We have just proved it conclusively. There was no witch in our elderberry tree. Which means that you can plant an elderberry in your garden without luring a witch to live in it or, alternatively, you can cut it down with impunity too.
According to garden lore, you must apologise to the witch in your elderberry tree before you cut or prune it, and never cut it down.
We proved the absence of witch quite simply – Bryan grew tired of the elderberry sprawled by his shed and took the chainsaw to it before I knew anything about it. Two minutes of 'brrrrrrrrmm' and it was gone. And, no, it didn't bleed red sap, as another legend says it will, too. Nor has an abundance of elderberries protected the valley from lightening.
Actually the elderberry tree has only temporarily gone from the shed. Next spring the roots will probably sprout and we will have a neater and lusher elderberry bush, which Bryan will love, or at least he will love the elderberry jelly I make from the fruit.
Elders are fast growing and incredibly hardy, surviving heat, drought and frost, one of the great pioneer plants for your garden.
They are also relatively small, about two metres high and wide- only a short slim witch would be comfortable in one.
Sadly elders pioneer all too well in some areas and become weeds – be careful planting them near bushland and look out for 'volunteers' because the best-fruiting elderberries are also the ones with the most weed potential. Many elders won't fruit at all. They produce massive great white panicles of flowers in spring, which turn to a deep cream and smell of honey, but don't set fruit. If you don't care for elderberry jelly, this is all they need to do, though the birds will be disappointed as many birds adore elderberry.
Which is what spreads the weeds. Birds eat fruit, birds fly away, bird droppings fall to the ground, seeds in droppings germinate – and you have a weed, the offspring of an elderberry tree that tends to produce fruit.
I wish I could tell you a sure way to know if an elder will set fruit or not, but I don't know of one. Some fruit. Some don't. It was once believed that they need chilling to fruit, but the first heavy bearing elder I ever saw grew in Townsville. A cutting from a good (or bad) fruiter is the best bet for getting one of the same. Snap off a bit of wood, as close to the base as you can. If it snaps instead of bends, it will probably grow if you plant it in sand or potting mix or even a pot of soil (as long as that soil isn't heavy clay more suitable for a brickworks or pottery) and keep it moist and in dappled light. Don't plant it out though until it has at least tripled in size.
A year later, you may get berries. But if one test is enough to substantiate our conclusions, there will be no witches in your tree whatsoever.
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