General Tree Lore

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This is all the information I've gleaned over the years that doesn't fit in the "Magical Properties of Wood" page, and includes ancient and modern practical uses for the timber, leaves and bark, as well as various beliefs and superstitions.

It is a work in progress, so if anyone has any further suggestions for inclusion I would be very pleased to hear from you!

As with all my work, I hold the copyright for this list so it it illegal for you to copy it without my permission. However, although you need to ask, I always give permission for anyone to use it for their own personal use, to include on their website or to distribute as a training aid, but it must not be sold!

It is my property and I choose to make it freely available to all, don't let others make you pay for it!

Alder - Deciduous tree that can reach 70' tall, common lining waterways throughout Britain and is the only broad leafed deciduous tree that bears cones containing its seeds. The wood has had many uses over the years due to its strength and the fact that it's resistant to rot when waterlogged. During the Iron Age, when the low-lying area known as the Somerset Levels around Glastonbury Tor was usually under shallow water, people built raised walkways out of rough planks with Alder supports, and today the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy, along with most of the old part of the city, is still supported by Alder piles driven into the soft mud below the water. However, it is not used for fences because the wood quickly decays in dry soil. In Saxon times it was said that the best shields to carry into battle were made of Alder, the wood is very dense but not at all springy so it deadens any blows received from enemy weapons! It was the preferred material for well-buckets and before the use of cast iron became widespread the timber was used to make water pipes as well as animals' drinking troughs. It has been used to make fine chairs, especially in the Highlands of Scotland, where it is known as Scottish Mahogany, and was so popular for making the clogs worn in Lancashire mill towns that demand exceeded supply and they had to be made from Birch instead. Other uses include cartwheels, spinning wheels, bowls and spoons and it also makes excellent charcoal. The wood is good fuel as well, as it ignites quickly, has a pleasant smell and does not spit sparks. The bark yields a dye that will colour woollens red and cottons yellow, if the shoots are cut in March they give a cinnamon dye and the catkins can be used to dye green. In more recent times, varieties of Alder are often planted on mine spoil, or landfill sites because they will grow readily and quite quickly amongst pollution that wouldn't be tolerated by most other trees.

Ash - The Ash tree is a member of the Olive family, and provides the toughest and most elastic of British timber. It is said that if you sleep with Ash leaves under your pillow they will induce psychic dreams. It has been believed that the leaves will cure snake bites and the wood will cure leprosy. It has often been used to provide the traditional Yule log and is said to draw lightning. It is usually thought of as being the great World Tree of Norse legend, with its top high in the land of the Gods, the trunk in this world and the roots reaching down to the land of the dead. It is indeed extremely deep rooting, and Ash seedlings can grow in the unlikliest of places, such as on top of a wall, because the roots reach down far enough to take nourishment from the soil beneath. It is one of the first trees to lose its leaves for the Winter, with most of them being blown off by the first cold winds. Ash wood was traditionally used for bows and spears, and also in shipbuilding. These days, the wood is used for furniture, axe handles, ladders, oars and walking sticks. It makes excellent logs as it gives out little or no smoke when seasoned, and is one of the few timbers to burn well when it's green. The seeds have been pickled and used as substitute for capers.

Bay - Used for crowns and wreaths for heroes and poets. The leaves were used in insence and said to assist with divination. It was said that standing under a Bay tree during a thunderstorm would ensure that you did not get struck by lightning and a sprig of Bay over the door would protect the house from witches and serpents. These days its only real use is for the leaves as flavouring in cookery.

Beech - The name means book, as some of the earliest versions were made from thin slabs of Beech. The tree gives such dense shade due to the amount of foliage it produces that nothing will grow beneath it. The wood is not used for large objects, even though the tree grows very large, because it is brittle and short grained as well as being very susceptible to wood worm. It has been used for stonemason's mallets, boot lasts, hat boxes, chairs and in Europe it is made into parquet flooring. It makes good charcoal and excellent logs, as its heating power surpasses almost all other timber, but there was a belief that it was unlucky to put it on the fire since to bring it into the house invites Death in as well. The leaves make excellent compost and were said to make the best mattresses, lasting for seven or eight years and being far superior to straw for the purpose. Many animals feed on the mast, or nuts, and it is said that feeding pheasants on the mast renders their flesh delicious.

