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The Herbal and Magical Uses of Trees

This article was written by Ellen Evert Hopman
posted under Pagan

“Where oak and ash and thorn grow together one is likely to see Fairies.” So goes the old adage, passed down through the generations to impress upon us the value and sanctity of trees. For our ancestors, these three trees and many others were the basic tools of survival.

Through the ages trees have given us shelter, medicine, tools, and household items such as cups, bowls, and dishes. They gave us paper, building materials, and cloth. They cooled us in summer and warmed us in winter. For these reasons alone they deserve reverence.

Our future survival may also hinge on trees. As carbon dioxide emissions heat the planet by encasing it in a warm blanket of smog, the oceans are warming, storms are becoming stronger and more destructive, and tropical diseases are moving ever northward. The threat of coastal flooding threatens massive population displacements and eventual conflicts over resources.

One way to mitigate global catastrophe is to plant trees. A single tree can absorb a ton of carbon dioxide over its life time. But where the tree gets planted matters. Forests are darker than fields and pastures and as a result they actually absorb heat in Northern latitudes. (Snow on an empty field reflects more sunlight back into space than does a snow-covered forest.)

It is in the tropics that trees are most valuable for global cooling. The trees that grow in these areas are deep rooted, bringing up water from the earth that they evaporate through their leaves, forming clouds that reflect sunlight back into space. The massive clear cutting and deforestation that is now occurring in tropical forests is a tragedy for the animals and humans who live there, and for our entire planet’s ecosystem.

Of course, the best solution of all is to cut our dependence on greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels. We have many positive options before us; wind and solar energy, biomass, geothermal energy, and hydrogen-powered cars, just to name a few.

(Nuclear energy is not a positive option, because we still have no idea what to do with the lethal, cancer-causing waste and nuclear facilities can produce nuclear weapons.)



Oak
As practitioners of the Pagan earth religions, we are the inheritors of a rich compendium of knowledge and spiritual tradition involving trees. The Indo-European cultures were cradled in a vast oak forest that once stretched from the west coast of France to the Caucasus. Most homes and shelters in this area were made of oak.

Oak is a dense and hot firewood and was used to make bows, spears, oars and boats. The bark, leaf and galls were used to tan hides and fishing nets, and to make a wound wash that would help heal by pulling the edges of a wound together. The bark and leaves of White Oak were especially valuable as a medicinal tea for coughs, colds and mucus congestion. The acorns provided a carbohydrate-rich food for humans, pigs, and wild game.

Oaks were known to attract lightening, and became associated with the Sky Gods such as Taranis, Indra, Jupiter, Yahweh, Ukho, Rhea, Kybele, Thor, Artemis, Brighid, Balder, The Erinyes, the Kikonian Maenads, Perun, and Perkunas. The roots of an oak go as deep as the tree is high, making its spirit a powerful ally in shamanic travel between the worlds. There is a spirit in each oak that can take you down to the Underworld through its roots and up to the Sky World via its branches.

Druids of the past and today revere the oak as the symbol of a balanced life; feeding and sheltering the people, with its feet firmly on the ground, and its head in the highest heavens. The Druid order to which I belong, Ord Na Darach Gile—the Order of the White Oak—honors this tree above all others.

According to tradition, carrying an acorn on your person will bring luck and fertility to all your projects. Druids carried acorns in their pockets for luck. An ancient Welsh belief is that good health is maintained by rubbing your hands on a piece of oak on Midsummer’s Day, while keeping silence. The dew under oak trees is a magical beauty aid.

The best oak for medicinal use is the White Oak (Quercus alba). Pick the leaves before Midsummer or gather the inner bark of twigs or root bark all year for internal and external use as medicine. The tea makes an enema or douche for hemorrhoids, menstrual issues, and bloody urine.

  • Apply the tea as an external wash to wounds and varicose veins. Taken internally it benefits internal bleeding, fevers, chest congestion, mouth sores, and sore throats.
  • Simmer (do not boil) 1 teaspoon bark (or steep 2 teaspoons leaf) per pint of water for 10 minutes and take up to 3 cups a day, in quarter-cup doses (not with meals).
  • For an enema or douche, steep 1 tablespoon bark or 2 tablespoons leaves in 1 quart freshly boiled water for 30 minutes. Strain.

English Oak (Quercus robur) can be used the same way as White Oak. Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and Black Oak (Quercus tinctoria) should only be used externally.

