The memory of trees: Part 3


The Vine Path: M G NG ST R

(x downward sloping lines across the stemline)


Tree-letter #11 (3-1): M-Muin-Vine (Afrikaans: Wingerdstok)

Common name: Grape vine

Botanical name: Vitis vinifera (member of Vitaceae, the grape family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Vitis are vigorous deciduous climbing shrubs with tendrils and attractively lobed leaves, insignificant green flowers followed by often edible fruits; some have excellent autumn foliage colour. (RHSPS) ♣ This grape vine is a vigorous, high-powered tendril climber, which can easily cover a house wall if left unchecked, covering it in large, lobed, bright green summer leaves up to 15cm long. The tiny green summer flowers are followed by late summer bunches of small grapes. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Thorny, rambling shrubs (CWT – based on the alternative tree association of Bramble)

Status in SA: Vitis vinifera originates from Orient and northwest India and is widely grown for production of table grapes, grapejuice, wine and vinegar (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Wine was traditionally drunk at important ceremonies, to honour the dead, and used as a libation (ritual offering to the gods). ♣ Celtic interlacing knotwork may have been inspired by vines. ♣

Symbolic meanings: achievement, indulgence, celebration




Tree of Pleasure


“And we came to the Isle of Fruits: all round from the cliffs and the capes,

Purple or amber, dangled a hundred fathom of grapes,

And the warm melon lay like a little sun on the tawny sand,

And the fig ran up from the beach and rioted over the land,

And the mountain arose like a jewell’d throne thro’ the fragrant air,

Glowing with all-colour’d plums and with golden masses of pear,

And the crimson and scarlet of berries that flamed upon bine and vine,

But in every berry and fruit was the poisonous pleasure of wine;

And the peak of the mountain was apples, the hugest that ever were seen,

And they prest, as they grew, on each other, with hardly a leaflet between,

And all of them redder than rosiest health or than utterest shame,

And setting, when Even descended, the very sunset aflame;

And we stay’d three days, and we gorged and we madden’d, till every one drew

His sword on his fellow to slay him, and ever they struck and they slew;

And myself, I had eaten but sparely, and fought till I sunder’d the fray,

Then I bad them remember my father’s death, and we sail’d away.”

The Voyage of Maeldune, Alfred Lord Tennyson

(based on Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin)



Government and virtues: This is a fine plant of the Sun. The dried fruit, as it comes to us from abroad, under the names of raisins and currants, is good in coughs, consumptions, and other disorders of the breast. Wine is a product of the grape, and of this there are several kinds used in medicine … used dietically, they are of service to the aged, the weak, and the relaxed … but in opposite circumstances, they are improper, and, used to excess, highly prejudicial.”

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, Nicholas Culpeper




Tree-letter #12 (3-2): G-Gort-Ivy (Afrikaans: Klimop)

Common name: Ivy

Botanical name: Hedera helix (member of Araliaceae, the ivy family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Hedera are evergreen climbing shrubs clinging by aerial roots. Clusters of small yellow-green flowers are followed by usually black berries. Foliage of flowering shoots is often less deeply lobed than that of the sterile, climbing shoots. (RHSPS) ♣ A single English ivy plant can find many uses all round the garden. It can be used to cover a wall in shade where few other plants thrive, it can be trained to climb up or spread out along a low wall. Being evergreen, it is perfect for covering pergola poles, or creating a leafy backdrop under clematis and climbing roses that provides winter interest. Or use young plants to train around the outsides of winter hanging baskets. English ivy can be trimmed into shape at any time of year. It is a valuable plant for wildlife, particularly for providing berries for birds in winter when most others have been eaten. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Creepers, climbers, lianas, and so on (CWT)

Status in SA: Hedera helix is commonly grown as a garden climber (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Ivy was traditionally associated with marriage and femininity. ♣ Ivy was included in wedding bouquets and bridal wreaths as a symbol of everlasting love and fidelity. ♣ Ivy was a symbol of the vine and wine. Taverns used to decorate their signboards with an ivy bush or picture of one to advertise a high-class inn serving wine. ♣

Symbolic meanings: affection, partnership, perseverance





Tree of Marriage


“Three trees are good in nature:

The holly, the ivy and the yew,

which keep their leaves throughout their lives:

I am Trystan’s as long as he lives!”

A Welsh Tristan Episode, Tom Peete Cross

In the love story of Trystan and Essylt (one of many versions), the Welsh hero Trystan and King Mark competed for the affections of Essylt who was married to King Mark but was in love with Trystan. King Arthur intervened and declared that one man should live with her when the trees were in leaf and the other when they were bare. King Mark chose first, choosing the latter because the winter nights are longer, but Essylt cited the evergreen trees that keep their leaves throughout the year enabling her to stay with Trystan always.


