Thursday, 25 September 2014

Respect Your Elders

Of all trees few can be held in as much contempt as our native elder, Sambucus nigra.  It grows almost anywhere and in such profusion that it is dismissed as a ‘weed’ and it is true that its habit of self-sowing and growing through treasured garden plants can be a nuisance.  Despite all of this, however, it is also one of the most useful of plants both in the wild and the shrub border.

This variegated form of Elder is very useful for brightening up a shady place
 
Search any hedgerow and the Elder can be found.  It is easily identified, even in mid-winter, for its bark is dull, dry and scaly, with prominent pairs of leaf buds; these are some of the earliest to open in the spring.  Young leaves can even be found during mild spells in the winter although these are replaced if damaged by frost.  Perhaps the simplest way to identify a leafless plant is to break off a stem for the centre is hollow and filled with whitish pith. Generations of country children hollow out these stems to create ‘cigarettes’ to smoke; in fact I can claim only to have smoked elder – and that stopped once a spark burnt the back of my throat!

Perhaps the glory of Elder comes in spring when the trees burst into flower. Large, flat heads (corymbs), consisting of hundreds of tiny scented flowers smother the plants and for a short while the countryside carries their pungent odour.  These have traditionally been the first crop to be harvested, their flowers steeped in water to make Elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’, these days now sold commercially. Elderflowers can be used dried in herbal teas or, when fresh, swirled in a light batter and dropped into hot oil to make delicious and unusual fritters.  Adding the flowers to stewed gooseberries or when making jam is a very old method of counterbalancing the tartness of the fruit.
Within weeks the flowers which were held upright will have faded and drooped as berries form.  Even when green, streaks of colour hint of their ripeness to come.  By late summer, the clusters have turned almost black and make a welcome addition to fruit pies or, used on their own, in jam and wine making.
The medicinal uses for Elder are equally varied.  According to the herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy all parts of the plant can be used: roots for kidney problems; bark against epilepsy and the leaves, when mixed with geranium and garlic, to soothe eczema and rashes.  The flowers and berries are used for relief of coughs and colds and it has also been claimed that the flowers can restore blindness.  As with all herbal treatments caution and common sense should be used – I’m not brave enough to suggest that you try any of them out!
The dark berries  of the elder - the red ones are hawthorn
For a tree with so many uses that has been part of country lore for so long it is not surprising to find it has many names.  A widespread alternative is Judas Tree for tradition states that it was the Elder that Judas Iscariot hung himself from.  It is from a derivation of the name Judas that Jew’s Ears fungus which commonly grows on elder gets its common name.
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Stop That Horse!

The first week in September doesn’t just herald the start of autumn it also heralds the start of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.  Held each year in the grounds of Burghley House - a magnificent, Elizabethan stately home located just outside Stamford, Lincolnshire - it attracts the top names in equestrianism.  Also known as three day eventing, the trials combine different elements of horsemanship: dressage, cross-country and show jumping which tests the strength, stamina, skill and bravery of both horse and rider.  It is a popular and unique sport with crowds of over 160,000 coming to watch.
The cross-country course is very demanding with thirty-two fences over a distance of 6500 metres (four miles) to jump, ideally under twelve minutes.  The Cottesmore Leap is one of the largest and scariest looking of the fences although the horses rarely seem fazed by it.  
 

Eventing is a high risk sport and accidents do occur.  More often than not, this is when a fence is misjudged and the rider parts company with the horse or a fence is damaged during the jump, for they are designed to fall apart to reduce the risk of injury.   So what happens when something goes wrong?  On the course there are ‘stopping points’, placed for good visibility so that the next competitor has plenty of warning to apply the brakes if there is a hold-up further on.  A red flag is waved to tell the rider to stop and the time of stopping is recorded by a steward.
If the stop is likely to be short the rider will continue to ride the horse at walk to allow it to cool gently; if longer they dismount, remove the saddle  and lead the horse at walk to keep active. 

If the delay is lengthy the horse will be washed down to cool it further and the rider also given the opportunity to take a drink of water.  Although this is frustrating for the rider, competitors understand the need for total safety to both themselves and their horse. 
Once the all-clear is given the horse is remounted and gently exercised to warm up its muscles before resuming the competition.  When the rider is satisfied the horse is ready the timing is restarted as they canter past the yellow marker post so that no competitor is disadvantaged.

Like all large events, sporting or otherwise, contingency plans are in place for all types of emergencies and spectators are rarely aware of these ‘behind the scenes’ procedures even when, as in this case, they happen on full view.  Over many years the stopping point has proven its worth, and it is an interesting place to watch, for it shows a top performance horse go through the stages of change from full competitive action to rest and back again.
The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2014 take place from 4th – 7th September; visit the website for more details by clicking here.
 
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