Birch - It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834, the youngest of 13 children, his father was the vicar of Ottery St Mary, not far from my home) who spoke of the Birch tree as "Lady of the Woods".  Although delicate looking, it can grow and thrive at high altitudes and in Arctic environments where few other trees will grow at all. It is a relatively short lived tree, maturing in 70 - 130 years and then rapidly declining in health and vigour. The wood is relatively soft and not very durable, until the recent trend for Birch veneered lounge and kitchen furniture, its chief use was for broom handles and whisky barrels, and for the charcoal for smoking both hams and herrings. The bark is very durable and is used for roofing and canoes, it makes a suitable surface for writing on and can be twisted into torches as it contains a good deal of oil. It is widely used for tanning. The leaves can be used to make a yellow dye and the wood gunpowder. The sap of the Birch tree can be tapped and made into wine. This tree was one of the materials used to manufacture poison gases during World War 1.

Blackberry - The Blackberry Bramble bears both hard green fruits and ripe ones on the same branch at the same time, which is unusual. The Celts regarded blackberries as the food of the fairies and it was considered taboo for anyone to eat them. It was believed that passing through a loop of bramble rooted at both ends would cure hernias and paralysis.

Blackthorn - Small deciduous tree much used for hedging, it flowers very early in the Spring, before the leaves are out and it used to be believed that it was dangerous to bring the blossom into the house. The tree has come to represent fate or outside influences that cannot be avoided. It is believed to be the ancestor of the domestic Plum tree, and old neglected Plum trees do sometimes have sharp spines very similar to the ones that make Blackthorn such a good tree for hedging. In ancient Greece the wood of the Blackthorn was used to keep sacred fires burning and they believed, with many others, that it afforded protection from witchcraft. Used for walking sticks and the Irish shellaleagh. The blue-black fruit called sloes are added to gin to make a warming cordial. The dried leaves have been used as a substitute both for tobacco and tea.

Box - This is the hardest and heaviest of all European woods. It was made into printing blocks and engraving plates, because the edges of such blocks apparently wear better than tin or lead, and it is said to be almost as good for this purpose as brass. In modern times it has been used for making measuring rulers and flutes. The root was used for dagger handles. The art of topiary, clipping Box trees into interesting shapes, is said to have originated in Rome and been invented by a friend of Julius Caesar.

Broom - Its tough, flexible branches were used for making brooms and baskets. After grasses it's one of the first plants to colonise sand dunes and will grow in salt spray. It was widely planted as cover for game and to shelter plantations until the plants were established. The wood is mainly used for decorative veneer. The tough bark fibre has been used for paper and cloth, and the bark for tanning.The fresh green tops of the shoots used to be added to beer before the introduction of hops, to make it taste bitter and render it more intoxicating. The flower buds have been pickled as substitute for capers and the seeds have been used as a substitute for coffee.The leaves and tops yield green dye.

Cherry - The cherries from the Wild Cherry tree, or Gean are a favourite food of thrushes and blackbirds, although too sour to be eaten by people. It was believed to harbour evil spirits as soon as it grew old enough to keep bad company. The wood is hard and will take a high polish, a rich red colour, it is used to make fine furniture.

Elder - It has been said that the English summer starts when the Elder is in flower and ends when the berries are ripe. The tree is a symbol of grief, and at one time green Elder branches were buried in graves to protect the dead from witchcraft and it was traditional for the hearse driver to carry a whip made from Elder. Permission must be asked of the Elder Mother before cutting the wood and only after it has been granted, by her keeping silent, can the work commence.  It is said that if a twig is tied into 3 or 4 knots it can be carried as a charm against rheumatism, and an Elder branch hung above the stable or byre door stops fairies stealing the milk or horses being hag ridden. The juice of the bruised leaves really do keep flies away and a sprig attached to a horse's bridle or rider's hat will enable them to avoid being bothered by the troublesome insects; an infusion of the leaves dabbed onto the skin or simply rubbing the skin with the crushed leaves also works.  It was believed that if a child is whipped with an Elder switch he will stop growing, but a cure for warts was to rub them with a green Elder stick and then bury it in the mud, as the stick softens and decays so will the wart disappear. If you stand under an Elder tree on Midsummers Eve you have a good chance of seeing the King and Queen of Fairyland and thier entire court retinue pass by. Also, on Christmas Eve, if you take the pith from the branches, cut it into round, flat shapes, dip it in oil and float the pieces on water, when lit the flames will reveal everyone in the vicinity who practices magic. It was said that if you bathed your eyes with the sap you would be able to see both fairies and witches. It is not considered wise to go to sleep under an Elder tree for risk of being taken away by the fairies, and it is a fact that nothing will grow beneath one. The wood has been used for meat skewers, net making needles, toys and combs. In the countryside, it has always been considered a neccessary hedging plant and it is said that an Elder stake in the ground will last longer than an iron one.