“A Combined Vocabulary

Ivy: friendship (Latour, Shoberl), reciprocal tenderness (Delachénaye), fidelity in friendship (Phillips), matrimony (Wirt)”

The Language of Flowers: A History, Beverly Seaton


Ivy was traditionally considered a symbol of marriage as a result of its clinging habit and evergreen nature.




Tree-letter #13 (3-3): NG-(n)Gétal-Broom (Afrikaans: Brem, Besembos)

Common name: Broom, Besom

Botanical name: Cytisus scoparius (member of Fabaceae, the legume family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description: Cytisus scoparius is an erect deciduous shrub with slender green shoots bearing small, ternate leaves and axillary clusters of pea-like bright yellow flowers in late spring. (RHSPS)

Tree substitute: Any reed, rush or grass (CWT – based on the alternative tree association of Reed)

Status in SA: Cytisus scoparius naturalized (declared Category 1 weed) and a further 8 Cytisus species and one hybrid cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Broom’s flexible stems were traditionally used to make besom brushes for household brooms and baskets and used for thatching.♣

Symbolic meanings: cleansing, healing, domesticity




Trees of Cleansing


“The original household broom was a bunch of the actual broom plant … tied round a stick. ‘Broom! Green broom!’ was an old street cry, used by vendors of broom-bunches for this purpose … When broomsticks or besoms began to be made of more durable materials than the broom plant, the usual combination of woods for them was birch twigs for the brush, an ashen stake for the handle, and osier willow for the binding. However, in the Wyre Forest area of Worcestershire, the traditional woods are oak twigs for the sprays, which is the makers’ term for the broom part; hazel for the staff; and birch for the binding. All of these trees are full of magical meanings of their own, and feature in the old Druidic tree alphabets of Ancient Britain. The ash is a sacred and magical tree; the oak is the king of the woods; the hazel is the tree of wisdom; the willow is a tree of moon-magic; and the birch is a symbol of purification.”

The Broomstick or Besom, An ABC of Witchcraft, Doreen Valiente


“Another tool useful in magic is the besom, or Witches’ broom. Traditionally, it is made of an ash handle, a bunch of birch twigs, and bound around with willow. This besom, the broomstick of the flying crone, is primarily used for symbolically sweeping the magic Circle clean. It is also a symbol of domesticity. In some traditions a couple would step or hop over a broomstick as part of a marriage ceremony. The besom is a symbol of sexuality, and for the woman, stepping over the broomstick represented a transition from the Maid to the Mother.”

March, Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli




Tree-letter #14 (3-4): ST-Straif-Blackthorn (Afrikaans: Kersieboom)

Common name: Blackthorn, Sloe

Botanical name: Prunus spinosa (member of Rosaceae, the rose family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Prunus spinosa is a small thorny deciduous tree with dark green, ovate leaves, and small white flowers in early spring, followed by ovoid, bloomy black fruits 1.5cm across. (RHSPS) ♣ Blackthorn is a common species of the North European countryside with its dense spiny branches and familiar sloes in autumn. (WTTG) ♣ This deciduous, spiny shrub is an excellent choice for a natural, informal hedge. It provides interest throughout the year and makes a good barrier against livestock. If left unclipped, plants eventually form a small freestanding tree, suitable for a large informal garden. It produces a mass of white flowers during early spring, followed by mid-green, oval leaves. In autumn, spherical, black fruits are produced called sloes, which are particularly attractive to birds and often used to flavour gin. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Spiny flowering trees or shrubs bearing fruit (CWT)

Status in SA: 1 native species Prunus africana (red stinkwood), 2 Prunus species naturalized and 23 Prunus species and at least three hybrids cultivated including important commercial crops such as almonds, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches and plums (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Blackthorn was traditionally associated with faeries and witchcraft and was also believed to provide protection from harmful witchcraft, ghosts and evil spirits. It was considered unlucky to cut blackthorn on 11 May and 11 November (the old dates for Beltaine and Samhain). ♣ Apart from being grown in hedgerows, blackthorn twigs wound around the tops of fences served the same purpose as barbed wire does today. ♣ Blackthorn was used to make the Irish shillelagh, a walking stick with a knob at one end (similar to the African knobkierie). The shillelagh is considered a symbol of Ireland and officers of the Irish Guards in the British Army and some Irish regiments in Commonwealth countries are still issued with them today. ♣

Symbolic meanings: hostility, boundaries, complications




Trees of Hedges


“An eldern stake and black-thorn ether

Will make a hedge to last for ever.”

