Hedgerow bounty in Dulwich

As I write, I visualise the small yellow fruits embellishing a tree of a local resident’s back garden on a recent visit. I plucked one and ate it and suggested she do the same. These small sweet yellow plums are bullace plums, good for eating cooked or raw.

Many of us are familiar with blackberry and apple pies, jam and crumbles, but the hedgerow offers many more delights at this time of year; crab apples, damsons, sloes and elderberries, and for the more adventurous, hips and haws too.

The small black damsons are ripe now and will stay on the tree for 3-4 weeks. They are most delicious simply stewed with sugar or made into wonderful jam, they are very high in pectin so remember to add the correct amount of water. They can also be used to flavour gin or vodka. Add equal quantities of damsons to spirit and half the amount of sugar, put them all in a large jar or bottle seal the lid and shake. Leave for three months shaking occasionally. After 3 months strain through a muslin or fine sieve and bottle. The same recipe can be used to make sloe gin.

Elderberry flower and fruit

The deep purple cut leaf of the Sambucas Nigra, which graces us with clusters of pale pink flowers in spring, or the Sambucus Nigra ‘golden tower’ with its bright yellow green leaves are stunning additions to any border.

However, my interest lies with its cousin the humble wild elderberry. A greatly maligned plant, it is cut down, hacked up, badly pruned, and generally mistreated wherever it pops up. It was introduced to the UK by the Romans who prized it for its medicinal properties and not least because of the Burgundy style wine it could produce

Almost every part of this shrub has a use.

The flowers can be used to make champagne, cordials, and hand cream. The young whippy stems have been cut by children and travellers for centuries, the pith hollowed out and made into flutes. The roots and bark make a dye and of course there are the berries. They make an excellent wine, but the strong flavour is not to everybody’s taste. My money is on the syrup, which I make every year.

How to make wild elderberry syrup

Strip ripe berries from the stalk and place into a pan. Add just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 mins until the berries are soft. Once cool, mash with a potato masher. Place berries into a jelly back or place into a fine muslin, hang up and allow the liquid to drip into another bowl. Squeeze to remove the juice. Discard fruit and for every pint of berry liquid add 250gm-500gm of sugar (according to taste). Simmer in a large pan for 5-10 mins. Bottle in hot sterilized bottles (these can keep for years).

Drink the syrup hot or cold diluted with water. It is very soothing for coughs, colds, and sore throats.

Have a great autumn.

 Abigail Bicheno

Abigail Bicheno is the Estate’s maintenance surveyor.