The memory of trees: Part 2


The Hawthorn Path: H D T C Q

(x straight lines to the left of the stemline)

Tree-letter #6 (2-1): H-hÚath-Hawthorn (Afrikaans: Haagdoring, Meidoring)

Common name: Hawthorn, Whitethorn, Thorn, May

Botanical name: Crataegus monogyna (member of Rosaceae, the rose family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description: Crataegus monogyna is a small, rounded deciduous tree with glossy, deeply lobed leaves and flat sprays of cream flowers, followed by dark red berries in autumn. (RHSPS) ♣ Hawthorn is one of the most common species of tree found in hedgerows and woodland throughout Britain. (WTTG) ♣ The thorny stems of hawthorn make it an ideal boundary hedge that will help keep unwelcome visitors out of the garden. This deciduous tree produces fragrant white flowers in late spring, followed by glossy dark red fruit. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Flowering, berry-producing trees that herald summer (CWT)

Status in SA: 2 Crataegus species naturalized in Free State and Eastern Cape including Crataegus monogyna and 6 Crataegus species and one hybrid cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Hawthorn was traditionally associated with summer and fertility and used in decorations for the Beltaine fertility festival. Hawthorn garlands were often placed at the top of maypoles or living trees at the centre of the May Day festivities. ♣ The oak, ash and (haw)thorn are known as the Faery Triad, trees that were believed to be especially popular with faeries. ♣ 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. ♣ It was considered very unlucky to cut a hawthorn tree, or to bring its blossoms indoors, except for May Day celebrations. ♣ Hawthorn was used to make small objects such as knife handles, combs, trinket boxes, brooches and talismans. ♣ Hawthorn was associated with the art of satire (the sharp thorns are symbolic of sharp wit and cutting remarks). Bards used hawthorn in sympathetic magic while cursing their enemies such as kings who did not reward them for their services. ♣ The word “haw” is etymologically linked to the English word “hedge” as well as the English word “hag” and the Afrikaans word “heks” meaning a witch or village wise woman. The word “hag”, derived from haegtessa meaning “hedge-rider”, may have arisen since witches often lived before or after the hedge enclosing a village, or because they were thought to straddle both this world and the unseen world. ♣

Symbolic meanings: sexuality, restraint, fulfilment




Trees of Summer


“At one time, May morning was greeted all over Europe with a foot stamping dance. The ONE-two-three rhythm woke up the Earth, ready for summer. In Cornwall they still do this; perhaps this is why they have better summers in this south-western county than the rest of Britain. Following the old ways, we go out early and find our specially chosen hawthorn, the one which has most blossom. Wearing our chaplets of flowers, we dance round it and sing the summer in. We have a piper and drummer, and sing all the way there and back.”  Welcoming the summer, Beltaine, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade


“Everyone brings about twenty yards of coloured ribbon, which we attach to a hawthorn garland. This in turn is attached to the oak, as high as we can manage. Then we do the weaving dance, plaiting the ribbons together as we weave summer, warmth, and good growth into the tree. There is music and singing, and once all the coloured ribbons have been woven together we tie them at the bottom with another, red, ribbon. Finally, we all join hands and dance – for as long as we have breath – sunwise round the tree to the familiar rhythm of ONE-two-three, and to the music of pipe and drum.”  Weaving the summer, Beltaine, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade


“Oak and May and Beltaine fire

In these we know but one desire

May all good people on the Earth

Come to Love and Health and Mirth.”  Spells, Beltaine, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade


“Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,

Or he would call it a sin;

But – we have been out in the woods all night,

A-conjuring Summer in!

