The memory of trees: Part 4


 The Pine Path: A O U E I

(x straight lines across the stemline)


Tree-letter #16 (4-1): A-Ailm-Pine (Afrikaans: Denneboom, Dennehout)

Common names: Scots pine

Botanical name: Pinus sylvestris (member of Pinaceae, the pine family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Pinus sylvestris is a large evergreen tree to 25m, with the upper trunk and branches orange-brown, developing a picturesque, irregular outline with maturity. Twisted grey-green needles are borne in pairs. Cones 5cm in length. (RHSPS) ♣ The Caledonian Pine Forest, in the Highlands of Scotland, is the only true native pine forest in Britain and the Scots pine is the dominant tree. It is a hardy tree and is also found across northern Europe and Asia. (WTTG) ♣

Tree substitute: Conifers or needle-leafed trees (CWT)

Status in SA: 69 Pinus species naturalized or cultivated including Pinus sylvestris (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Evergreen pine was traditionally associated with Yule celebrations and the Christmas tree. ♣ Besides its healing properties, pine was believed to provide protection from evil and harm especially for newborn babies. ♣ Scots pine is the largest and longest-lived tree in the Caledonian Forest and is a keystone species on which many other species depend. ♣ Pine is cultivated primarily for timber (known as “deal”) and various products made from resin including turpentine. ♣

Symbolic meanings: objectivity, clarity, awareness




Tree of Music


“Beautiful are the pines which make music for me, unhired.”

King and Hermit, late 9th century Old Irish poem

Music and the Celtic Otherworld: from Ireland to Iona, Karen Ralls-MacLeod


“Where the forest murmurs there is music: ancient, everlasting.”

Where the Forest Murmurs: Nature Essays, Fiona MacLeod




Tree-letter #17 (4-2): O-Onn-Gorse (Afrikaans: Gaspeldoring, Stekelbrem)

Common names: Gorse, Furze, Whin, Prickly Broom

Botanical name: Ulex europaeus (member of Fabaceae, the legume family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Ulex europaeus is a bushy evergreen shrub with very spiny much-branched stems and solitary coconut-scented bright yellow flowers 2cm in length, mainly in winter and spring, followed by slender black seed-pods. (RHSPS) ♣ Also commonly called furze or whin according to locality, this is a western European native of dry sunny exposed heaths, cliffs and moorlands, where the single-flowered form can be found in bloom from spring to autumn. Its double, golden-yellow blooms, marked with red at the base of petals, are fragrant, with the scent of coconut. It’s one of the best shrubs for poor dry soils where little else will grow. The sunnier and less fertile the site, the more profuse the vivid yellow blooms. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Brightly flowering shrubs growing on heathland or poor soil (CWT)

Status in SA: Ulex europaeus naturalized in forest areas of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape (declared Category 1 weed) (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Gorse was traditionally associated with spring, especially the spring equinox. ♣ Gorse was used as fodder for horses and livestock, made palatable by being “bruised” (crushed) with implements such as mallets, mills or whin-stones. Controlled burning also encouraged fresh new growth more suitable for grazing. ♣

Symbolic meanings: optimism, enthusiasm, generosity




Tree of Passion


“‘When gorse is out of blossom,’

(Its prickles bare of gold)

‘Then kissing’s out of fashion,’

Said country-folk of old …

But this will never happen:

At every time of year

You’ll find one bit of blossom –

A kiss from someone dear!”

The Song of the Gorse Fairies, A Flower Fairy Alphabet, Cicely Mary Barker




Tree-letter #18 (4-3): U-Úr-Heather (Afrikaans: Heide)

Common names: Heather, Ling

Botanical name: Calluna vulgaris, the only species of genus Calluna previously included in genus Erica (member of Ericaceae, the heather family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Calluna are low-growing or dwarf evergreen shrubs with stems clothed in tiny overlapping leaves, and terminal, spike-like racemes of small, 4-petalled flowers with coloured calyces. (RHSPS) ♣ Calluna vulgaris is the native heather or ling of heaths and moorlands, and it has fathered many lovely varieties for massing in gardens as ground cover. They are generally summer or autumn flowering, and need acid soils and sunny sites for the best colour. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: Low, clustering aromatic plants growing in poor soil or hilly areas (CWT)

