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An Encyclopedia of the Trees and Shrubs of Northwestern Europe, their Meanings, Folkore, and Symbolism

Trees

Trees played an important role in ancient Europe. They represented alphabets and had a large section of the Brehon laws that regulated their use and fines for damages to trees. They were classified in groups: royal trees, common trees, peasant trees and scrub trees. More important for our language and religious roots were their symbolic meanings.

Chief Trees

Oak

Oak Oak Oak Oak

The oak is the tree of thunder and lighting, sacred to Zeus, Thor and Jupiter. It's name in Gaelic (dair) is related to the words endurance, and durable. It was the druid's tree, but sacred as a king tree for its wood and acorns. One of the oldest trees in Europe, the oak can grow to massive sizes. It is the backbone of the European forest and represents the chief, king or powerful one.

Holly

Holly Holly Holly

The holly rules the dark season of the year and is considered the tanist tree, sacred to Saturn and the mid-winter festivals of the solar cycle. Evergreen, it provides fodder for livestock in mid-winter, as well as long-burning wood. Another very long-lived tree, in Southern Europe it was replace by the holm oak, also evergreen. The holly is a dark tree, but a festive tree as well, adorned with the tree colors of winter.

Hazel

Hazel Hazel

The hazel tree with its nuts and wattles is revered as another god tree sacred to Taliesen, Mercury and other medicinal gods. The nuts of this tree were considered to contain the knowlege of the world, so when a salmon ate the nuts and the child Taliesen ate the salmon, he knew more than any, could read minds and understand the language of birds. The hazel is synonymous with wisdom and secrets.

Yew

Yew

A death tree, sacred to the dark goddess as the cypress is in the Mediterranean, the yew berries are edible although the seed is poison. It was a noble tree because of its wood which was cultivated for the famous yew bows, but also as a durable mahogany. The yew is planted in graveyards and guards the door to the other world. It is a fairy tree as well as a tree of sorrow and silence.

Ash

Ash Ash Ash

The Ash was Woden's tree, sacred to the Norse as the tree of the world. Another very tall tree that attracts lightning, it was replaced by the Oak as the cult of Zeus spread north. Ash wood is very valuable for wheels and other shaped artifacts, being both extremely strong and pliable. This tree is a tree of the old gods and was the tree of man as well as a tree that meant strength and health.

Pine

Pine Pine

The Scots pine was valued for its softwood, used widely in building and furnishing. It was another god tree that was sacred to the young gods of beauty and fertility like Bacchus and Baldur. It was also sacred to the hunting gods and goddess, especially to Artemis. Among the Celts and Norse it was a tree sacred to winter, but late winter, heralding the coming of spring. However, it was decorated at solstice even in pre-Christian times. This tree is a tree of war and hunting, the trees marking the graves of heroes and warriors.

Apple

Apple Apple

Of all the trees, the apple's mythology has survived the longest. The apple was sacred to the goddesses of fertility and immortal youth, like Freya and Afrodite. It was a mid-summer tree, representing fruit, much in the same way as does the grape. This tree always means youth, wealth and beauty.

Freeman Trees

Alder

Alder Alder

Many of the lower group of trees were sacred to older gods. The Alder was the tree of Bran, replaced by the Ash and Oak gods. Bran ws oracular and represented knowledge of the other world. The alder is a tree resistant to rot and was vital to those who lived out in the marshes for building pilings. It is a medicinal tree and meant health. Cutting it was said to make it bleed, for its sap is bright red. It was unlucky for this reason.

Willow

Willow Willow Willow

Sacred to the moon, the willow was a young girl skilled in medicine and witchcraft. One of the most useful trees of the British, it came to mean witchcraft and fell into the class of devils after the arrival of Christianity. This tree is enhanced psychic ability as well as a tree of the underworld virgin goddesses.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn

Almost the opposite of the apple, the May tree was a tree that forbade any indulgence. This tree was so sacred to the goddess as a tree of medicine and beauty that it became a tree sacred to witches. It was a fairy tree and a tree of extreme ill luck to cut it down, but luck to the owner who keeps it in their hedges.

Rowan

Rowan Rowan

The rowan tree shows up all through European folklore as a tree of good magic, a fairy tree, and a tree of the goddess. The first woman was made of a rowan just as the first man was made of ash. It has long been a witch tree, a birth tree, and a tree sacred to Brigid.

Birch

Birch Birch Birch

Cradles were made of birch, but also brooms and rods of punishment. A Samhain (hallowe'en) tree, the twig bundles were used to drive out the spirits of the old year and purify the self for the new. It is a fertility tree, an opening tree, and sacred to the goddess. It is one of the most useful trees of Europe, used for waterproofing and to repel insects. Sacred to Frigga, it is a creation tree of great renown, a colony tree, and the first of the alphabet.

Elm

Elm

The elm is a tree of the otherworld, a guard tree for burial mounds and sacred groves. They were often used as dancing trees, but the wood's use for all number of wooden objects due to its bending under heat, has overcome all respect for its mighty status as a guard tree. It is associated in a positive way with transitions from this world to the next.

Cherry

Cherry

A tree of summer, when the cuckoo could eat its berries, it would cease singing. A useful tree for woodwork, fruit, and dyeing, their meaning is obscured in history. However, it is medicinal and was used to ward off the plague. It is a tree of good luck.

