As Autumn arrives we can all sense the changes to the season. The green leaves turning into a mosaic of yellow, orange and red, giving us a final flourish of colour before Winter arrives.
Traditionally people have linked trees to personal characteristics and linked the seasonal changes to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Whilst science has increased our understanding of why these seasonal changes happen, we can still find echoes of these ancient beliefs in rural folklore and custom.
Amongst the trees that stand out in the Autumn landscape are the vivid purple fruit of the Elder, the blue-black fruit of the Blackthorn and the red berries of the Rowan. Each of these trees has been associated with different aspects of purification and protection around buildings and livestock, and have been used for a variety of culinary, medicinal or musical uses.
Traditionally, Elder had strong associations with the Goddess and the fairies, and was believed to provide protection against witchcraft, enchantment and evil spirits. It was regarded as a protective presence and seen as lucky if it grew near a house; perhaps a link to how easily Elder re-grows and roots into the ground. Trees were planted around dairies to prevent the milk from ‘turning’ and cheese cloths were hung to dry in the branches to clean and ‘purify’ them. The leaves’ aroma acts as a fly repellent and because of this bunches were often hung by doorways, livestock barns and attached to horses’ harnesses.
Elderberry drinks were prescribed for sore throats, and we still use elder flowers to make cordials, wines and infusions, as well as an ingredient in skin cleansers and eye lotions. The Latin name Sambucus, comes from the Greek name for an Elder wood wind instrument, and because the pith can easily be removed from small branches, Elder has been widely used to make flutes and panpipes.
The Blackthorn is quite literally rooted in our countryside, as we have taken advantage of its dense growing habits and sharp thorns to plant ‘cattle proof’ hedges around fields, as well as wind and snow screens on exposed areas. It makes a powerful barrier and the Blackthorn thickets of Anglesey are said to have helped keep the Romans out, leaving the Island as a Druidic stronghold.
Blackthorn has traditionally been associated with witchcraft and it was believed that witches made their wands and staffs from the wood. The tree’s characteristic hard, tough wood has also been used to make Irish Shillelaghs and is still used to make walking and riding sticks.
Best known for making Sloe Gin, the fruit can also be used in wine, cider and as a juice. Perhaps less well known are its anti-inflammatory properties that have been used to reduce inflammation in the mouth and respiratory system, as well as the astringent and diuretic properties that support digestive health.
‘A year in the life of a Blackthorn Tree’ can be found here – https://youtu.be/GqJC-jLjwvo.
Rowan, also known as Mountain Ash and ‘Witchwood’, was believed to provide protection from enchantment and witchcraft. The combination of the white spring flowers (linked to the Goddess or fairies) and the tiny pentagram on the red berries (an ancient symbol and colour of protection) meant that Rowans were often planted by front doors to deter witches.
The use of Rowan to provide protection is widespread across the countryside and includes using the wood to stir milk to prevent it from curdling; hanging sprays and crosses over cattle pens for protection and sewing equal-armed crosses made from twigs and bound with red thread into coat linings and pockets as a charm against rheumatism.
Medicinally, dried berries were made into a gargle to treat sore throats, and the berries can also be made into a jam that can be used in the same way as Cranberry Jelly.
The Woodland Trust’s film ‘A year in the life of a Rowan Tree’ can be found here.
As you an see there are many traditions and spiritual beliefs associated with trees, as well as a wide range of medicinal and culinary uses. These are some of my favourite ones, and you can find out more from the following publication and websites:
- G Kindred: The Sacred Tree, 2003 – ISBN: 978-0-9532227-5-9
By Jane Halliday