Status in SA: 752 native Erica species and a further 2 species cultivated, the greatest diversity is in Western Cape and Eastern Cape (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Heather grows profusely carpeting wild open spaces, hillsides and mountainsides. ♣ Heather flowers have a sweet scent that attract bees in late summer. Heather honey is highly prized and is an ingredient in Drambuie liqueur. ♣ Heather was traditionally used to make beer, colour dyes, ropes, baskets, bedding, thatching, insulation, besoms and fuel among other things. ♣ White heather was considered a lucky charm and used in bridal bouquets. ♣ Carved heather roots were used to make handles for the Scottish ceremonial dagger known as a dirk. ♣

Symbolic meanings: activity, community, accumulation




Tree of Knowledge


“‘Ask the wild bee for what the Druids knew,’ and ‘ask the children of the heather where Fionn sleeps,’ and the like, point to an old association of the wild bee and ancient wisdom.”

The Lords of Wisdom, Volume V, The Works of Fiona MacLeod


“Our treasure lies in the beehive of our knowledge. We are perpetually on the way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind.”

The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche


“Bees access the primordial knowledge in their circulation through the world and its flora. It provides their pollen. They gather it and return to the hive, a fact Nietzsche likens to our greed for information. They are one with the wind, which listeth where it bloweth – which is to say, spirit. They are initiates to ancient culture whose constatements are preserved in myth, legend, fairytale, and folklore, as an excess of charge or moving force that exists over and above the telling.”

Foreword, What the Bee Knows by PL Travers, David Appelbaum


“As the myth descends into Time and becomes the tales that old wives tell, we hear of the ‘Wisdom of the Bees,’ and the ‘Secret Knowledge of the Bees’, and are counselled, in Scottish Highland stories, to ‘ask the Wild Bee what the Druids knew’ …

The Sphinx, the Pyramids, the stone temples are, all of them, ultimately, as flimsy as London Bridge; our cities but tents set up in the cosmos. We pass. But what the bee knows, the wisdom that sustains our passing life – however much we deny or ignore it – that for ever remains.”

What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story, Pamela Lyndon Travers (author of Mary Poppins)




Tree-letter #19 (4-4): E-Edad-Aspen (Afrikaans: Abeelboom, Espboom)

Common names: Quaking aspen

Botanical name: Populus tremula (member of Salicaceae, the willow and poplar family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Deciduous

Tree description: ♣ Populus tremula is a small deciduous tree with a broad crown, sometimes suckering freely. Rounded leaves, bronze when young, tremble in a light breeze and turn yellow in autumn. Male trees have woolly grey catkins. (RHSPS) ♣ A beautiful and delicate tree which spreads by suckers off the root system, so creating entire groves of aspen. The Latin name tremula means to tremble and refers to the way the leaves flutter and move in the slightest breeze. (WTTG) ♣

Tree substitute: Any tree whose leaves give the appearance of quivering (CWT)

Status in SA: 4 Populus species naturalized and a further 8 Populus species and 1 hybrid cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Aspen was traditionally used to make battle shields. ♣ Aspen was used to make a rod known as a that was used by undertakers to measure corpses and graves for burial purposes. The was a feared object and the word came to mean woe or calamity. ♣

Symbolic meanings: animation, communication, mastery




Shiver Tree


“Willows whiten, aspens quiver,

Little breezes dusk and shiver

Thro’ the wave that runs for ever

By the island in the river

Flowing down to Camelot.

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle imbowers

The Lady of Shalott.”

The Lady of Shalott, Alfred Lord Tennyson


“Aspen tree, aspen tree, I pray thee shiver instead of me.”


This old folk rhyme was based on the belief that aspen could cure fevers and shaking disorders (from “like cures like”, the basic principle of homeopathy and also the etymology of the word from homeo meaning “similar” and pathos meaning “suffering”). Incidentally, aspen is a member of the Salicaceae family and like willow its bark contains salicin, the forerunner of synthetic Aspirin.




