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Midsummer Night
by Des Kennedy
June 3, 2001

The swelling days of June climax with the great festivities of Midsummer, the time of the summer solstice when midsummer madness is said to be at its height. The moon, now in its first quarter, is known as the midsummer moon whose light is supposed to inspire lunacy. We could easily enough apply these ancient notions to the current antics of politicians and generals, but I prefer the sweeter lunacy of gardening.
No question about it, a garden is the place to be on Midsummer Night, although a woodland glade will suffice. As I’ve previously mentioned in this column, this is the very night upon which Oberon, King of the Faeries, gathers the magical seeds of ferns from which he derives his invisibility. According to an old Danish tradition, anyone waiting by an elder bush on Midsummer Night at midnight will see the King of Fairyland and all his retinue pass by and disport themselves in favourite haunts. 
This is precisely what I propose to do this weekend, and we’re fortunate to have not one, but two types of elders growing at our place. The red elder, Sambucus racemosa, flowers in early spring with lovely candles of creamy white blooms, followed by clusters of red berries that ripen in July. Robins and wood pigeons quickly strip the bushes of ripe fruit. The blue elder, S. caerulea, flowers and fruits later, its disc-like clusters of small flowers being highly attractive to bees and butterflies. The clusters of lovely blue berries that follow lure the wood pigeons back, along with big flickers that dance among the branches gobbling the berries. These two elders are natives, but very similar to the European elder, S.nigra, which has long been revered as a mystic plant, capable of curing all sorts of ills. I well remember as a little chap in England gathering bags of blue elderberries for my mum to make her elderberry wine. 
But back to faeryism. I realize the risks one runs even raising the topic, especially with a rather trendy fascination with faeries current in the marketplace. Nevertheless, belief in these tiny, sometimes mischievous, spirits runs through the folklore and literature of many cultures. Invariably, they are linked with gardens. So Wordsworth writes of “the mysteries that cups of flowers enfold / And all the gorgeous sights which faeries do behold.” And William Collins describes a fairy ring, said to be made by faeries dancing, where “Twilight fairies tread the circled Green.” 
All sorts of plants, typically small flowers of meadows, woodlands or mountains, are named for the little people. The fairy primrose is the old cowslip primrose, Primula veris, that blooms wild in fields in Britain and Europe. The fairy foxglove, Erinus, is a little tufted perennial bearing racemes of small purple flowers that’s native to the mountains of central Europe. Another mountain dweller, the fairy lantern, Calochortus, thrives in the Sierra and Rocky Mountains of the West. Small, tuliplike plants that grow from corms, they tend to be short-lived in gardens and far happier in their mountain haunts. 
Gracefulness distinguishes the fairy flowers. The fairy wand or fairy fishing flower, Dierama pulcherrimum, is native to South Africa, with swordlike leaves and tall slender arching stems that dangle pendulous bell-shaped flowers of mauve, purple or white. It’s especially fine hanging over a pool. Fairy grass, Briza media, is an annual quaking grass, native to the Mediterranean area, bearing graceful nodding bronze-coloured fruit clusters. Fairy flax, Linum catharticum, is noted for its delicate texture and small flowers. And fairy bells, Disporum, is a genus of flowering perennials, best suited to moist woodland gardens, that produce clusters of dangling bell-shaped greenish-white flowers in spring. 
Fairyland, the imaginary realm of faeries, is a place, like these plants, of charm and delicate beauty; a place perhaps difficult to imagine while bombs fall and school kids shoot one another. But its properties - enchantment, magic and illusion - are at the heart of every fine garden. At the risk of being hauled away by some psychological SWAT team, I’ll venture the opinion that a gardener’s highest calling is to create an environment in which faeries, nymphs, sylphs, dryads and other of the little people might find a favourite haunt. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking up my post beside an elder bush by the light of the midsummer moon. 

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