By Dana O’Driscoll, The Druid’s Garden Blog (druidgarden.wordpress.com), Copyright 2020.
The Ogham is an ancient alphabet, used to write early Irish and later Old Irish. The inscriptions that survive of Ogham, some 400 or so primarily on stone, are found throughout Ireland, Wales, and England. The inscriptions are thought to date from the 4th century and onward, although how old the tradition is is subject to some disagreement. In the modern druid tradition, the Ogham has also been associated with divination, and many druids use Ogham as a means to connect with sacred trees in the landscape. However, for people living in places outside of the British Isles, making local Oghams allows them to connect both with some of the roots of our tradition in druidry but also wildcraft and localize their druidry. This Ogham is designed for the Northern Appalachian mountain region in the United States while being rooted specifically in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania.
The Northern Appalachian Mountains range from the Mason Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and into Eastern Canada. This Ogham is specifically based in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania (Laurel Highlands and Pittsburgh Plateau regions), so some adaptations may be needed for people who live at other parts along the Appalachians. This Ogham would be most appropriate for druids living in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Virginia, but could easily be expanded outward.
When creating this Ogham, the selections are based on the following criteria:
- Prominence: I selected trees that are abundant and widespread. Abundance varies from region to region, however, so you might want to make your own adaptations. The reason to use abundant trees is twofold. First, abundant trees have a considerable impact on the ecology and landscape. Second, for people who want to make their own Ogham, it is helpful to be able to find all of the trees. (This is why trees like pawpaw and chestnut are not on this list, even though they are important to this region).
- Equivalency: In over half the Ogham fews, we have equivalent trees in the Allegheny mountains to the traditional Ogham (like Oak, Elder, and Birch). But there are also other very abundant trees that should be included in any North American Ogham like Hickory, Cedar, and Maple which have no equivalents in the British Isles.
- Ecology: How the tree functions in the ecosystem is another critical factor for developing a regional Ogham, especially when looking for equivalents to the original Ogham fews. Does the tree grow quickly and help regenerate damaged parts of the forest? Is it an understory tree? Nitrogen fixer? How does the tree interact with other life in nature? Additionally, a preference for native trees is present.
- A final factor is the health of the trees and tree species. Ash tree populations, including all mature ash trees, have been decimated on the US East coast due to the Emerald Ash Borer—thus, I’ve replaced Ash as the Ash here in the US cannot hold the energy that it traditionally did in the British Isles. Eastern Hemlock is also under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but at the time when I wrote this, the Eastern hemlock populations are still strong in Western PA—but may not be where you are located. Considering the health of the trees can help make decisions on Ogham inclusion or exclusion.
For each of the entries, I have also included possible alternatives when they made sense. Alternatives can be used when you can’t find the trees or if you feel drawn toward other options. Finally, you are also most welcome to adapt this Ogham as you feel necessary to your own bioregion. Pronunciations are based on those described by John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook.
This page includes the quick guide, a visual overview of the Allegheny Ogham, an in-depth discussion of each tree, as well as various means to use the Ogham in druid practice, including through the Bardic, Ovate, and Druid arts.
Allegheny Mountain Ogham Quick Guide
|Original Ogham||Allegheny Ogham||Appalachian Tree||Keywords||Pronunciation|
|Birch (Beith)||Black Birch
|Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)||Beginnings, rebirth, purification, regrowth||BEH|
|Rowan (Luis)||Sassafras||Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Redbud (Cercis canadensis)||Protection, Judgment, Discernment||LWEESH|
|Ash (Nuinn)||Shagbark Hickory||Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)||Interconnection, Magic, Connections||NOO-un|
|Alder (Fearn)||American Sycamore||American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana)||Bridge between spirit and matter; spirit, transitions, individuality||FAIR-n|
|Willow (Sallie)||Black Willow||Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)||Change, cycles, fluidity, receptivity, flexibility||SAHL-yuh|
|The Second Aicme|
|Hawthorn (Huath)||Hawthorn||Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)||Patience, restriction, danger, protection||OO-ah|
|Oak (Duir)||White Oak||White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)||Power, strength, durability, grounding||DOO-er|
|Holly (Tinne)||American Holly||American Holly (Ilex opaca)||Courage, Challenge, Opposition||CHIN-yuh|
|Hazel (Coll)||American Hazelnut||American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta); Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginaia)||Creativity, Inspiration, Awen, Artistry, Fine Craft||CULL|
|Apple (Quert)||Apple||Apples and Crabapples of all varieties (Malus spp.)||Celebration, Love, Harvest, Contentment||KWEIRT|
|The Third Aicme|
|Vine (Muinn)||Wild Grape Vine||Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia). Vitis spp.