 

Ash
The second tree in our triad is ash. Ash is a denser wood than oak and can even be burned green. It is a tree that was especially sacred in Scandinavia. The ancestors used it to make spear shafts, household crafts and bows. Neolithic farmers relied on the leaves as winter fodder for their animals.

The ancient Greeks said that Zeus created humanity from ash trees, and the Scandinavians said that after Ragnarok, the destruction of the world, a male and a female will emerge from Yggdrasil, the Cosmic Ash, to begin life on earth all over again. It was Yggdrasil upon which Odin hung for nine days, until he discovered the Runes.

On-Niona was the Gaulish Goddess of ash groves. The Irish word for ash, Nion, was also the word for Heaven, Nionon. Considered a solar tree, ash wood is used to make the Yule log. A Druidical ash wand, decorated with spirals, was found on the island of Anglesey, Wales. Ash divining rods are cut on Summer Solstice.

Witch's brooms, used for flying and sacred ceremony, are traditionally made of an ash pole, with birch twigs and willow bindings. Eat red ash buds at Midsummer to protect yourself from sorcery.

White Ash (Fraxinus americana) and European Ash (Fraxinus ornus) leaves can be gathered in spring (before Summer Solstice) to make a diuretic and laxative tea that aids in weight loss. The infusion also helps jaundice, gout, and rheumatism.

  • Dry the young leaves in the spring for later use as a laxative.
  • Steep 1 ounce of leaves for 20 minutes, in a pint of freshly boiled water. Take one-quarter cup, 4 times a day, not with meals.
  • During the rest of the year the bark of the root or the inner bark of twigs can be used. The tea helps clean the liver and spleen as it strengthens the immune system. The bark tea has also been used to treat intermittent fevers like Malaria. Simmer 2 teaspoons of the bark per cup of water for 20 minutes and take one-quarter cup 4 times a day, not with meals.


Hawthorne
The final tree of our triad is the hawthorn, which must never be felled because to do so will anger the fairies. By tradition, a solitary hawthorn on a hill, and especially if there is a well or a spring nearby, marks an entrance to the Land of Fairy. I have been a Druid initiate and Priestess since 1985. One of the duties of a Druid is to keep an eye on the local hawthorn tree because the day it first blooms is the official start of Summer and the true date of Beltane (May Day). I keep several hawthorns around the house for this purpose, including one grown from seed brought back from Uisneach in Ireland, the seat the Arch-Druid in ancient times.

Hawthorn flowers may be used to decorate the tops of May Poles (or May Bushes in Celtic areas) but must never be carried into the house or mischievous fairies might come in with them.

Tincture the flowers and young leaves in the spring, or the berries in the fall, by putting them into a jar and barely covering them with good quality vodka or whiskey. Soak them until the plant matter begins to break down, then strain and store in dark glass bottles. (Be sure to gather the berries after the first frost, when they are a deep red.) The tincture is a valuable heart tonic that benefits almost any heart condition (except low blood pressure). Hawthorn lowers blood pressure over time, is slightly sedative, and calms nervous conditions and insomnia.

You can also steep 1 teaspoon of the flowers in one-half cup water for 20 minutes and take up to 1 and one-half cups a day, in quarter-cup portions, not with meals. Or simmer 1 teaspoon of the crushed berries in one-half cup water for 20 minutes and take up to 1 and one-half cups a day, in quarter-cup doses, not with meals.

Understanding the value and sanctity of trees is the birthright of every Pagan and we must all pass on the trees’ wisdom to future generations.

Sources and further reading on this topic:
Baker, Margaret, Discovering The Folklore Of Plants; Shire Publications Ltd., Aylesbury, Bucks, U.K. 1975
Friedrich, Paul, Proto-Indo-European Trees; The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL 1970
Hopman, Ellen Evert, A Druid's Herbal For The Sacred Earth Year; Inner Traditions/Destiny Books, Rochester, VT 1995
Hopman, Ellen Evert, Tree Medicine — Tree Magic; Phoenix Publishers, Custer, WA 1991
Lust, John, The Herb Book; Bantam Books, New York, 1974

 

The practices, treatments, and methods described in this article should not be used as an alternative to professional medical diagnosis or treatment. The author and publisher of this article are not responsible in any manner whatsoever for any injury or negative effects which may occur through following the instructions and advice contained herein.

Ellen Evert Hopman
Ellen Evert Hopman (Massachusetts) has contributed to several Pagan journals and is a popular author of Druidry-related titles. A former teacher at the Grey School of Wizardry, Hopman has been active in American Druidism since 1984. She is a member of the...  Read more

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