The ancient forests were lush and thick. The trees grew to towering heights and their branches stretched wide. Multi-layered canopies with different types of branches interwoven like fingers. This pattern allowed just enough sunlight to penetrate and nurture the plant life below. With very little human disturbance outside of passing hunters or gatherers, the trees were healthy and dominant. Yet, as the time of mankind grew more dominant, things began to change. At first, when more humans interacted with the forest, it was in a non-destructive way. Some would even see it as beneficial. Fallen timber was gathered for firewood, keeping the risk of fire at a minimum. There were some strong green branches that were cut for arrow shafts and spears, but not to the degree of doing real damage. And a small number of trees were felled for construction purposes, but again, not to a damaging level. There was a great balance with people only taking what they needed to survive. The forests quickly regenerated and continued to prosper. It went without saying that everyone expected that the forests would remain intact for as long as they lived.
The Trees and the Druids
To add a point of reference, this analysis begins with the ancient European forests. There, the trees themselves were magnificent in all ways. Over time, each species was embraced and understood for its natural and magickal characteristics. Of all groups, the Celtic Druids were one of the first and most important groups that truly recognized the importance of trees. They saw that some were symbolic, others has medicinal uses, and still others were considered homes for the spirits of their land. Druids would often venture deep into the dark forests to meditate and commune with the trees. In fact, the word Druid originates as an ancient word for oak (dru), combined with (wid) – to know. Hence the Druids came to be known as people with knowledge of the oak trees. Those who possessed knowledge of the oak were believed to possess knowledge of all the trees.
Other cultures across the old world, outside of Celtic influence would also place values on their forests and their local trees. Some were prized for the fruits they produced; mainly the apple. pear, and plum, but also many others. Some placed higher value on hardwoods such as maple, hickory, and of course the many species of oak. Some societies prized the nut trees such as the pecan or black walnut. Unofficially, it seemed that each culture would rank them on importance and overall value. This can be confirmed by studying old manuscripts, in which there are many similarities. Trees were copiously written about and for that we are grateful as it provides us with a wealth of knowledge. However, it should be noted that every old world list had four trees in common. These are, in no specific order, the ash, the oak, the birch, and the yew. These are the forever trees of the ancient forests. Their history, value, and longevity seem to have lasted forever.
The common ash is a tall and very dapper tree, easily identifiable by its light grey bark. It is quite smooth in younger trees but becomes scaly and rougher as the trees age. One unique quality about ash trees which makes it easy to identify are its opposing branches. This trait is uncommon even if the entire world is considered. Common tree types with opposing branches are the ash, maple, dogwood, and horse chestnut. The leaves of an ash tree are compound, meaning each leaf has more than one leaflet while the entire leaf, as defined, has a bud at its stem base. Ash trees typically have approximately 5-9 leaflets per leaf. The illustrations below show both features.
There are 65 species of Ash trees. In our modern world, most varieties grow to between 50 and 80 ft., with canopies that spread up to 50 ft. Historically these trees were thought to grow larger, but sadly there are no data point to review for comparison. Ash trees are dense and the wood is hard but also elastic. Also, they grew very straight and had long lengths available for wood-workers. They were used extensively in construction of oars, furniture, tools and handles of all sorts; including brooms and weaponry. The leaves of an ash tree are dark green in spring and summer. As the season shifts to autumn, the cooler temperatures bring about a beautiful shift in the foliage. First the leaves turn a spectacular yellow before turning a purplish-red before dropping off as winter sets in.
Medicinal Use of Ash Trees
The Ash tree is seen as a symbol of long-lasting life, and in many cultures deemed sacred due to its curative properties. The leaves were used frequently as a laxative and diuretic. Additionally they were used to treat arthritic joints, and rheumatism and gout. This was due to the anti-inflammatory properties they have. The resin was extracted to make a form of chewing gum which was used in whole body cleansing. It was also used in smaller quantities as a sweetener.
Ash Trees in Myth, Magick, and Folklore
The most famous reference to the Ash tree can be found in Norse lore. The World Tree, was known as Yggdrasil, and it was an Ash. Allfather Odin, the ruler of Asgard, hung from the world tree for nine days and nights in exchange for wisdom. From that moment forward, the Ash was associated with divination and knowledge. In Greek mythology, the Meliae nymphs made their homes in Ash trees. In ancient Irish mythology, there were five trees which stood guard over the island. Three of them were Ash trees. In Great Britain Ash leaves were used for divination and to produce prophetic dreams. In some Celtic legends the God Lugh and his warriors were said to have carried spears made only of Ash wood. Additionally, Odin’s spear was made of Ash wood. Traditional Witches broom handles were also said to be made of Ash wood.