|Freedom, Honesty, Prophecy||MUHN|
|Ivy (Gort)||Blackberry||Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)||Entanglements, Slow Progress, Determination
|Reed (Ngetal)||Cattail||Cattail (Typha spp.)||Swiftness, Speed, Transformation, Healing||NYEH-tal|
|Blackthorn (Straif)||Black Locust||Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose)||Upheaval, Fate, External Forces, Unavoidable Change||STRAHF|
|Elder (Ruis)||Black Elder||Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)||Resolution, Endings, Permanent Change, Otherworld||RWEESH|
|The Fourth Aicme|
|Fir (Ailm)||White Spruce||White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)||Vision, Understanding, Perspective||AHL-m|
|Gorse (Onn)||Eastern Hemlock||Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)||Hope, Potential, Learning, Possibility||UHN|
|Heather (Ur)||Mountain Laurel||Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)
|Spiritual Power, Spirit connection, Energy, Creation||OOR|
|Aspen (Eadha)||Tulip Poplar||Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)||Hard work, Endurance, Courage, Bending rather than breaking||EH-yuh|
|Yew (Ioho)||Eastern White Cedar||Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis); Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)||Legacy, Things that abide, Wisdom from Experience, Eldership||EE-yoh|
|Grove (Koad)||Grove of Trees||All trees in a forest||Balance, Community, Conflict Resolution, Communication, Listening||KO-ud|
|Spindle (Oir)||Black Cherry||Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)||Obligations, Honoring Commitments, Persistence||OR|
|Honeysuckle (Uilleand)||Sugar Maple||Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)||Hidden meanings, secrets, subtle influences, mysteries||ULL-enth|
|Beech (Phagos)||American Beech||American Beech (Fagus grandifolia); Eastern Ironwood||Wisdom, Learning, History, Ancient Knowledge, Memory||FAH-gus|
|Ifin (Pine)||White Pine||White Pine (Pinus strobus); Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)||Vision, Awareness, Making Amends, Self-work, Guilt||EE-van|
The First Aicme
Black Birch – Beith
Allegheny Trees: Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Original Ogham Tree: Birch
Meanings: New beginnings, a fresh start, turning a new chapter in your life. Spring and the promise of things to come. Renewal, rebirth, and purification.
Ecology: In the Allegheny Mountains we have three dominant species of birch: White Birch, Yellow Birch, and the Sweet Birch / Black Birch. Any of these specific trees are excellent representations of Birch for Ogham. Birch is easily found in areas where trees were logged; many times the first trees that will come up in a large thicket are birch trees after logging. You can also find birch trees along rivers and in mixed deciduous forests. Black and Yellow Birches can be found mixed in Eastern Hemlock forests as well.
Alternatives: Birches of various kinds are quite widespread in the Northern Appalachian region. No alternatives given.
Sassafras – Luis
Allegheny Tree: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Original Ogham Tree: Rowan
Meanings: Discernment about current events or people, using your best judgment, and protection from harm. Positive finances and financial futures.
Ecology: Sassafras tree was widely imported to Europe after early colonization of the US and was, at one time, believed to be a ‘cure-all’ for illness in Europe. Sassafras is a widespread and a quintessential “American” tree. It has fragrant roots and leaves that are used widely as a food and medicine. Sassafras trees grow in groves and propagate primary by sending new roots off of a mother tree to create a small grove of babies surrounding the tree. Due to the history and use of Sassafras, it has long been associated with protection.
Alternatives: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) or Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a good choice for individuals living north of the native range of Sassafras.
Shagbark Hickory – Nuinn
Allegheny Trees: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)
Original tree: Ash
Meanings: Interconnectivity, interconnection, and connection of all things in existence. Magic, nature magic, and the magic of connection. The great web of life present in the earth, the soil, and the universe.
Ecology: The Hickory tree is a hardwood nut tree that is widespread throughout the eastern US. Hickory trees are slow-growing trees that can produce abundant nut harvests as they mature. Reaching up to 130 feet in height and featuring a variety of shaggy, gray bark, hickories form an important species throughout the region. They are easiest to spot in the fall, when their leaves turn a deep golden sun-yellow shade. The wood is very hard and straight-grained and most hickories have delicious, edible nuts, enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.