Elm - Young Elm leaves were used to feed cattle and apparently the cows thoroughly enjoyed them, and it was commonly planted round fields as grass will grow freely above its roots, although it takes so much nourishment from the soil that little else will! The young leaves can be used to feed silk worms. The wood is not subject to splitting but will not take a high polish, however, once seasoned it does not crack and is very durable under water. It has been used for ships keels and blocks for rigging, coffins, wheels and furniture. The timber is extremely tough so it was commonly used to line carts and wheelbarows. In the days before cast iron it was used for water pipes, and apparently the "Great Main" of London was constructed from Elm, and was much used for picture frames as it does not warp. The inner bark is very tough and has been used for mats and ropes. The wood of the Wych Elm is said to be effective as a charm against witches, and small pieces used to be put in the milk churns to stop witches turning the milk sour.

Fig - In ancient times, the Fig tree was dedicated to Bacchus. The wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus was said to have rested under a Fig tree so the Romans considered it sacred. The wood, although of a spongy texture, is very durable, and was used in Eastern countries to make coffins for embalmed bodies.

Gorse - It has been believed that burning the fresh shoots and blossom will calm the wind.

Hawthorn - The tree, although small, lives to a great age. It is much used for hedging as it forms an almost inpenetrable thorny barrier if kept clipped to encourage bushy growth. Cows and horses will eat the leaves, seemingly without injuring thier mouths on the sharp spikes.  It is a country belief that Hawthorn flowers bear the smell of the great plague, and they are mainly pollinated by carrion insects because they have a faint smell of decomposition, although strangely some people find they smell sweet. Flowering branches used to be carried in wedding processions as a symbol of hope. The bark yields a dye that will turn wool black. The wood is fine grained and takes a high polish but never attains any size, and it has been used for combs. It makes the hottest firewood there is and it is said that charcoal made from it will melt pig iron without the aid of a blast.

Hazel - Most often seen as a many branched shrub, but will grow into a tree and is said to  reach 60' in height. The wood is tough and elastic, with the thin shoots used for baskets and fences (hurdles) and the larger branches for walking sticks. Before fibre glass and carbon fibre fishing rods were commonly made from Hazel wood. Forked twigs from the Hazel have been used for water  divining or dowsing for centuries as they are said to be sensitive to water. The nuts have been believed to impart knowledge, wisdom and fertility, and were one ingredient in an hallucinogenic beverage drunk to induce visions. They are also commonly used in love potions and aphrodisiacs.

Holly - Evergreen and grows well under larger trees, although in order to really flourish it needs space, light and air. The glossy dark green leaves have wavy edges surrounded with sharp spikes where they grow low down on the tree, but higher up where they are out of reach of grazing animals they have smooth edges and just a single point at the tip. The wood is almost white with barely visible grain, but needs to be well seasoned or it will warp and split. It takes dye well, and has been used as a substitute for Ebony when dyed black and was much used for teapot handles and marketry. It was used for spears and it makes good walking sticks and the thin green shoots were used to make birdlime. It has been used to decorate houses in Winter for centuries, long before christianity was brought to Britain, and the Druids believed that by bringing branches of Holly indoors they were offering hospitality to the sprites and faeries by giving them somewhere to shelter from the harsh weather. It was believed that if a Holly tree was planted near a house it would repel poison and protects against lightning and witchcraft. The berries are poisonous to people, but readily eaten by birds.

Ivy - Evergreen climber that can damage young trees and old walls, it is a member of the Ginseng family. It has two distinctly different forms of growth, while living as a climbing plant it has five pointed leaves and sends out new shoots on alternate sides of the main stem, bears neither blossom nor berry and the wood is very light weight and not very strong. However, on reaching the tree canopy far above the ground it changes its leaves to an oval shape with a pointed tip, has flowers and fruit, and branches into three at each intersection, the wood at this stage is much heavier, denser and stronger because the plant has to bear its own considerable weight. Ivy will grow readily from cuttings, and if cuttings are taken of the climbing stage they will grow as climbers until they reach enough light and space to branch out into the bushy form, but if cuttings are taken from the plant where it has already attained the status of blossom and fruit bearing, the new plant raised will remain bushy and never revert to being a climber. Ivy is peculiar in that it bears flowers in the Autumn and fruit in the Spring, thus providing a vital food source for many birds and insects. Ivy formed the poet's crown and the wreath of Bacchus. A wreath of Ivy used to be presented to newly married couples as a symbol of fidelity and it was believed that if you gave a small piece of Ivy to a friend then the friendship would be enduring. Floating a few Ivy leaves in wine, or drinking from a cup made from Ivy wood was supposed to provide protection from intoxication!

