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Woodland Magic: Six Tales of Forest Folklore

Woodlands are one of my favourite places to walk, they are surely one of the best environments to appreciate the diversity of the seasons. All year round they seem to be bursting with life. From carpets of spring flowers to dense summer canopies and golden autumn colours to frosted winter branches, there is something magical to enjoy throughout the seasons. Delve behind this magic and you will discover the many tales of legend, superstition and folklore that are associated with our native trees…

Native trees have played an important role for humans for hundreds of years, providing shelter, building materials, food and fuel. With many trees having a lifespan much longer than a human, there is something both grounding and magical about these gentle giants. Our close relationship with woodlands and trees has understandably sparked many superstitions and tales of folklore about each species of native tree. Here are a few of my favourites.

Oak – Tree of Kings and Strength

oak leaf and acornOak, or English Oak as it is properly known, is the most common tree species in the UK, especially in central and southern deciduous woods. As oaks mature they can grow to between 20 and 40 metres tall and form a broad and spreading crown with sturdy branches beneath. Their open canopy means light is able to penetrate through to the woodland floor, allowing bluebells and primroses to grow below. Oak forests provide a rich habitat and they support more life forms than any other native trees. They host hundreds of species of insect, supplying many British birds with an important food source.

The oak is held in high regard across many cultures and, in the UK, it is considered to be the King of British Trees. Royalty has had a long association with oak trees; ancient kings adorned themselves with crowns of oak leaves, King Charles II hid from his pursuers in an oak tree at Boscobel House and Roman Emperors were presented with crowns of oak leaves during victory parades.

The oak was sacred to many gods including Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Roman) and Dagda (Celtic). Each of these gods ruled over thunder and lightning, and oak trees are prone to lightning strikes as they are often the tallest living feature in the landscape. Druids frequently practised and worshipped their rituals in oak groves and cherished the mistletoe that frequents oak tree branches.

The oak has for centuries been a national symbol of strength and survival. It has played an important part in our culture – couples were wed under ancient oaks in Oliver Cromwell’s time, the festive Yule Log was traditionally cut from oak, it features on the 1987 pound coin and is the inspiration for the emblem of many environmentally focused organisations, including the Woodland Trust.

Beech – Tree of Queens and Good Fortune

Beech trees are large majestic trees that can grow to a height of more than 40 metres, with a huge domed regal crown. They can live for hundreds of years, sometimes even thousands with regular coppicing.  Beech woodland is shady and is characterised by a dense carpet of fallen leaves and husks from beech nuts, which prevent most woodland plants from growing. Only specialist shade tolerant plants (including some rare orchids) can survive beneath the canopy of the huge beech crowns.

Alongside this regal crown attribute, beech is also associated with femininity and is often considered the Queen of British Trees. Fagus was the Celtic god of beech trees, which were thought to have medicinal properties. The leaves would be used to reduce swelling and boiling them up would form a poultice used to treat scabs. More recently, beech essential oil has been used in aromatherapy to boost hope and confidence.

Forked beech twigs are favourites for divining and it is said that a beech branch can be used as a wand to open communication channels with the spirit world. Folklore dictates that if you carry small pieces of beech bark in your pocket, you will experience luck and success, and that powdered beech wood, when placed in your right shoe, will lead you towards your fortune.

yew stemYew – Tree of Immortality and Eternity

Yew trees are a native evergreen conifer, well known for living to a grand age of 400 to 600 years. Ten yew trees in Britain are believed to predate the 10th century. Unlike many other conifers, the common yew does not actually bear its seeds in a cone. Instead, each seed is enclosed in a red, fleshy, berry-like structure. The foliage and seed coat of yew contains a cocktail of highly toxic alkaloids.

Due to their denseness, yew trees offer exceptional protection for birds, as well as excellent nesting opportunities. Blackbirds, mistle thrush, song thrush and fieldfare enjoy the fruits (the fleshy red part is non-toxic, unlike the seed inside), as do dormice and squirrels. 