And we bring you news by word of mouth –

Good news for cattle and corn –

Now is the Sun come up from the South,

With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!”  A Tree Song, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling




Tree-letter #7 (2-2): D-Dair-Oak

(Afrikaans: Eikeboom, Akkerboom)

Common name: Pedunculate oak

Botanical name: Quercus robur (member of Fagaceae, the beech family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Quercus robur is a large deciduous tree developing a magnificent, broad crown, the leaves with shallow, rounded lobes, turning reddish-brown in autumn. Inconspicuous yellow-green catkins among the young leaves. (RHSPS) ♣ The common, pedunculate, or English, oak is the commonest tree in southern and central British broadleaved woods. In fact, throughout Europe it has been the predominant timber tree since prehistoric times. (WTTG) ♣ This oak is familiar to anyone who knows the English countryside. It’s thought that trees can grow to more than 1,000 years old and their huge silhouettes dominate the landscape. The lobed leaves clothe the bare branches from late May or June. Acorns appear in summer, turning brown before they fall to the ground in autumn when the leaves turn yellow and follow them. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: The strongest tree (CWT)

Status in SA: Quercus robur naturalized in Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Oak was traditionally associated with the sun and good fortune. ♣ Acorns were carried on one’s person and used for decorative purposes to attract good luck and good health. ♣ The oak, ash and (haw)thorn are known as the Faery Triad, trees that were believed to be especially popular with faeries. ♣ Oak is struck by lightning more than any other tree. ♣ Oak is the sacred tree of Dagda, the chief deity of the pagan Irish, Lugh, the Irish sun god, and Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms. ♣ Oak is the tree most associated with the Druids, who performed their rituals in sacred groves of oak trees. ♣

Symbolic meanings: strength, establishment, prosperity




Noble Trees


“The Winter Solstice is the time when the waxing Sun overcomes the waning Sun, and this is symbolized by the struggle between the Oak King and the Holly King in some traditions. The Holly King is the death aspect of the God, and the Oak King is the aspect of rebirth, the Divine Child … The Yule Log is selected early in the year and set aside. It is traditionally of oak. Early in the season as you begin decorating the house with great sprays of fir and sprigs of holly, you might wish to adorn the Yule Log with traditional and symbolic greens as well. The bright green needles of fir represent the birth of the new year that is about to begin. The dark needles of yew symbolize death, in this case the death of the waning year. Trailing vines of ivy represent the Goddess as the female element, as do bare branches of birch, whose wintry appearance actually promises the return of Spring. Sprigs of holly with bright red berries represent the Holly King of the dying year, while the oak log itself represents the Oak King of the new year.”  December, Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli


“The Lord is Holly and is Oak

Two sides of one – so say our folk.

The Oak Lord goes, the Holly stays

To help us through the winter days.”  A Chant for Samhaine Eve, Samhaine, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade


“Hail to the returning Sun.

We drink to the Old Gods,

To the Holly, and the Oak, and The Lady.

A Merry Yule to all.”  Closing the rite, Winter Solstice, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade


Brehon Laws, Ireland’s native legal system prior to it being replaced with English common law in the 17th century, provided protection for 28 trees with penalties for harming them based on their status: “nobles of the wood”, “commoners of the wood”, “lower divisions of the wood” and “bushes of the wood”. Oak, hazel, holly, yew, ash, pine and apple were classified as “nobles of the wood”, also known as “chieftain trees”.




Tree-letter #8 (2-3): T-Tinne-Holly (Afrikaans: Huls, Without)

Common name: Holly

Botanical name: Ilex aquifolium (member of Aquifoliaceae, the holly family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Ilex aquifolium is a medium-sized evergreen tree, slow-growing when young, with dark, glossy green, undulate and usually strongly spiny leaves. Small, dull white flowers in spring are followed by bright red berries, on pollinated female plants. (RHSPS) ♣ Holly is our commonest native evergreen tree, it is so popular that it is widely grown in gardens and there are numerous cultivated versions grown for their colour. (WTTG) ♣ Common holly is a useful evergreen shrub that can be grown as a specimen tree, clipped bushes or as a hedge. There are dozens of varieties, many with variegated leaves. Plants are either male or female. Both sexes are required for the female plants to produce their winter berries, which appear from late autumn to mid-winter. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Evergreens with shiny leaves (CWT)