Tree-letter #20 (4-5): I-Idad-Yew (Afrikaans: Taksisboom)

Common names: Yew

Botanical name: Taxus baccata (member of Taxaceae, the yew family)

Deciduous or evergreen: Evergreen

Tree description:Taxus baccata is a medium-sized bushy evergreen tree with narrow, leathery, very dark green leaves arranged in two rows on the shoots, and insignificant flowers followed on female plants by fleshy red fruits (RHSPS) ♣ The yew tree is the most ancient of trees with some trees thought to be thousands of years old. In old age they have a distinctive gnarled shape with some branches curving down to the ground and taking root. (WTTG) ♣ Yew is a native British evergreen, whose wood was once used for making longbows. Young plants are bushy and, if left unclipped, they eventually grow into large trees almost as wide as they are tall. However they are rarely allowed to grow naturally, being a firm favourite for classic style hedges and topiary. (BBCGPF) ♣

Tree substitute: The longest-lived evergreen species of tree growing in your region (CWT)

Status in SA: Taxus baccata and Taxus canadensis cultivated (BE)

Highlights: ♣ Yew trees can live indefinitely as the branches reach down and take root in the ground forming new stems that grow up inside and around the original trunk forming multiple separate but interconnected trunks. ♣ Yews are a familiar sight in churchyards and many are older than the church next to them. ♣ Yew was the wood of choice used for making longbows which resulted in overharvesting across Europe for centuries before the invention of firearms. ♣ Yew was used to make magic wands and staves used in magic and divination. In Irish mythology (“The Wooing of Étaín”), a Druid used wands of yew inscribed with Ogham letters to divine the whereabouts of a missing woman. ♣ Yew bark and leaves are used in the manufacture of a chemotherapy drug used in cancer treatment. ♣

Symbolic meanings: death, rebirth, transition





Tree of Immortality


“The Yew is great in age and girth

A symbol of both death and birth.

Endings and beginnings it will spin

At Samhaine, when the veil is thin.

Three times round its girth we tread

Releasing mourners from their dread.

A knife to cut the spirit free

From bonds imposed by family.

A bow to make the spirit fly

To resurrection by and by.

A sprig for mourners all we take,

To give them peace for their own sake.”

A Samhaine Spell for A Bereavement, Samhaine, Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide, Paddy Slade




♥ Tree Blessing ♥


“Good is the season of peaceful summer;

The council of the trees gather together,

A band unshaken by the whistling wind,

A green gathering in the sheltered woods;

Eddies swirl the stream,

Good is the warm turf under us.”

Blessing of the Seasons, The Little Book of Celtic Blessings, Caitlín Matthews




Selected bibliography:

A Complete Guide to Divination by Cassandra Eason

An ABC of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente

Ancient Ways: Reclaiming Pagan Traditions by Pauline Campanelli

Auraicept na n-éces (The Scholars’ Primer, Calder translation)

Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism by Isaac Bonewits

Celtic Wisdom by Andy Baggott

Celtic Wisdom Sticks by Caitlín Matthews

Collins Gem Trees by Alastair Fitter and David More

Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop

Earth Magic: A Seasonal Guide by Margaret McArthur

Earth Wisdom by Glennie Kindred

Kindling the Celtic Spirit by Mara Freeman

Natural Magic: A Seasonal Guide by Paddy Slade

Ogam by Paul Rhys Mountfort

Ogham The Celtic Oracle by Andy Baggott and Peter Pracownik

The Celtic Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray

The Celtic Wisdom Tarot by Caitlín Matthews

The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer

The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlín and John Matthews

The Green Man Tree Oracle by John Matthews and Will Worthington

The Meaning of Trees by Fred Hageneder

The Spirit of Trees by Fred Hageneder

The Tree Ogham by Glennie Kindred

The Wisdom of Trees by Jane Gifford

Tree Wisdom by Jacqueline Memory Paterson

Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life by Pauline Campanelli

Whispers from the Woods by Sandra Kynes


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