Ash wood has been cited in many ancient spells and rituals for divination, astral projection, and as a way to connect to other worlds. Across what is now the United Kingdom, babies in ancient times were fed Ash sap when they were very tiny as it was believed to prevent disease and death. Ash berries were placed in cradles to protect children from being snatched by a malevolent Fae and replaced with a changeling. The Celtic Tree Calendar has the Ash Moon from February 18th through March 17th.
There are over six hundred species of oak tress and they are found across the entire world. The live from 50 to 150 years. They come in many shapes and sizes and can generally be categorized into subgenus categories. The most common fall into two types, white oaks, and red oaks. Red oaks have leaves with pointed lobes tipped with tiny bristles. Their acorns take two years to mature and sprout the spring after they drop to the ground. White oak tree leaves are rounded and smooth. Their acorns mature in one year, and they sprout soon after they fall to the ground. Another type, the ring-cupped oaks have acorns with distinctive cups bearing rings of scales that grow together. The one defining factor that makes all oaks part of the family is the acorn. Regardless of how they look, their size, or their leaf structure, a acorn classifies them as an oak.
Oaks are the only tree species which produces acorns. Technically acorns are considered fruits since they contain a seed. But due to the fact they have a hard shell, they get categorized with nuts. The “oak nut” contains a single seed which can mature quickly anywhere between immediately up to two year. The acorn plays an important role outside of tree reproduction. It serves as a nutritious food source for many animals of the forest. Larger game animals such as deer and wild boar consume a tremendous amount of acorns. Smaller rodents and mammals also feed on acorns. Acorns contain high amounts of protein, fats, and carbohydrates and can be stored for consumption at a later time. Human beings also eat acorns in soups, ground and dried as flour, and as a type of coffee substitute.
Medicinal Use of Oak Trees
The Oak tree has an amazing natural medicine application. Parts of the tree have been used as an antiseptic, an astringent, and an anti-inflammatory. A tonic of boiled Oak bark was used for diarrhea and other bowel issues such as poor digestion. The same tonic was used as a mouthwash to treat bleeding gums. Boiled leaves were used leaves topically as an antiseptic, to reduce swelling and sooth damaged skin. The inner bark would be dried and ground to fine powder and inhaled to stop nosebleeds. Decoctions were also used to treat vaginal infections and as a gentle female cleanse.
All of these healing properties are possible because the Oak contains high levels of Tannins. Tannins bind with proteins in human tissue to create a barrier which is resistant to bacteria and infection. Tannins also reduce inflammation, strengthen blood vessels and tissue.
Oak Trees in Myth, Magick, and Folklore
The mighty Oak tree has the distinct accolade of being associated with more Supreme Gods than any other tree. The Greek God Zeus, the Slavic God Perun, the Celtic God Dagda, the Roman God Jupiter and the Viking God Thor were all associated with the Oak. The Druids had a special relationship with the Oak tree as noted earlier. They held their rituals in Oak groves and sourced mistletoe, their most powerful plant, from Oak trees. In Baltic mythology, it is the sacred tree of Pērkons, the thunder god who directs his thunderbolts against evil spirits.
Because Oak trees grew higher than every other type of tree, they were prone to being hit by lighting. In ancient times, this was seen as powerful magic. In Celtic tradition the Oak King rules the light half of the year, while the Holly King rules the dark half. Many cultures associated the Oak tree with Oracles and that they were inhabited by sacred spirits and creatures.
Birch trees are smaller than the Oak or Ash, growing from 30′ to 50′ tall. Canopies can range from 35′ to 60′. They live between 50 and 200 years, depending on conditions. They have light-colored, almost silvery bark which often is seen peeling away from the trunk and triangular shaped leaves. The leaves have serrated edges and are yellowish-green in summer turned to all yellow in autumn. Birch trees have a tendency to grow in what looks like clusters. The clusters can have three or more main trunks rising from the root system. Additionally they have shallow, sprawling root systems that often break through the surface of the ground.
Birch wood burns easily, even when wet and the bark is a great fire starter. It is dense and strong and used for constructing many things like cabinets. The leaves and sap from the Birch tree are edible and nutritious. Birch trees look similar to Aspen trees, but there is one distinct difference. The Birch tree has peeling bark. During the summer months, long clusters of flowers known as catkins hang from the branches. Each tree produces about one million seeds annually.
