The memory of trees: Part 1


a world of meaning

in the memory of trees

unlocks the green door


“In ancient Celtic belief trees had spirits within them and were considered sacred. They were the keepers of memory and lore. The Druids, the men of knowledge, used to record their wisdoms by means of a secret alphabet called Ogham, which is also called the ‘Tree Alphabet’. Ogham is named after the God Ogma, the God of poetry and eloquence.”  The Memory of Trees, Only Time – The Collection by Enya, Roma Ryan

“Ogham is an alphabet of carved grooves. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, single or grouped. Notation for music; a visual code for sounds. These sounds become names and stories and folklore. Prehistory is the world before words. Ogham breaks that spell. Ogham is the first sound-byte.” The Alphabet Stone, Derek Hyatt


Ogham is an ancient Irish alphabet that was used in inscriptions on stone monuments found in Ireland and Britain, possibly to indicate land ownership. It is also a mnemonic system and a symbolic language that may be used for communication, divination and magic. The Ogham alphabet comprises 20 original letters (feda) in four groups (aicmí) of five letters. The first three groups contain consonants and the fourth group contains vowels. Five supplementary letters (forfeda) were added at a later date.

Each Ogham letter is associated with a sound, a letter name and words starting with the same sound from various categories (trees, animals, birds, colours, occupations, tools, people, places, etc.). Several of the letter names are also the names of trees and today the Ogham alphabet is primarily associated with the native trees of Ireland and Britain. Studying the Ogham as a symbolic language means learning about the physical characteristics, mythology, folklore and customs relating to these trees.

I have summarized the meaning of the original Ogham tree-letters based on my studies below, including three key symbolic meanings that capture the energy of each letter for me. Note that deciduous trees which lose their leaves in winter are generally associated with the warmer seasons and fertility, while evergreens are generally associated with winter and immortality.

Each tree-letter (fid) is drawn as x lines relative to a central stemline (druim), where x is the number of the letter within each group (aicme) from one to five. The orientation of the lines relative to the stemline differs for each group. As Ogham script was usually written and read vertically from the bottom up along the natural edge of a stone, I have described the letters from a vertical viewpoint below. (Note that Ogham was also used as a sign language, with the fingers of the hand displayed similarly about one’s shinbone, the ridge of one’s nose, etc.)

The short tree descriptions provided are extracts from The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Selector (RHSPS), The Woodland Trust A-Z Tree Guide (WTTG) and the The BBC Gardening Plant Finder (BBCGPF), where indicated. Any seasonal months quoted apply to the northern hemisphere. The tree substitute suggestions provided are from The Celtic Wisdom Tarot companion book (CWT) by Caitlín Matthews. The status of the plants in southern Africa is from Biodiversity Explorer (BE), an illustrated online guide to the web of life in southern Africa.

I have used the Old Irish tree-letter names from A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus. I have decided not to include the supplementary letters as there is much less documentation about them. Note that there are differences of opinion about the trees associated with specific letters.

beithe, b, is from the birch of the forest for the first letter on the path of the Ogham alphabet”  Auraicept na n-éces (The Scholars’ Primer, Calder translation)


The Birch Path: B L F S N

(x straight lines to the right of the stemline)


Tree-letter #1 (1-1): B-Beithe-Birch (Afrikaans: Berkeboom)

Common name: Silver birch

Botanical name: Betula pendula (member of Betulaceae, the birch family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Betula pendula is an elegant medium-sized deciduous tree with slender drooping twigs. Bark white, becoming black and rugged at base. Leaves ovate, yellow in autumn. Flowers in catkins. (RHSPS) ♣ The silver birch is a graceful and attractive tree with its light airy foliage and distinctive white peeling bark. It has been an inspiration to writers, poets and artists in every season throughout the centuries. (WTTG) ♣ The plain silver or common birch, sometimes called “the lady of the woods” because of its outstanding elegance, is a great landscape feature, especially in autumn and while still young – older trees can become enormous, but without dominating or shading the garden too much. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: The first tree to put on leaf after the winter, or trees associated with cleansing (CWT)

