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More Woodland Magic: Six More Tales of Forest Folklore

Following the popularity of last month’s blog which explored tales of legend, superstition and folklore that are associated with our most common native trees, this month we explore six more trees. This time the focus is on hedgerow species and less common trees. Discover a world of fortune, shields, wisdom and love…

Cherry – Tree of Fortune and Cuckoos

There are many types of cherry tree; all of them part of the same family that produces peaches, plums and apricots. The wild cherry is native to the UK. Anyone that has tried to grow cherry for its crop knows that you have to be quick with the harvest. It is a battle against the birds that will probably have had their beady eyes on the developing fruits for some time. The second part of the botanical name of the wild cherry, avium, means birds, so now you know how it got its name.

Wild cherry folklore is also associated with the cuckoo. It was said that this bird cannot stop singing until it has eaten three good meals of cherries. In Scotland, the wild cherry is known as gean. This is thought to have been derived from guigne, a French word for cherry.

The wild cherry is thought to have had enigmatic qualities according to Highland folklore and in those days, to come across a wild cherry tree was considered fortunate. Years ago, the resin that leaks from the trunk was recorded as a cough treatment and was often dissolved in wine to treat gall stones and kidney stones.

aspen catkinsAspen – Tree of Protection and Shields

Aspen is a particularly striking, eye-catching tree with leaves that shimmer and appear to tremble in the breeze due to their flat stems. Its Latin name, Populus tremula, literally translated means ‘trembling poplar’ and the tree is also known as the quaking aspen.

The Greek name for aspen, Aspis, means shield, which was one of the various traditional uses of its timber. Aspen wood being naturally lightweight is also commonly used to make paddles, oars and surgical splints.

It is said that an aspen leaf crown will give the wearer the power to visit and return safely from the underworld. Aspen wood was used to make Celtic shields, not just because it was lightweight, but also because it was believed to have magical properties of protection. For the same reason, it was also frequently planted near houses.

Hazel – Tree of Knowledge and Wisdom

Hazel is a broadleaf tree native to the UK. Hazel is often coppiced, but when left to grow it can reach 12 metres in height. In the UK it is often found in the understorey of lowland oak, ash or birch woodland, and is also found in scrub and hedgerows.

In woodland where hazel is coppiced, the open wildflower-rich habitat supports many species of butterfly. Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler. Hazel has long been associated with the dormouse. Not only are hazel nuts used by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but in spring the leaves are a good source of caterpillars, which dormice also eat.

Hazel is associated with knowledge and wisdom, with an ancient Celtic story telling of nine hazel trees that grew around a sacred pool. The nuts fell into the water and were eaten by salmon, who had the nuts’ wisdom bestowed upon them. The number of bright spots on the salmon was thought to indicate the number of hazelnuts they had eaten. Dowsing rods are traditionally made from hazel and ‘to crack a nut’ refers to solving a problem.

Ash leafAsh – Tree of Healing and Medicine

Until recently, the Ash was the third-most common tree in Britain. It is currently being affected by a fungus causing dieback, meaning numbers have declined. When fully grown, ash trees can reach a height of 35m and are tall and graceful. Ash trees make the perfect habitat for a number of different species of wildlife. The airy canopy and early leaf fall allow sunlight to reach the woodland floor, providing optimum conditions for wildflowers such as dog violet, wild garlic and dogs mercury. Bullfinches eat the winged seeds and woodpeckers, owls, redstarts and nuthatches use the trees for nesting. Because trees are so long lived (up to 400 years), they also support deadwood specialists such as the lesser stag beetle. 

People have used ash timber for years. It is one of the toughest hardwoods and absorbs shocks without splintering. It is used for making tools and sport handles, including hammers, axes, spades, hockey sticks and oars.

Ash trees were thought to have medicinal and mystical properties and the wood was burned to ward off evil spirits. In Norse Viking mythology, ash was referred to as the Tree of Life. Even today it is sometimes known as the Venus of the woods. In Britain we regarded ash as a healing tree. Ash trees were thought to have healing properties, especially for children. Newborn babies would be given a spoonful of ash sap and sick children would be passed through the cleft of a tree or sapling in the hope that it might cure them.

Willow – Tree of Love and Mourning

There are several species of willow in the UK, including white willow, crack willow and goat willow. They are often found growing in wet or damp situations, such as beside rivers and streams. Willow wood is strong and flexible and traditionally used for basket-making and weaving.

Willow is associated with the moon, water and the ebb and flow of love and life. Many folktales tell of young men who find love by a willow tree, but often end in loss. Wearing a willow leaf traditionally indicated grieving for a loved one.

All willows were seen as trees of celebration in biblical times, but this changed over time and today willows are more associated with sadness and mourning. Willow is often referred to in poetry in this way, and is depicted as such in Shakespeare's Hamlet, with Ophelia drowning near a willow tree. In northern areas, willow branches are used instead of palm branches to celebrate Palm Sunday.

hawthorn berriesHawthorn – Trees of Enchantment and Fertility

The hawthorn tree, also commonly known as the May tree on account of its blooming period taking place during the month of May, is a bushy deciduous tree, small in stature and renowned for its dark red autumn berries which follow sprays of pretty cream flowers. The hawthorn is a very important tree where wildlife is concerned. It will provide sustenance for in excess of 300 insects together with a variety of moth caterpillars. Dormice enjoy the flowers, which also deliver a rich source of nectar for pollinating insects such as bees. Birds also particularly enjoy the nesting opportunities offered by the dense prickly foliage which provides excellent protection from predators.

The hawthorn or May tree is surrounded by much myth and lore and is respected as a tree of enchantment. It is said that the essence of the hawthorn tree cleanses the heart of negativity, stimulating forgiveness and love. Its flowers are said to help prayers reach heaven. Associated with May Day, the original May Poles were made of hawthorn. It is said that if you sit under a hawthorn on 1st May, you could well be whisked away forever to the realm of the faeries. Back in medieval times, hawthorn trees were woven into hedgerows and used to protect villages from highwaymen.

The tree of love and fertility, hawthorn’s flowery boughs are made into crowns, garlands and maypoles to celebrate the fecundity of spring. According to legend, a terrible fate awaits those who chop down this faerie tree.

The traditional saying, ‘Never cast a clout till May be out’ is long misunderstood, with many people believing it is suggesting you should not discard your winter clothing until the month of May is over. In actual fact, it refers to the hawthorn blossom, the May flower, so the true meaning is, until you see the hawthorn tree in bloom, keep those woollies handy!

3 January 2019

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