Medicinal Use of Birch Trees
Fresh leaves were gathered in the spring and dried for use in infusions. They were also dampened and used as an astringent and applied to to skin eruptions and other skin conditions. The bark was boiled and taken as a stimulant and tonic for digestive issues. Birch bark contains substances such as betulin and betulinic acid that give it medicinal properties. Also, soaked bark can be used as a cast for the broken arm. Alcohol steeped birch leaves and twigs are a great anti-inflammatory analgesic pain reliever. Making a tea of Birch leaves could be used to cleanse the blood and as a diuretic. Birch trees are host to Chaga mushrooms. These mushrooms were used in cooking and made into teas.
Birch Trees in Myth, Magick, and Folklore
In Celtic Mythology, the Birch represents femininity, grace, purity, family connections, protection, healing and new life. They were personified as a White Goddess. Cradles made from Birch wood were believed to protect babies from malicious spirits. The birch was sacred to the Goddesses Frigg and Freya in Norse legend. In ancient Welsh legend, the Birch tree was associated with Blodeuwedd, the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Maypoles were usually made of Birch, and Birch branches were used light the Beltane fires. The traditional Yule log is Birch.
Druids held that the Birch was the Keepers of Tradition and honored them as such. Birch twigs were used in traditional Witches besoms or brooms. Birch wands were used in cleansing rituals. Burning Birch twigs was seen as a way to keep evil spirits away and for fertility rituals. Cattle herded with a Birch staff were thought to produce healthier offspring. Planting a Birch tree at the front entrance of property will provide protection and repel evil influences and spirits.
The Yew is sacred among many ancient cultures. They can reach heights of up to 65′ and can live 400 to 600 years. There are at least 10 individual trees in Great Britain alone that are believed to be more than a thousand years old. They are nearly indestructible and are considered the most long-living tree in Europe. They are very slow growing with thin purplish-brown bark and flat dark green leaves. The leaves are arranged in spiral form, as are many other evergreens. They remain green year-around.
Yew wood has a very tight grain which makes it incredibly strong and durable. It is decay resistant and has a beautiful orangish-crown color. The wood is famous from military history as the wood used to make the Longbow. It is very flexible but very strong. It was said that demand for these bows was so strong that it nearly brought the Yew tree to extinction.
Medicinal Use of Yew Trees
All the parts of a Yew tree, except for the berries, are poisonous to humans. Even the seeds found within the fruit are considered a danger as they have a high level of taxine alkaloids which could be fatal if consumed. Some say that even touching the Yew or inhaling the air around them is dangerous. There are some animals, like the rabbit and deer and many birds, who can consume the seeds and evn the needles with no ill-effects.
In ancient times, parts of the Yew tree were made into an abortifacient, but the recipe has been lost to history. It was also diluted significantly and used to treat tapeworms, issues of the urinary tract, and mild seizures. The taxane alkaloids are used in modern laboratories to create anti-cancer medication.
Yew Trees in Myth, Magick, and Folklore
Yew trees have a long history of being associated with death. Yew potions were used as a suicide drug similar to Hemlock in some cultures. Older Yew trees branches droop and contact the ground, where they can form new roots and later new trucks. The Druids and the Celtic people associated them with both death and resurrection. Yew trees are found in hundreds of graveyards, often on top of graves of plague victims. Some think it was a purification ritual, but there is no proof. Hecate. the Greek Goddess of the underworld is associated with the Yew tree.
Yew trees were seen as symbols of immortality, but also seen as omens of doom. Wine barrels made of Yew staves were called, ‘the coffin of the vine’. Yew wood was used for wand making and dowsing rods. Other than bows, Yew wood was also used for arrows (which had some toxic effects), and other weapons to demonstrate bravery and power. It was believed that the longevity of the tree would be transferred to the one who wielded a Yew wood weapon. Those who wished to induce visions would sit near a Yew tree on a hot day and inhale the hallucinogenic vapor emitting from the tree. Also standing in the cloud of fine golden pollen is said to shift consciousness.
This article merely scratches the surface on these four majestic trees, but provides a base for more exploration. These trees are timeless and have been a crucial part of the history of humankind since its beginning. Without these trees, who can really tell where our world would be today, or if it would even exist. The next time you are in the forest, thank a tree. Take time to exchange energies with it and share in the magic of history.