Peasant Trees

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

A wound tree, because of its thorns, blackthorn is associated with black magic, but has the meaning of overcoming great obstacles. Its fruits were called "sloe" and used in many wines and jellies. The entire tree is medicinal and cleansing. Known as the "dark crone of the woods," blackthorn's reputation is very powerful and was turned from the power of dark to heal to the power of dark to torment.

Elder

Elder

The elder is long thought to be a witch tree because it is both a healing tree and a poisonous tree. In old folklore, to burn elder was to bring the devil into the house. But elder is considered by herbalists to be a complete medicine cabinet. Its flowers and fruits are used to boost the immune system. Elder wood is unlucky, but the plant is vital to health.

Spindle

Spindle

The spindle tree's wood is so hard it is used for turning spindles, but was also used to make witch wands. The tree is very poisonous and is the root of the story of Sleeping Beauty, who would prick her finger on a spindle and die. Despite this, it was used medicinally and is associated with wealth and inspired knowledge.

Aspen

Aspen

Considered a tree of lamentation and sorrow, aspen (white poplar) and black poplar are both funeral trees. Aspen is supposed to tremble with grief at the passing of god. A shield tree, it is also a tree of age and grief.

Juniper

Juniper Juniper

Juniper is a tree of protection. It is often confused with other conifers as the tree that opens the year. It's wood is used for boxes and furniture, but the protection aspect may come from the way that the thickets of juniper are a refuge for birds and small animals of all sorts. The berries are used to flavor drinks and jellies.

Whitebeam

Whitebeam

The whitebeam, so closely related to rowan and the service tree that it interbreed with them, was thought to get its white leaves from growing on chalk. The hardwood is used for tools, axel shafts and shafts, only surpassed by iron. The tree is used both to conjure and repel magic and is another shield tree.

Arbutus

Arbutus

Another evergreen, the strawberry tree, or arbutus, is common only to the shores of warmer coasts like Ireland and Cornwall. A common tree in the Mediterranean, it is grown for its fruit. Its meaning is to esteem or respect. The fruit sacred to fertility goddesses, means "only one" which means that final love that is lasting.

Scrub Trees

Bracken

Bracken

This is a shrub of perpetual youth, considered a weed, but a plant of incredible luck for fortune and youth for gold was found under bracken. This is a plant of fortune and luck.

Bog Myrtle

Myrtle

Used to flavor beer and drive away flies, this intensely flavored plant is a symbol of recovery. It was said to drive off evil and mischief and helped children who were bewitched.

Gorse

Gorse

A sacred tree because it is almost perpetually in bloom, this was the tree of the Bealtaine fires. It was associated closely with Lugh and the coming in of the time of light. The tree means resilience and optimism.

Bramble

bramble

Considered a tree of trouble, this tree was valued for its fruit (blackberry), it stems for basketry and small wooden items, and its leaves for tea. It was a bee plant and highly esteemed in hedgerows. However, the plant represents trouble, it also represents troubles overcome. This plant was a substitute for the vine (grape) of the Mediterranean, and also used for wine making.

Heather

heather

A symbol of high summer, a healing tree, a tree of many uses, and a tree of beauty, the heather was closely connected to fertility and love. Ale and mead made of heather were considered extremely intoxicating and may have led to the plant's reputation for romance.

Broom

Broom Broom

Broom is often confused with the gorse tree, named for its twigs used to make brooms. It is the mascot plant of the Plantagenets (planta genista = broom) and a popular dye plant. Although once considered a witch plant, used like the birch, to cleanse away the evil of the old year, its meaning is overridden by William the Conqueror using the plant in his cap.

Rose

Rose Rose

The rose is sacred to the goddess of love and fertility and has always meant romance and fortune in love.

Other Trees not in Brehon Law

An amazing number of trees were not considered in Brehon law. Possibly because these law lists were compiled late, and were probably only concerned with Irish trees. I have included trees important to Celtic Folklore. There are many more trees native to Europe, but I've constrained these pages to the North West.

Linden

Linden Linden

The linden represents truth. Another tree sacred to the goddess, used for wood, leaves and fruit, if one stood under the tree, it was impossible to lie. It is an extremely lucky tree meaning fertility and prosperity but also friendship, peace and justice. It is a healing tree, the blossoms used for teas.

Hornbeam

Hornbean

Having extremely hard wood, the hornbeam has always meant protection. Closely resembling the beech tree in folklore as well as looks, hornbeam means to be optimistic even in the face of adversity.

Beech

Beech Beech

The beech was queen of the trees, tallest and symbolizing creativity and wisdom. Her partner was the oak and they were father and mother of the woods. Because of her godly nature, she was also a fairy tree.

Sycamore

Sycamore

Another sacred tree to the goddesses of death and justice, the sycamore (maple) represents eternity and protection. The tree means long life and connection to the other world.

Box

Box

The box, so called because of its use in making small objects, came to be known as a funeral tree by its substitution for rosemary or thyme. Like yew and cedar this tree came to be associated with death and transport to the other world.

Dogwood

Dogwood

The dogwood tree is a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, purity and connection to the other world. The four-fold cross flower has come to be closely associated with Christian folklore.

Poplar

Poplar

The tree of the goddess of death, the black poplar and the white aspen were both trees of the other world. The soft twigs and wood and fluttering leaves made it a witch tree and a tree closely related to the crones of death. It is a pioneer tree, so sacred to the turn of the year, closing and opening.




© 2020, A.R. Stone