Status in SA: 1 native species Ilex mitis (African holly) and 9 Ilex species cultivated including Ilex aquifolium (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Holly was traditionally associated with the cold winter months when its shiny dark green leaves and red berries were especially noticeable. ♣ Holly was believed to provide protection from harmful witchcraft and lightning, and it was considered unlucky to fell a holly tree. ♣ Holly wood is very hard, heavy and white, and is suitable for carving. ♣

Symbolic meanings: permanence, challenge, endurance





Holy Tree


“Deck the halls with boughs of holly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

‘Tis the season to be jolly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la …

Fast away the old year passes,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,

Fa la la la la, la la la la …”  Deck the Halls, traditional Yuletide carol


“The holly and the ivy,

When both are full well grown,

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun,

The running of the deer,

The playing of the merry organ,

Sweet singing in the choir …”  The Holly and the Ivy, traditional Yuletide carol


“Clearly this refers to the Sun God in his aspect of the Holly King … The reference to the running of the deer suggests the God in his aspect as the Horned God of the Hunted, the Lord of Death.”  Yule, Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions, Pauline Campanelli


Holly was traditionally paired with ivy, with the holly and the ivy representing complementary masculine and feminine energies respectively.




Tree-letter #9 (2-4): C-Coll-Hazel (Afrikaans: Haselaar, Haselneutboom)

Common name: Hazel

Botanical name: Corylus avellana (member of Betulaceae, the birch family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Corylus avellana is a large, spreading deciduous shrub or small tree, with rounded leaves turning yellow in autumn, and yellow male catkins in early spring, followed by edible nuts in autumn. (RHSPS) ♣ A very common woodland tree or shrub that grows under the canopy of other woodland trees. Its history is intertwined to ours through the multitude of uses for the wood. (WTTG) ♣ Often grown as a large, multi-stemmed shrub rather than a tree, the common hazel has large, rounded, leathery leaves. Plants bear attractive, long catkins in spring which are followed in autumn by edible nuts. It responds well to coppicing and the resulting straight stems can be woven into screens and rustic plant supports. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Quick-growing, nut-bearing trees whose wood is useful (CWT)

Status in SA: Corylus avellana and Corylus maxima species cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Hazel was traditionally associated with wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. ♣ Hazel was used to make staffs, magic wands (especially wishing rods) and dowsing rods for water divining also known as “water witching”. ♣

Symbolic meanings: insight, inspiration, nourishment




Tree of Wisdom


“The hazelnuts of knowledge are dispensed over the healing well of Segais, near the source of the River Boyne, where the salmon of wisdom feeds.”  Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlín Matthews


Irish mythology includes several tales related to a well surrounded by nine hazel trees and the salmon of wisdom who feed on the nuts that fall from the hazel trees into the sacred pool below. The red spots on the skin of the salmon were believed to be the result of eating nuts or berries, considered food of the gods.

In the tale Echtrae Cormaic (“Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise”), King Cormac mac Airt discovered the well of wisdom and described it as a fountain with five streams flowing out of it and five salmon swimming in it feeding on the hazelnuts. He encountered the sea-god Manannán mac Lir who explained that his vision means that knowledge must be obtained via the five senses and also from the well of inspiration.

In the tale Macgnímartha Finn (“The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn”), the young Fionn mac Cumhaill acquired the thumb of knowledge while serving as an apprentice to the Druid Finnéces who sought to catch and eat the salmon of wisdom at Fec’s Pool in order to acquire poetic wisdom. Fionn mac Cumhaill was tasked with watching the salmon roasting over the fire and accidentally burnt his thumb which he put in his mouth to soothe it, inadvertently tasting the juices of the salmon and acquiring the salmon’s wisdom for himself.


“Here in this light-sphere ever one are we,

And ever wakeful, in our Selves eterne.

But, still life’s debtor, you must bear again

The body’s burden and the dreaming state

Beside the outer Boyne. Yet through the dream

Will flower a sweeter fate.