Larch - This is the only coniferous tree that loses its leaves in the winter. It was introduced into Britain in 1639 and has subsequently been widely planted for its durable timber. It grows very rapidly, six times faster than Oak, and the wood is tougher, stronger and more durable than that of any other conifer, with the possible exception of the very slow growing Yew. The young trees are used to protect slower growing and less hardy species while they establish themselves and a Larch wood rapidly enriches the soil beneath. It is used for telegraph poles, pit props and railway sleepers, it was widely used for ship building and is still much in demand for building houses where it is the usual choice for floorboards. It will take a very high polish so it is popular with cabinet makers, it resists woodworm and it is said that gilding has a better effect over Larch than over almost any other wood. Large quantities of turpentine can be collected from mature trees during the summer months by simply boring a hole in the trunk and inserting a tube. The thick liquid that flows from the tubes only requires straining to be ready for use. It has been used in both human and veterinary medicine and also for making various sorts of varnish and polish as it dissolves most kinds of natural wax.

Linden/Lime - Widely planted in parks and large gardens, and also along pavements in suburban areas, it is a tall tree with foliage of a slightly paler green than most trees, but only really flourishes on a lime rich soil. When it is in bloom in late June or early July the flowers perfume the surrounding area. These flowers are popular with bees, and honey made from Linden blossom is regarded as having the best flavour and the highest value of any honey in the world. It is mainly used in medicines and liqueurs. The flowers themselves, when dried, can be used to make a refreshing drink known as Linden tea, which has been believed to be effective in the treatment of indigestion and hysteria. The wood is the lightest of any European broad leafed tree, and apparently it never becomes worm-eaten, but it is neither strong nor durable. It has been used in the manufacture of pianos and organs and for artists' charcoal, but is best known as being especially suitable for fine carving due to its whiteness and close grained texture. The exquisite flower and figure carvings at St Paul's Cathedral, Windsor Castle and Chatsworth House by the artist Grinley Gibbons were almost exclusively executed in Lime wood. The inner bark can be woven into coarse matting and twine which is used by gardeners as it is light weight but strong and elastic. It is also woven into small baskets. This inner bark, together with that of the Ash tree, was used for writing upon by the ancients, and called by the Romans liber which is the Latin word for book and the root of the word library. The foliage will be eaten by cattle either fresh or dried, and if the sap is drawn off in the spring it yields a considerable quantity of sugar.

Maple - The wood takes a high polish and is used for the backs of violins, and it can be cut so thin without breaking that you can see the light through it. Burr Maple, the timber obtained from parts of the trunk with many offshoots, possesses a most beautiful grain that has always been much in demand for highly expensive tables. If a Roman nobleman reproached his wife for spending too much on her clothes and jewels, she would "turn the tables" on him and remind him just how much he paid for his Maple table! It also makes good fuel and excellent charcoal.

Oak - Box and Ebony are harder, Ash and Yew are tougher, but no other timber possesses both hardness and toughness in such a large degree.  In Greek myth the Oak was the first of the trees to be created and there was an Oak grove at Dodona sacred to Jupiter that was said to whisper prophesies when the leaves moved in the breeze. Jason's ship the Argo was said to have been built from Oak. In ancient Rome a wreath of Oak was awarded to men who saved the life of a citizen, and was considered the highest honour when awarded for services to the Republic. Oak has also been the usual choice for the traditional Yule log, and it was believed by many that Brent geese grew from the branches of Oak trees! In this country at the time of the Norman Conquest the worth of an area of forest was measured not by the value of the timber but by how many pigs could be kept on the acorns from the Oak trees it contained. If the new leaves are killed off by a late frost or an abundance of insects the tree will grow a new crop and thus maintain its growth for that year. It is estimated that up to 1100 types of insect live in, on or around a mature Oak tree. The wood was used almost exclusively for building ships and buildings for centuries, because the wood does not readily splinter when hit by a cannon ball, but is now mainly used for furniture. Oak is peculiar in the fact that it can be used for the frames of ships and buildings whilst it is still green, or freshly cut, and if properly constructed, as the timber dries out and shrinks the joints become tighter thus holding together better than if they were fixed with nails. The bark was widely used for tanning. Oak galls, formed by the larva of a small wasp and commonly called Oak Apples, were known as Serpents' Eggs and considered a powerful ingredient in spells and charms. The wood of the roots is used for tool handles and the hilts of knives.

