My kitchen smells of summer because I have buckets of elderflower cordial under way.

This year the wide cream heads have enjoyed long hours of sunshine and this should ensure a good cordial. The trick is to pick dry flowers that smell of lemon fizz rather than cat wee, an odour that develops either in wet weather or as the flowers fade. My recipe for 30 heads, 4lb of sugar, 2oz of citric acid, two lemons and two and a half pints of boiling water needs stirring noon and night for five days, before it’s strained through muslin and then bottled. Each batch produces perhaps three to four pints, but on a winter Sunday the homemade thick sugary liquid, deleted with fizzy cold water, conjures up a glorious summer day better than anything else.

The common elder, Sambucus nigra, has always been associated with witchcraft, however, not summer fizz, and there are many legends. Witches were said to assume the shape of the tree, and legend has it that the Rollright Stones, north of Chipping Norton, were formed by a tree witch. It happened as a Danish army approached the hill. The witch is said to have jumped out and told the Danish King “seven long strides you shall take and if long Compton though canst see King of England thou shalt be.”

On the last stride a long mound rose up and blocked his view and his destiny was confirmed. The witch turned into an elder and the king and king’s most loyal soldiers were turned to stone, forming the king’s men and the king stone. The legend is further explored by the excellent children’s book by Penelope Lively, The Whispering Knights.

For me the elder is a gardening almanac. Its flowering signals summer has really arrived as surely as the dark berries toll the bell at the end. I spend my time winkling out seedlings every summer, dropped by birds who’ve enjoyed a feast. If you’ve ever had to remove a mature elder you will know that this wood is the hardest of all to cut. The tree is hardy and long-lived and in Japan the dark-leaved forms survive the harsh winters that see off most flowering shrubs. My forebears would have relished a self-seeded elder for its protective magical qualities and they certainly wouldn’t have cut the wood either, lest the witch returned in fury. The leaves could be made into a healing poultice and the bark was a strong purgative. Elder was also used as a diuretic and for cardiac and renal dropsies. It was also used to cure and prevent epilepsy and the ointment could be used for burns and scolds. My cordial may be doing me much good. Ornamental forms of elder are amongst the best garden shrubs. They fit into herbaceous borders really well and the dark-leaved forms have wonderful foliage and pink flowers.

The best two, ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Black Beauty’, were accidental. They came from East Malling Research Station in the mid-1990s when Ken Tobutt, a scientist looking at gene flow in the diverse genus of Sambucus, thought them too lovely to discard. Of the two I believe ‘Black Lace’, pictured above, to be better for it has more-divided, blacker foliage than ‘Black Beauty’ and pale-pink flowers. The dark foliage sets off pastel flowers and you could plant David Austin’s cupped soft-orange rose ‘Lark Ascending’, or plant the dark-stemmed delicate hemerocallis ‘Corky’. Both would work well, although you may want to remove the pink elder flowers for good taste’s sake.