Control your will,

Peer often deep within the pool of Fec,

Peer often deep within the pool of thought,

And you will harmonize the wandering mind,

Recover sunken secrets of yourself,

Find love and light without you, as within,

And wake new wonder by the banks of Boyne.”  The Song of the Salmon-God, William Patrick Ryan


“I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.


When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire aflame,

But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.


Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.”  The Song of Wandering Aengus, William Butler Yeats




Tree-letter #10 (2-5): Q-Cert-Apple (Afrikaans: Blomappel, Appelboom)

Common name: Crab apple (Malus sylvestris), Orchard apple (Malus domestica)

Botanical name: Malus sylvestris, Malus domestica (members of Rosaceae, the rose family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Malus are small to medium-sized deciduous trees with showy flowers in spring and ornamental or edible fruit in autumn; some have good autumn foliage colour. Malus sylvestris is a small, rounded tree with ovate leaves and clusters of pink-tinged white flowers to 5cm across in late spring, followed by yellow-green, sometimes red-flushed fruits 2-3cm across. (RHSPS) ♣ The crab apple grows singly, sometimes woods will only have one tree. It is found throughout Europe and Asia Minor and can be easily confused with domestic apple trees which have escaped from cultivation and become naturalised. (WTTG) ♣

Tree substitute: Fruit-bearing trees (CWT)

Status in SA: 9 Malus species and 2 hybrids cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Apples are associated with the gods, immortality and the Otherworld in Celtic mythology. The word “apple” has historically been synonymous with fruit in general, and the word “paradise” derives from a Greek word paradeisos originally used for an orchard. ♣

Symbolic meanings: abundance, health, bliss




Tree of Plenty


“They rowed forward for a long time till there was shown to them a wonderful island, and in it a great grove of marvellous beauty, laden with apples, golden coloured and sweet scented. A sparkling rivulet of wine flowed through the midst of the grove; and when the wind blew through the trees, sweeter than any music was the rustling it made. The O’Corras ate some of the apples and drank from the rivulet of wine, and were immediately satisfied. And from that time forth they were never troubled by either wounds or sickness.”  The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra, Old Celtic Romances, Patrick Weston Joyce

The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra is one of several Irish tales of a sea voyage (imram) to the Otherworld, believed to lie across water to the west, representing a spiritual quest or journey.

In Celtic mythology, an apple or a branch from the Otherworld apple tree known as the “silver bough” or “silver branch” served as a passport to the Otherworld for heroes seeking spiritual enlightenment. The silver bough ensured safe passage, provided sustenance and made enchanting music when shaken leading to sleep and forgetting. Irish bards carried a branch with nine silver bells attached to it as a token of the mythical Otherworld apple tree.

Avalon, the final resting place of King Arthur in Arthurian legend and the British counterpart of the Irish Otherworld, means “Isle of Apples”. Avalon is associated with Glastonbury in the Somerset county of England which is famous for its apples and apple cider.

Apples, harvested in autumn and considered the food of the gods and the dead, are associated with the Samhain final harvest festival at the end of autumn when the veil between worlds is believed to be thin.


“Here we come a-wassailing …

And God bless you, and send you

A Happy New Year,

And God send you a Happy New Year.”  The Wassail Song, traditional Yuletide carol


The word “wassail” derives from the Old Norse ves heill meaning “be healthy”, “be whole” or “be well”. Apple trees were traditionally wassailed during winter to bless the trees and encourage good crops in the following harvest season. This custom entailed drinking a communal toast of mulled cider, beer or wine to the health of the tree’s spirit, singing and reciting poems, and pouring a libation of cider on the tree’s roots.

The tradition of wassailing households in a similar fashion evolved into the custom of door-to-door Christmas carolling and later exchanging Christmas cards, and there are also similarities between the tradition and trick-or-treating at Halloween.


Originally published here


To be continued…


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