Trees in folklore

Our native trees have been steeped in myth and legend for thousands of years, each having their own magical associations and stories. 

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Ash trees have a variety of folklore myths surrounding them

Ash trees have a variety of folklore myths surrounding them © Henry Arden / Getty

 

Ash (above)

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.

 

Hazel

Oval fruits develop into a nut surrounded by a woody shell © Petr Gross / Getty

 

Hazelnuts were 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.

 

Aspen

Aspen is sometimes known as quaking aspen © UGI Premium / Getty 

 

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.

 

Birch

Downy birch is found on damper soils than silver birch © James Leynse / Getty

 

The two birch species (downy birch and silvery birch) are among the first trees to come into leaf each year and was therefore connected with fertility and the onset of spring. It was also thought to be a purifier, so bundles of birch twigs were used to sweep away old spirits, cementing its association as the species used to make witches brooms.

 

Elm

The population of elm trees in the UK has declined dramatically since the arrival of Dutch elm disease © Calum Davidson / Getty 

 

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.

 

Cherry

The fruits of wild cherry are eaten by a wide variety of birds © Arterra / UIG / Getty

 

This tree was often connected with the cuckoo, with the belief that the bird could only stopping singing once it had eaten its fill of cherries three times over.

 

Rowan

Rowan is hermaphrodite (each flower contains both male and female reproductive parts) © Geography Photos / Getty

 

Also known as mountain ash, this tree was thought to be home to faeries due to its white flowers. It was therefore considered to act as protection against witchcraft and enchantment, often being carried around by individuals and hung from cattle.

 

Yew

Yew does not bear its seeds in a cone, unlike many other conifers © Les Stocker / Getty

 

The longevity of yew, as well as its toxicity, has seen it associated with death and resurrection in Celtic culture. Some of the oldest individuals, such as The Fortingall Yew in Scotland, could between 3,000 and 9,000 years old.

 

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