Pine - Very hardy tree with an extensive root system enabling it to thrive where little else survives and explaining why in even the most windswept locations Pine trees are rarely uprooted by the wind, rather the trunk snaps in two. Because of its height and its tendency to grow on exposed hilltops, the tree is associated with far sight and clear vision. Produces a huge abundance of pollen when in flower in May and June which forms golden clouds surrounding the tree. It has been collected in cloths spread on the ground beneath the tree and used in spells for money because of it's resemblance to gold dust. If a pinch of the pollen is thrown on an open fire it flares up briefly in a spectacular way and it was believed to be sulphur dust dropped to the ground during thunderstorms. The bark has been used for roofing and is also very buoyant so can serve as a substitute for cork. The wood was widely used for shipbuilding and the tree also provides turpentine and resin.

Rose - Has come to symbolize deadly beauty.

Rowan - Does not grow large but retains its graceful shape and never requires pruning as its branches rarely die. It will thrive in any type of soil, but requires plenty of light and air so does not do well if crowded by other trees. The flowers open in May, forming large loose clusters of creamy white, but they have little scent. The berries are much loved by thrushes and blackbirds, and they will quickly strip a tree of fruit, and they can be used to make a somewhat bitter tasting jelly. In times of hardship the berries have been ground and used as a substitute for flour., and they can be made into a drink said to resemble perry.  It is said to whisper secrets to those who know how to interpret the sound of the wind in its leaves and has long been thought of as a sure protection against witchcraft. It is planted in church yards to scare away demons who might disturb the sleep of the dead, and at garden gates to ward off evil spirits. It is believed that using a walking stick or staff made from Rowan wood will protect the traveller from evil and ensure a safe return. All parts of the tree can be used for tanning and dyeing black. The wood is very tough and its main commercial use is for poles and barrel hoops, although during Tudor times it was made into bows.

Sweet Chestnut - A large and handsome tree with large glossy leaves that cover the branches in Summer, it is very long lived and there are said to be trees that are over 700 years old. The ridged bark grows in a spiral pattern. It flowers in May and June and gives off such large quantities of pollen that it can be seen lying on the surface of any nearby ponds looking like sulphur dust. The timber is very similar to Oak, but loses all durability once it is over 50 years old. However, wood from the young, growing tree has been much used in the construction of buildings and furniture, as well as being used for pit props and wine barrels. These days it is mainly used for hop poles, and because it is durable if partly in the ground it is made into stakes and fences. It is not suitable for firewood as it burns badly, sending up a great deal of sparks while just smouldering rather than burning brightly. The leaves make excellent compost. The glossy dark brown chestnuts have been an important source of food to rural communities in Europe, where there are many ways of preparing them, however in Britain the crop is not so abundant and they are usually simply roasted. Chestnut meal was used for whitening linen and making starch.

Sycamore - A very hardy tree, Sycamore will grow erect even in windswept positions so is commonly planted for shelter close to exposed houses. It represents growth, persistance, strength and endurance. The wood has long been used for plates and platters and is still used for turning cups and bowls. In Scotland the tree was commonly used as a gallows by noblemen for hanging vanquished foes or disobedient servants.

Willow - The wood of the White Willow was used by builders for floors and rafters and it is said to make excellent barrels. Another variety, the Cricket Bat Willow, is (of course) used to make cricket bats. Goat Willow, commonly called Pussy Willow because of the early buds that are covered in fine grey silky hair, was once carried to church on Palm Sunday to take the place of genuine palm leaves. The long flexible shoots of another sort, the Osier, are used for baskets and hurdles, and used to be grown in great quantities for this purpose. British Willow baskets have long been considered the best in the world, they were thought of as luxuries by the Romans. The Willow tree has long been associated with melancholy and it is believed that sitting beneath one will banish sadness and depression. It is also said that while sitting beneath a Willow tree you are protected from enchantment.

Yew - Very slow growing and long lived evergreen, with several trunks arising from the roots. It flowers in February and March and gives off clouds of golden pollen. All parts of the tree are poisonous to people and animals if eaten, with the exception of the fleshy part of the berry surrounding the seed. It provides the toughest timber of any British tree, and it was much used for bows, apparently William Tell used a bow made from Yew when he shot the apple from his sons head. The wood is also very hard and durable and is said to outlast a post made from iron if in the ground. However, probably because it grows so slowly and does not have a single thick trunk the wood is not much in demand for anything other than fine furniture. When cut the tree shows two colours of wood, with the softer, growing timber making a much paler rim around the rich dark red heartwood that is useable timber.

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