For the last decade, nearly all of the Ash trees in the US Midwest and East coast have been dying from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle—this destruction has radically shifted the energy of the Ash tree here in the US. Due to the millions of deaths of Ash trees, it cannot hold the energy of Nuinn in North America. Because of the plight of the ash tree here, I have offered an alternative in the strong and mighty Hickory tree, which like ash, offers strong and tough wood and a commanding presence. Hickory trees are strong, dominant, have deep root systems, and in the fall, offer a wonderful alternative to the Ash.
American Sycamore – Fearn
Allegheny Tree: American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Original tree: Alder
Meaning: Bridging between spirit and matter; spirit transitions. Individuality. Oracular guidance, messages from spirit. Transitions between realm to realm. Using one’s instincts or intuitioin.
Ecology: In North America, the Sycamore tree, which is often found along the edges of rivers and thrives in damp river bottoms, swamps, and bogs is an excellent choice to replace the water-loving Alder tree. Sycamore trees with their gray, greenish, brown, and white mottled bark which flakes off as the tree ages. As you drive through the river bottoms in the Alleghenies, you will see the sycamores reaching up from the bottoms, their whitish branches stretching out. Sycamores produce small seed balls that stay on the tree throughout the winter, looking almost like ornaments, dropping and spreading seeds in the spring.
Alternatives: The original Alder tree in the UK is a water tree that grows in swamps and bogs; it is often used to construct underwater and the wood grows harder in wet settings. Any other trees that grow in wet settings would be appropriate here. One such tree is the American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana).
Black Willow – Sallie
Allegheny Tree(s): Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)
Original tree: Willow
Meaning: Change, growth, cycles, moon cycles. Women’s mysteries. Fluidity, receptivity, and flexibility.
<Ecology: Black Willows have a wide range within the Eastern US and Canada. Black willow is widespread, and grows thick and tall as it ages. As a water loving tree, it is often found along the edges of water. Willows are excellent for land and waterway restoration, as they have a high tolerance of pollution and can break down certain toxic substances in the ecosystem. The Willow, with its deep roots, can regularly handle flooding and changes in water levels.
The Second Aicme
Hawthorn – Huath
Allegheny Tree(s): Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), including Pennsylvania Hawthorn (Crataegus tatnalliana)
Original Tree: Hawthorn / Huath
Meaning: Restriction, danger, warnings. Patience. Heart and emotional protection. Hawthorn’s thorns are not aggressive, as in the snag and tear (like blackberry) but rather they are protective, surrounding the tree closely. This offers insight on the kinds of protection that hawthorn provides: thorns that protect but do not attack, thorns that create space for healing.
Ecology: The Eastern US has over 70 native species of Hawthorn. While leaf patterns vary widely, all has the ubiquitous thorns, 5 petaled flowers in the spring signaling the return of spring (Beltane), with ripening haws (fruit) in the time between the fall equinox and Samhain.
White Oak – Duir
Allegheny Tree(s): White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)
Original tree: Oak / Duir
Meaning: Wisdom. Durability. Be strong and steady like the oak. Find your grounding. Power within and without. Growth. Protection.
Ecology: The Oak is one of the keystone species in the Eastern part of the US and into Canada. The White Oak can reach 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity, with a massive canopy and deep root system. White oaks live up to 300 years or more. Oaks produce acorns, but often do not produce large crops of acorns until after their 50th year of life. Every 3 years is a mast year, where Oaks produce a very large crop of nuts. Acorns were the staple food of many indigenous cultures and can be used in a wide variety of cuisine.
American Holly – Tinne
Allegheny Tree(s): American Holly (Ilex opaca)
Original Tree: Holly / Tinne
Meaning: Facing challenges, being a warrior, being dynamic and responsive. This is a plant of warriors and protectors. It also ties to the changing of the seasons, courage, and moving forward, and bringing light into dark times.
Ecology: The American Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly. It is shade tolerant and can live in the understory of most forest canopies. It is spread across the southern and northern Eastern US, find in wild areas as well as cultivated areas. The holly berries are dominant at the winter solstice.
Alternatives: Any other evergreen species is appropriate here. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), which is north of the native range of American Holly, is an excellent alternative for more northern areas.
American Hazelnut – Coll
Allegheny Tree(s): American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
Original tree: Hazel / Coll
Meaning: Poetry, wisdom, divination. Bringing ideas to the surface, awen; artistry or creativity; inspiration; divine inspiration, finding the muse. Honing one’s craft or skill in a subject. Letting the flow of inspiration (awen) come and opening to that experience.