Status in SA: 11 Betula species cultivated including Betula pendula (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Birch was traditionally associated with fertility, new life and purification (a fresh start, spring cleaning, turning over a new leaf). ♣ Birch is a fast-growing pioneer and nurse species, providing a canopy and compost enabling other plants to grow in woodlands. ♣ Birch was one of the trees used to make maypoles for the annual Beltaine fertility festival. Lovers met under birch trees and birch wreaths and twigs were given as tokens of love and encouragement. Birch was used to make cradles for babies. ♣ The bodies of the dead were covered with birch branches and birch bark with blessings written on them, to represent rebirth. ♣ Birch was used to make besoms (broomsticks). Birch rods and switches were used to drive out “evil spirits” from children, criminals and lunatics and for “beating the bounds”, an annual custom of marking parish boundaries and driving out the spirits of the old year during New Year celebrations. Birch twigs were carried on one’s person for protection and birch branches were placed over cradles to protect babies. ♣

Symbolic meanings: beginnings, purity, beauty


Tree of Beauty


“The Silver Birch is a dainty lady,

She wears a satin gown”   Child’s Song in Spring, Edith Nesbit


“Beneath yon birch with silver bark,

And boughs so pendulous and fair,

The brook falls scatter’d down the rock:

And all is mossy there!”   The Ballad of the Dark Ladie, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


“And hark, the noise of a near waterfall!

I pass forth into light – I find myself

Beneath a weeping birch (most beautiful

Of forest trees, the Lady of the Woods)”   The Picture or the Lover’s Resolution, Samuel Taylor Coleridge



Government and virtues: It is a tree of Venus.” Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, Nicholas Culpeper


Tree-letter #2 (1-2): L-Luis-Rowan (Afrikaans: Lysterbessieboom)

Common name: Rowan, Mountain ash, Quicken

Botanical name: Sorbus aucuparia (member of Rosaceae, the rose family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Sorbus aucuparia is an upright deciduous tree with pinnate leaves turning yellow in autumn, and flat clusters of white flowers in late spring, followed by orange-red berries in early autumn. (RHSPS) ♣ The rowan is an attractive, slender tree with silvery-brown bark, creamy-white spring flowers and clusters of brilliant scarlet autumn berries. (WTTG) ♣ The mountain ash or rowan is a native European tree, especially in high altitudes where its robust hardiness ensures its survival. Once credited with magical powers and often planted near dwellings as an insurance against misfortune, it is widely planted in gardens, both as the species and in its many varieties. The trees tolerate a wide range of soils and sites, regularly producing huge crops of bright red berries in dense pendent bunches, which attract birds of all kinds. It succeeds particularly well in town gardens, and also when planted closely as a screen or informal large hedge. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Berry-bearing tree associated with magic (CWT)

Status in SA: 6 Sorbus species cultivated including Sorbus aucuparia (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Rowan was traditionally associated with light, protection and magic. ♣ The red colour of the berries is associated with fire and light and hence protection from danger and illness. The association with magic may be as a result of the fruit’s star seed pattern resembling the pentagram, an ancient symbol of good fortune and magic. Rowan was believed to provide protection against malevolent witches and faeries, “the evil eye” curse and lightning. Rowan trees were planted near gates and front doors of homes and in churchyards. Protective charms were made by forming an equal-armed cross from two rowan twigs tied together with red thread. Rowan twigs and protective charms were carried on one’s person, attached to the tails of cattle, and placed above entrances of homes, barns, stables and cowsheds. Sheep and goats were driven through hoops made of rowan branches. Rowan was believed to prevent witches from stealing milk and turning it sour. Rowan twigs were attached to milk pails, and butter churns and churn handles were made from rowan to ensure successful butter-making. ♣ Rowan is associated with music and poetry and is known as the “Tree of Inspiration” in the Bardic tradition. This may be as a result of it being associated with the goddess muse Brigid and fire, which is also a symbol of creativity, and it being an attractive tree popular with songbirds. ♣ Rowan was used to make rune staves, magic wands and dowsing rods for metal divining as well as spindles, spinning wheels, tool handles and walking sticks. Druids used rowan in rituals, focussing their incantations on rowan bonfires before important battles and sleeping on a platform known as “the wattles of knowledge” made from rowan in order to divine information in their dreams. ♣ Rowan’s contrasting bright green and red colours are said to have inspired Scottish tartan patterns. ♣ In Irish legend, serpents and dragons guarded rowan trees. ♣

Symbolic meanings: illumination, vitality, protection


Witch Tree


“Rowan-tree and red thread

Make the witches tyne their speed.” Popular Rhymes of Scotland, Robert Chambers

(“tyne” means “lose”)