The longevity of yew, as well as its toxicity, has seen it associated with death and resurrection in Celtic culture. Yew trees have a historical association with churchyards. In England there are at least 500 churchyards where yew trees grow and where these trees are said to be older than the building itself. It is believed that yew trees were planted on the graves of plague victims in order to purify and protect them.

The yew tree is a symbol of immortality. The branches were carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals by tradition for many centuries. It is known as the ‘tree of resurrection’ and the ‘tree of eternity’ and is symbolic as the tree of life, which is very popular as jewellery pendants and symbolises protection, longevity, change, divinity and strength. In medieval times, yew was burned to assist in contacting passed over spirits.

Silver Birch – Tree of Purity and Fertility

Silver birch trees are named for their distinctive silver bark and mature trees can reach 30 metres in height. As the trees mature, the bark develops dark, diamond-shaped fissures. The open canopy provides the perfect conditions for grasses, mosses, wood anemone, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets to grow below. Silver birch provides food and habitat for more than 300 insect species and is particularly associated with specific fungi including milk cap and chanterelle. Slender and graceful, birch is sometimes known as the Lady of the Woods, and in legends birch trees sometimes assume female human form.

Silver birch are among the first trees to come into leaf each year and were therefore connected with fertility and the onset of spring. In Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, and a pregnant cow would bear a healthy calf.

In early Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. It was also thought to be an excellent purifier, so bundles of birch twigs were used to sweep away old spirits. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to purify their gardens.  Symbolically it represents sweeping out the old and making new beginnings. In terms of purity, the silver birch has recently been proven to be particularly effective in improving air quality. A 2013 study suggested that planting silver birch trees along busy roads could more than halve levels of harmful particulate pollution in nearby homes.

Elm – Tree of Death and the Underworld

Elm trees are native to much of Europe and can grow to a height of 30 metres. Elm is highly susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease which devastated populations of elms since it arrived in the UK in the 1960s. As a result, the elm is now found infrequently.

Elm wood is strong and durable with a tight-twisted grain and is resistant to water. It has been used in decorative turning, and to make boats and boat parts, furniture, wheel hubs, wooden water pipes, floorboards and coffins. Before metal was widely available, many English towns had elm water mains, including Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Southampton, Hull and Liverpool. 

Elm has long been associated with death, perhaps because the trees can drop dead branches without warning. It was once used to build gallows and coffins were made from its wood. In Lichfield it was the custom to carry elm twigs in a procession around the Cathedral Close on Ascension Day, then to throw them in the font.

To the Celts, elm was associated with elves and the passage to the Underworld. It had similar connotations in Greek mythology, with the first elm tree said to have grown on the spot where Orpheus played his harp after rescuing his wife Eurydice from the Underworld.

Rowan – Tree of Protection and Fighting Evil

rowan tree berryRowan is also known as the mountain ash because it is able to survive high altitudes, and also because its pinnate leaves are very similar to those of the common ash. The tree is well known for its stunning white spring flowers followed by striking bursts of bright red berries in late summer to early autumn. It is a deciduous tree known to grow up to 15 metres in height and to live up to 200 years. The rowan tree has a few other alternative names including witch wiggin, keirn and cuirn.

The berries are enjoyed by many birds including the blackbird, the mistle and song thrush, the redstart, redwing, waxwing and fieldfare. The flowers of the tree are rich in pollen and nectar, so attractive to bees and other pollinating insects.

The rowan tree was thought to be home to faeries due to its white flowers. The colour red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil, and so the rowan, with its bright red berries, has long been associated with magic and witches. It was considered to act as protection against witchcraft and enchantment, often being carried around by individuals and hung from cattle. Years ago, rowan trees were often planted by householders to protect against witches. The Celtic name for the rowan tree is ‘fid na ndruad’, meaning ‘wizards’ tree’. People would often use rowan wood to stir milk to prevent it curdling and as a pocket charm against rheumatism, and it was also used to make divining rods.

Why not enjoy an iFootpath Woodland Walk. 

25 October 2018

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