The slanting evening light tells us that autumn has come, and the night hours are once more equal to the day. Up on the moorlands, the bracken is turning to deep bronze, leaves redden, and fields of golden grain turn into stubble under the scythe. This is also the time of the berry harvest: Scarlet rowanberries blaze against a surreally blue sky. Blackberries and hazelnuts swell into ripeness in the hedgerows. Elderberries hang like rich clusters of shining black jewels.
Berry trees and bushes are alive and full of spirits. The spirit of the elder is an old woman, the Elder-Mother, who lives in the trunk of this bushy tree. In Ireland elder was regarded as highly sacred, and it was forbidden to break even one twig. But in Lincolnshire you could barter for wood from the “Old Lady” or “Old Girl” by saying: “Old Woman, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree.” If you bathe your eyes in the green juice of the wood, you will gain the second sight. And if you stand under an elder-tree at Samhain in Scotland, you can see the faery host riding by.
Within the blackthorn tree lives the lunantishee, a thin, wiry old man with pointed ears, long teeth, arms and fingers – a personification of the sharp thorn itself. He will not allow a stick to be cut either on the 11th of May or November (the old Beltaine and Samhain dates.) To do so is bound to bring misfortune. The thorns also protect the white flowers in the spring, which ripen into the black sour sloes, an ancestor of our orchard plums. Blackthorn’s sister is the hawthorn, whom the Irish have always recognised as a faery tree. Hawthorns were often referred to as "gentle bushes" after the custom of not naming faeries directly out of respect. Solitary thorns were known as the faeries' trysting trees, as they frequently grow on barrows and tumps, or at crossroads – typical "thin" places in the landscape. To sit beneath the hawthorn tree on Beltaine Eve pretty much guarantees a sight of the fairy cavalcade riding out into our world at this liminal time.
We don't hear much about the bramble faery who scatters her gleaming jewels throughout our hedgerows with such profligacy, but mothers used to warn their children not to eat any blackberries after Michelmas as the faeries had blighted them – which no doubt served to safeguard their offspring from the ills of eating mouldy berries. But rowan berries are said to be the food of the high faery race known as the Tuatha De Danaan in Ireland. In olden times anyone who ate one of these magical berries remained free of sickness. An old person who ate them became young again, and they bestowed unsurpassed beauty on any maiden. Despite its virtues, the rowan-tree faery is an unprepossessing fellow: thick-boned, large-nosed, crooked in the teeth, and with one red eye in a black face. It is said that the Welsh used to brew an excellent ale from the berries, the secret of which is sadly now lost. Herbalist John Evelyn seems to confirm this in his Sylva: or, A Discourse of Forest-Trees:"Ale and beer brewed with these berries, being ripe, is an incomparable drink, familiar in Wales, where this tree is reputed so sacred, that there is not a churchyard without one of them planted in it..."
Here are some ways to preserve autumn berries:
Quick and Easy Bramble Jam
Pick over your blackberries and remove any stalks and debris before weighing them. Tip them into a preserving pan or large dutch oven, and weigh an equal amount of sugar. Add the sugar to the pan and bring quickly to boiling point, then allow to boil for three minutes. Fill your jars and enjoy through the winter months.
4 cups rowan berries (preferably from European mountain ash, sorbus aucuparia which produces sweeter berries than the North American native sorbus americana.)
2 or 3 apples, peeled and quartered
1 cup sugar for each cup juice
Cover the washed berries and apples with water. Simmer about 40 minutes or until water is red and berries are very soft. Strain off the juice, but do not press the fruit or the jelly will become clouded. Measure the juice and return it to the pan. Add equivalent amount of sugar. Boil rapidly for half an hour or until some of it sets quickly on a plate when cold. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Rowan jelly is traditionally used on roasted meats, but is good on any savory dish.
8 cups elderberries
A piece of ginger about the size of your hand
Cut the ginger in slices (no need to peel) and put in a pot with 8 cups of elderberries. Cover with water a few inches above contents, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1-2 hours till it is reduced to a little over half.
When it is done simmering, let it cool to room temperature and strain, squeeze and strain again, to get a good clean liquid. Add about a cup of honey, or enough to make it as sweet as you like it.
This makes a super-delicious syrup. You need to keep it refrigerated because it is not like the cordial that has alcohol that will preserve it. Good for soothing sore throats from winter colds as well.
(Thanks go to Liz Parks for this recipe!)