“Margaret Barclay, who was a young and lively person, had hitherto conducted herself like a passionate and high tempered woman innocently accused, and the only appearance of conviction obtained against her was, that she carried about her rowan-tree and coloured thread, to make, as she said, her cow give milk, when it began to fail. But the gentle torture – a strange junction of words – recommended as an anodyne by the good Lord Eglinton – the placing, namely, her legs in the stocks, and loading her bare shins with bars of iron, overcame her resolution; when, at her screams and declarations that she was willing to tell all, the weights were removed … This unfortunate young creature was strangled at the stake, and her body burnt to ashes, having died with many expressions of religion and penitence.”  Letter 9, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Sir Walter Scott


A rowan charm was considered damning evidence in the witchcraft trial of Margaret Barclay in Irvine, Scotland in 1618. Barclay had been involved in a dispute with her husband’s brother who later died when the ship that he was the skipper of was wrecked after she was heard cursing its voyage. Barclay and an alleged accomplice were executed and two other alleged accomplices died in custody.


Tree-letter #3 (1-3): F-Fern-Alder (Afrikaans: Elsboom)

Common name: Black alder

Botanical name: Alnus glutinosa (member of Betulaceae, the birch family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Alnus glutinosa is a deciduous tree to 25m, broadly conical in habit when young, with grey-purple buds and young catkins conspicuous in winter, and rounded bright green leaves. (RHSPS) ♣ A native of Britain, but also found throughout the rest of Europe as far as Siberia, alder is a characteristic tree of wet places, marshes and stream-sides. (WTTG) ♣ Anyone looking for a suitable tree for damp or wet soil will find the common alder makes an ideal choice. It makes a handsome, medium-sized tree that stands around 25m tall and is often grown as a multi-stemmed specimen. It has lustrous green leaves with serrated edges and attractive male catkins which decorate the bare branches from autumn to spring. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Water-loving, leaf-shedding trees (CWT)

Status in SA: 7 Alnus species cultivated including Alnus glutinosa (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Alder was traditionally associated with war and battle. Sections of alder trunks were used as round shields and the wood was used to make high quality charcoal and gunpowder. ♣ Being resistant to decay when submerged under water, alder was also used to make among other things drinking vessels, milk containers, clogs, boats and piles supporting waterside buildings and structures including bridges. ♣ As alder wood appears to “bleed” when cut, it was considered bad luck to cut an alder tree. ♣ Alder was used to make whistles and pan flutes, and to produce dyes of various bright colours. ♣

Symbolic meanings: courage, resistance, support


Tree of Bran


“Why is the alder purple?

Because Bran wore purple.”  Taliesin riddle


“Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;

The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield;

Bran art thou called, of the glittering branches.”

“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle:

The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand:

Bran by the branch thou bearest

Has Amathaon the good prevailed.”  The Mabinogion, as translated by Lady Charlotte Guest


“Bendigeid Vran came to land, and the fleet with him by the bank of the river. ‘Lord,’ said his chieftains, ‘knowest thou the nature of this river, that nothing can go across it, and there is no bridge over it?’ ‘What,’ said they, ‘is thy counsel concerning a bridge?’ ‘There is none,’ said he, ‘except that he who will be chief, let him be a bridge. I will be so,’ said he. And then was that saying first uttered, and it is still used as a proverb. And when he had lain down across the river, hurdles were placed upon him, and the host passed over thereby.” Branwen the Daughter of Llyr, The Mabinogion, as translated by Lady Charlotte Guest

Alder is associated with the god, giant, king and hero Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed) in Welsh mythology. Bran is said to have used his giant body as a bridge to span waters and, after being mortally wounded in battle, his decapitated head had oracular and protective powers. Bran’s totem animal is the raven.


Tree-letter #4 (1-4): S-Sail-Willow (Afrikaans: Wilgerboom)

Common name: White willow

Botanical name: Salix alba (member of Salicaceae, the willow and poplar family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Salix are deciduous shrubs and trees of diverse habit, with simple leaves and tiny flowers in catkins, male and female usually on separate plants. Some are valued for their brightly coloured winter shoots, others for their foliage or showy male catkins. (RHSPS) ♣ Large trees are found in wetter areas but this wild version is rarely planted now that there are so many horticulturally created varieties available. (WTTG) ♣

Tree substitute: Trees that fringe rivers and creeks (CWT)