Ecology: The American hazelnut is a shade-tolerant small tree or large shrub, usually not reaching more than 3-10 feet tall. It grows in large thickets and even when cut back or coppiced, can powerfully regrow. It is shade tolerant, often growing in the understory. Hazels produce delicious nuts that have a high protein content and can be enjoyed both by humans and wildlife.
Alternatives: Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgniana) is a different species, but may be appropriate as a substitution.
Apple – Quert
Allegheny Tree(s): Apple (Malus spp.)
Original Tree: Apple / Quert
Meaning: Celebration, love of all kinds, harvests and success, contentment. Paths of learning that are open. Making a good decision. Learning and growth.
Ecology: Although many species of apples were introduced to North American in the 17th centuru, the “crab apple” is native to the US. Crab apples are edible like their more cultivated counterparts, but are usually smaller and tarter due to lack of thousands of years of cultivation. Today, it is common to find crabapples and abandoned apple orchards all through the Allegheny mountain region.
Alternatives: Another domesticated fruit tree.
The Third Aicme
Wild Grape Vine – Muinn
Allegheny Tree(s): Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia), New England grape ( V. novae-angliae), Vitis spp.
Original tree: Muinn / Vine
Meaning: Freedom, truth, honesty, trustworthiness. Release of prophetic powers, prophecy and divination.
Ecology: A variety of wild grape species grow in the Allegheny region; all are characterized by flexible steps that send out tendrils to cling, grow, and climb. Wild grapes often have gray bark that peels easily off the vines. Some wild grapes can grow massive and create a canopy of grapes that, if too heavy, can pull down trees around them.
Alternatives: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
Blackberry – Gort
Allegheny Tree(s): Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
Original Tree: Ivy
Meaning: Making slow progress, being entangled or prevented from moving forward. Having delays, setbacks, and unforeseen challenges. With these setbacks, however, comes the determination to keep going. This is a time of persistence and determination.
Ecology: Blackberry is a native perennial shrub that can grow up to 7’ tall with many canes. Canes live for two years—the first year, the cane is green with many thorns. In the second year, the cane goes a dark red/brown with thorns. After the second year, new canes can sprout up from the same root system. The fruits are abundant and purple-black when mature, excellent for pies and jams—if you are willing to brave the thorns and canes to get them. If you’ve ever been caught in a big blackberry patch, you understand how the blackberry canes can catch, snack, and stall you.
Cattail – Ngetal
Allegheny Tree(s): Cattail (Typha spp.)
Original Tree: Reed
Meaning: Swiftness and speed, the idea that things are moving forward, perhaps rapidly. Transformation. Healing and the healing that only changing circumstances can bring.
Ecology: Cattails are upright perennial plants that live on the edges of ponds, lakes, and other slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water. They are characterized by their long tall leaves and the stalk that produces a brown, elongated head, which, over the winter months, eventually turns to small seed fluff and flies off. Cattails are a keystone species in much of the Appalachian region and are also a useful wild food source.
Alternatives: Rushes, Phragmites, and other water-loving woody species.
Black Locust – Straif
Allegheny Tree(s): Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Original Tree: Blackthorn
Meaning: Unexpected or unavoidable change, upheaval, or chaos. Fate, external influences, and external forces working for change, such that change happens regardless of your own actions. Having courage through such having courage through these circumstances.
Ecology: Black locust is a native tree that blooms late, drops leaves early, and has a general skeletal appearance with thick gray-brown bark, and large thorns on young branches. The black locust produces a very dense, strong wood that is rot resistant, and thus, useful for a variety of building applications. Large clusters of pea-shaped white flowers with a yellow center bloom on the black locusts usually in early June; these fragrant clusters are edible and delicious.
Alternatives: For those that are within the range, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) is a fantastic alternative for Straif.
Black Elder – Ruis
Allegheny Tree(s): Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Original Tree: Elder
Meaning: Endings, with the understanding that something new will come. Life in death, death in life; changes from old to new. Having resolution and closure. Connection to the otherworld, gateways to the otherworld, and fae connections.
Ecology: The Black Elder is a widespread, native tree to the Eastern US. Black elder can be found in full sun, part shade, and full shade, although it is often found along the margins of forests and fields. By the summer solstice, it produces beautiful clusters of tiny flowers, reaching up to the sun. By Lughnasadh, these clusters have turned into ripe, purple berries, bending down to the earth. The Black Elder has a hollow core and pith like other species of Elder in Europe. In Europe, the “sambucca” was an ancient woodwind instrument made of elder; and that’s where the Latin name to the plant comes from.
