’re now fruiting and will need pruning in the autumn. When I do that the whole wire support will be bare. In addition, because I’ve woven the canes through this wire support to make this blackberry hedge, they’re going to a huge pain in the seating area to remove. The wire support is currently too full to take this year’s primocanes. This year’s primocanes are therefore just kinda blowing in the breeze above the lawn, trying their hardest to make it to the ground.

In fact, the whole thing collapsed in this very windy and rainy summer.

The plants are far too close and there is no way our family needs 5 blackberry bushes.

My new plan is to wait till after all the berries have been harvested and prune all the floricanes. Once that’s done there should be nothing to attach the plants to this fence. I’ll then dig up 2 plants and plant them across the lawn and provide a strong vertical support. Hopefully then I can tie the canes from the opposite plants together to make an arch that goes across the narrowest bit of the lawn. Each new year the new primocanes can be tied together. Then every year the tied together canes should be the same age and can bear fruit together and be pruned together. With the plants that haven’t moved, half of the primocanes will go back into the hedge, then there should always be space to add primocanes where floricanes have been removed. The hedge shouldn’t get too heavy and it shouldn’t fall again.

Well, there are all my mistakes (so far). I’m afraid I didn’t know enough about primocanes or floricanes but, hopefully, dear reader you know all about then now. Of course, learning is all part of the fun and I don’t mind rejigging the garden. The damage to the roots might put me back a year, but then after that, hopefully there’s going to be some good structure that we can enjoy for years to come.

One last odd thing – apparently you can eat the shoots and young leaves as a spring veg. I tried this and I didn’t like it. They didn’t taste amazing and were very astringent. I may have been doing it wrong and may not have eaten them early enough. If I do discover the secret to making them tasty I shall let you know!

I hope you give these a go and if anyone can identify my blackberry then I’d be interested to know. I’m afraid 2007 ignorant me didn’t even consider varieties back then. I can imagine in 2030 I’ll be sitting there thinking how naïve I was back in 2019!

Or… feel free to suggest any varieties in the comments.