Status in SA: 1 native species Salix mucronata (Silver willow), 3 naturalized Salix species and 13 Salix species cultivated including Salix alba (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Willow is strongly associated with water and the Moon. As willow is usually found at boundaries between land and water, it was considered a gateway to the Otherworld in Celtic mythology (other such boundaries are the transition points in time between seasons, between waking and sleeping, and between life and death). ♣ Willow was used as a funerary herb, planted on or near graves, and a sprig of willow was worn pinned to one’s hat or clothing as a sign of mourning or a broken heart (referred to as “wearing the willow”). ♣ Willow was traditionally used to make Celtic harps. ♣ As willow branches are very pliable, they were used to make among other things wicker furniture, baskets, fish traps, fences, screens, wattle-and-daub walls and timber frames that were covered with animal skins to make coracles (small traditional fishing boats). ♣ Soft branches were knotted when casting wishing spells and willow strands were used to bind besoms and charms together. ♣ Willow bark contains salicin which is metabolized into salicylic acid in the human body and relieves pain, the observation of which led to the development of synthetic Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). ♣

Symbolic meanings: emotions, flexibility, subconscious mind


Tree of Waters


“Choose the willow of the streams,

Choose the hazel of the rocks,

Choose the alder of the marshes,

Choose the birch of the waterfalls,

Choose the ash of the shade,

Choose the yew of resilience,

Choose the elm of the brae,

Choose the oak of the sun.”

Carmina Gadelica, compiled by Alexander Carmichael



Government and virtues: The Moon owns it.” Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, Nicholas Culpeper


Tree-letter #5 (1-5): N-Nin-Ash (Afrikaans: Esseboom, Essenhout)

Common name: Ash

Botanical name: Fraxinus excelsior (member of Oleaceae, the olive family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Fraxinus excelsior is a vigorous deciduous tree to 25m, with pale brown bark, dark green, pinnate leaves and small deep purple flowers, followed by conspicuous bunches of winged fruits in late summer and autumn. (RHSPS) ♣ Ash is the fourth commonest tree species in Britain and is sometimes the dominant tree in a wood. It is found across Europe from the Arctic Circle to Turkey. (WTTG) ♣ This deciduous tree has attractive, dark green, divided leaves, usually with nine to eleven oval leaflets and a smooth, pale brown bark. It likes a sunny position in fertile, well-drained soil. It’s often found growing on hillsides, and is quite easy to identify in the wild in winter because it is the only native tree to have black buds. In autumn the leaves turn a rich yellow before dropping. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Tall, straight, leaf-shedding tree with seed-cases or pods (CWT)

Status in SA: 10 Fraxinus species cultivated including Fraxinus excelsior (BE)

Highlights: ♣ The tall, straight trunk of the majestic ash tree makes it a suitable symbol of the axis mundi, the central column or spine of the world connecting the heavens and earth. As a symbol of the World Tree, ash represents life, the universe, interconnectedness, the integration of different levels of existence in time and space, and the macrocosm reflected in the microcosm (“as above, so below”). ♣ The oak, ash and (haw)thorn are known as the Faery Triad, trees that were traditionally believed to be especially popular with faeries. ♣ Ash was believed to have strong healing powers and ash trees were used in various healing rituals. People especially children in need of healing were passed through clefts in ash trees. Ash and hawthorn trees were planted near sacred healing wells (“clootie wells”), where they are known as “rag trees” as pilgrims tied pieces of clothing or fabric representing prayers for healing or other assistance to their branches. ♣ Ash was believed to have power over water. Ash timber was incorporated into boats to prevent sinking and pieces of ash wood and equal-armed crosses made of ash were carried in sea crossings to provide protection from drowning. ♣ Ash is associated with the Welsh magician and hero Gwydion and ash is often the wood of choice for a magician’s wand. ♣ Ash wood is hard and strong and was used to make among other things handles for striking tools such as hammers and axes, spears, bows and arrow shafts, oars, walking sticks and sports equipment. ♣ Ash wood is considered the best firewood. ♣

Symbolic meanings: authority, perspective, interconnectedness


Sacred Trees


“In the mythical history of Ireland, a giant ‘as high as a wood’ with yellow hair down to his thighs and surrounded by a shining crystal veil once came out of the setting sun bearing a golden branch. On the branch grew apples, nuts, and acorns at the same time, and he gave some of the fruit to be planted in the five provinces of Ireland, where they grew into five sacred trees: the Ash of Tortu, the Yew of Ross, the Oak of Mugna, the Bough of Daithi (also an ash), and the branching Ash of Uisnech, which stood next to the Stone of Divisions, the sacred navel of the country. Here they grew to great height and girth as guardians of the land until they fell in the seventh century.” The Tree of Life, Kindling the Celtic Spirit, Mara Freeman


To be continued…


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