Dictionary of Plant Lore, Donald Watts

(“ether” means “header”, a rod placed along the top of a hedge to keep it in place)


“The best hedge-plant is undoubtedly the hawthorn, commonly called ‘quickset.’ … A hedge should be an effectual barrier against every kind of live stock; and to be so, it must be thick and close at bottom, rigidly stiff, and, including the bank, at least five feet high. This, while it gives perfect security against all trespassers, neither shades the land, nor checks the drying currents of the air; and whatever may be the manner in which it is made, it should be brought and kept as near to this standard as possible … As has been already stated, there is no better plant than the hawthorn, because of its uniform growth, hardiness, hostility, tractableness, and durability.”

British Husbandry, John French Burke


“Another thing that you will find out there is the sloe berry. I am going to give you the recipe for sloe gin, which I have to admit is something that we tend to make up for Christmas and it is lovely! It is the fruit of the common blackthorn which you will find in most hedges and a lot of the woodlands …

You will need:

 1 lb of sloes, trimmed and washed

2 pints of gin

4 oz sugar

a few drops of almond essence

Using a large needle, prick the sloe berries all over. This will let a lot of flavour out into the gin. Place them in a large mixing bowl and pour the gin over them. Mix well and add the sugar and almond essence. Stir it well until it is blended. Pour the mixture into a large jug or crock and cork it tightly.

Set the jug aside in a dark place and allow the mixture to infuse for about three months, shaking it occasionally. Sterilise and dry two bottles. Pour the mixture through a funnel, lined with a very fine cheese cloth, into the bottles. Squeeze any pulp remaining in the cheese cloth with your hands, to extract the liquid. Discard the remaining pulp. Seal the bottles and set aside for at least six months before drinking.”

Sloe Gin, Earth Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Margaret McArthur




Tree-letter #15 (3-5): R-Ruis-Elder (Afrikaans: Vlierboom, Gouevlier)

Common names: Black elder, Elderberry

Botanical name: Sambucus nigra (member of Adoxaceae, the muskroot family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description:Sambucus nigra is bushy large shrub or small tree to 6m, with pinnate leaves turning pale yellow in autumn, flat sprays of fragrant cream flowers in early summer followed by small black berries. (RHSPS) ♣ This common tree of hedgerows, woods, chalk downs and waste ground, elder was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of all plants. (WTTG) ♣ The best place for this vertical shooting, deciduous thicket of a shrub is the wild or cottage garden where it makes a fine hedge. It has sprays of tiny white flowers in early summer followed by small black fruit which can be cooked and eaten, or used to make a refreshing summer drink. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Blossoming, berry-producing trees that grow anywhere (CWT)

Status in SA: Sambucus canadensis naturalized in Zimbabwe and 3 Sambucus species cultivated including Sambucus nigra (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Elder was traditionally associated with faeries and witchcraft and also believed to provide protection from harmful witchcraft. ♣ Elderflowers are edible and are used to make fritters, syrup and cordial. Elderflower essential oils are used to flavour Sambuca liqueur. ♣ Elder stems have a soft white pith centre that can easily be hollowed out to make whistles, flutes, etc. ♣

Symbolic meanings: magic, fate, transformation




Trees of Magic


“Elder is the most important plant when connections with witchcraft, at least in folklore, are considered. From ancient times, it has been believed that some kind of spiritual being lived in the tree, whether goddess, fairy, witch, or the souls of the dead. That is why, along with hawthorn, there has always been an injunction against cutting elders down, or even lopping off a branch. Permission had to be asked of the being that lived in the tree. But belief went further, for in some cases, the elder actually was the witch.”

Dictionary of Plant Lore, Donald Watts


“At certain times of day, when the light is dim, the Rollright circle resembles a group of men, leaning and crouching together, and by the Middle Ages they had gained the popular name of the ‘King’s Men’. Standing fifty yards south-east of the King’s Men is a single monolith, called the King Stone, while 400 yards to the south-west are the ‘Whispering Knights’, five tall stones leaning together. This scattered pattern of boulders is known collectively as the Rollright Stones, and several poetic legends have grown up to explain them. In 1610 the historian William Camden recorded a rhyming cautionary tale about an ambitious king, a witch and some soldiers, all immortalized by features in the landscape. Camden’s story reads like a Cotswold Macbeth. As a king and his army were marching through the hills they met a witch with a tantalizing message for the king:

‘Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she,

If Long Compton thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be.’

Excited by the prospect of gaining the crown, the king set off eastwards, but on his seventh stride he found his view blocked by a hill, and the witch revealed the rest of her tragic prophecy:

‘As Long Compton thou canst not see,

King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up stick and stand still stone

For King of England thou shalt be none;

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,

And I myself an eldern tree.’

The prophecy came true as the king was turned to stone where he stood, while his petrified army became a ring of boulders. The witch was transformed into an elder tree, and the Whispering Knights, busy plotting the death of their king, changed forever into a group of leaning stones.”


At the Rollright Stones, The Cotswolds: A Cultural History, Jane Bingham

(“hoar stones” means “boundary markers”)




To be continued…


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