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Elders are often so small and scrubby, they hardly seem worth the name tree at all. They may grow to about 20 feet (6 metres), but so often they don’t. Definitely an understated tree.

The first elder I remember meeting was a scrubby little thing with its roots and trunk entangled in a ruined wall. I got to know it well one winter when my parents had taken the family boat, a little cabin cruiser, out of the water for a refit. The boat was parked opposite the elder, so my gaze ran over the tree every time we visited. The trunk was gnarled, and bore patches of pale-green lichen – quite a welcome splash of colour at that dull season. In January, I noticed more pale green than had been there before, so I took a closer look. Not more lichen, though – the tree was unfolding leaf-buds. In February that year it snowed. Frost sat on the riverside meadows, and icicles hung from the boat’s side, but the elder tree seemed unperturbed, kept its part-unfolded leaves in suspended animation, and picked up where it had left off when the weather improved to become the first tree in full leaf. You can’t help but respect a plant that does that.

Later that little elder put out flowerheads, too. They are saucer-sized, so you wouldn’t expect much understatement in that, but they are a modest cream colour, large but soft-toned. The fruits are purple-black, a little more showy, I suppose, and my chief memory of them is gathering bucketsful beside an old gravel-pit by the Thames to make elderberry wine. Heady stuff, it was, and not understated at all.

These days, the elder I visit most often is another scrubby little plant. It stands in a ditch half-way across the causeway between the Isle of Portland and the mainland. This Dorset elder has a lot of weather to contend with, exposed to salt gales from both east and west. A salty summer gale can blacken its leaves so they drop in despair. But new buds soon swing into action – this is a very tough little tree. I would say it’s about as tall as I am; any attempt to put its head above the parapet of the ditch gets dried, snapped and blown away. Some years it even manages to flower, though I’ve never seen any fruit on it. It keeps trying, I suppose, the occasional flowers a triumph of hope over experience. One day, perhaps, it will bear fruit and I shall congratulate it on an achievement against all the odds. Nature, I guess, can give us a lesson or two about not giving up too easily.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from www.veneficiapublications.com