The Fourth Aicme
White Spruce – Ailm
Allegheny Tree(s): White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
Original Tree: Fir
Meaning: Having clear vision, being able to see what is to come, having insight into a situation. Perspective and the ability to look at a situation in a new way. Having an understanding or coming to an understanding about an issue or situation.
Ecology: Spruces are an important tree in the Appalachian mountain region, along with several other conifer species. Spruce trees can live up to 300 years and grow to a height of 150 feet tall. All spruces have a whorled branch structure (a spiral pattern) and a conical form (like many other conifers). The world’s oldest living tree is thought to be Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce located in Sweden, which is though to be 9,550 years old.
Alternatives: Any other conifer species would be appropriate.
Eastern Hemlock – Omn
Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern Hemlock
Original Tree: Gorse/Furze
Meaning: Hope, potential and possibility. Hope in a brighter future. Learning and growth. Possibility.
Ecology: The Eastern Hemlock is a keystone species in the Eastern US. It is a shade-loving tree, often found in deep forests or along the banks of forest streams and rivers. The world’s oldest known hemlock is in Tionesta, PA, being 554 years old. The tree can reach up to 170 feet tall and 5 feet across. The hemlock needle underside has two light green lines and the hemlock, for its large size, produces tiny cones less than 1” in length. Hemlocks are currently under threat from the hemlock wooly adelgid, which was introduced to the US in 1924 and has been in the range of hemlock trees since the 1960’s.
Alternatives: Any other dominant conifer species.
Mountain Laurel – Ur
Allegheny Tree(s): Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia);
Original tree: Heather
Meaning: Spiritual power, spiritual connections, energy, and creation. Passion and generosity. Close contact with spirit world and healing.
Ecology: Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with broad leaves in the heather (heath) family. When it flowers in early June, the flowers range from pink to white and look like beautiful little parasols. In the more southern end of its range, mountain laurel can grow to the size of trees; in the northern end of its range it stays shrub size.
Alternatives: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) is an excellent alternative, and functions in much the same way in the ecosystem (showy flowers in June, evergreen leaves, shrub or small tree size, similar growth habit).
Tulip Tree – Edhadh
Allegheny Tree(s): Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Original Tree: Aspen
Meaning: Hard work leads to success. Endurance, courage, and will. Bending rather than breaking, the ability to endure and triumph.
Ecology: The Tulip tree (also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or whitewood) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It can grow up to 160 feet tall, and often grows very straight in large stands in the region. Flowers, looking like beautiful yellow tulips, grow on the tree in May or early June, eventually turning to seedpods. Even in the winter, you can still see the remnants of the dried pod, reaching up from the tree.
Alternatives: The range of Tulip poplar stops in mid-new York and the bottom of Massachusetts. Other good options for those further north would be Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)
Eastern White Cedar – Ida
Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis)
Original Tree: Yew
Meaning: Death and rebirth. Legacy. Things that abide (like ancestral knowledge, traditions, or lore). Wisdom from experience. Eldership and honoring the elders. Endings.
Ecology: The Eastern White Cedar, also called the Arborvite or the Tree of Life, is a small-sized conifer averaging about 40 feet high. Scale-like leaves form massive branches that go out in many directions. Eastern White Cedar trees are some of the most long-lived trees in North America; some trees on the cliffs of Lake Superior are known to be at least 1600 years old. Even in death, cedar lives on through rot resistance in the wood.
Alternatives: Eastern Redcedar / Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is an excellent alternative. Although it is also called a cedar, Juniper is actually in a different family.
The Druid Grove – Koad
Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.
Original Tree: Grove
Meaning: Resolution of conflict with others, peacemaking, and deep listening. Being a peacemaker and promoting a path of peace, justice, and understanding. Communication with others, particularly to promote understanding and harmony. Community and tribe.
Ecology: Forests are made up of thousands of species: trees, plants, insects, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, macrobiotics life—and within a forest, within a grove of sacred trees, there is harmony. This Ogham represents the grove, in whatever ecosystem you live in—this is harmony, community, and the circle of trees around you.
Black Cherry – Oir
Allegheny Tree(s): Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)
Original Tree: Spindle
Meaning: Fulfilling one’s obligations, honoring one’s commitments, and staying true to one’s word. The determination, dedication, and persistence sometimes needed to complete obligations.
Ecology: Cherry trees are widespread in North America, the black cherry spans from Florida the whole way to Newfoundland. Cherry trees are pioneer species, often rapidly growing after a forest has been disrupted. All cherries produce small “cherry” fruits, although the flavor of the cherry fruits vary widely, and thus, are usually eaten by birds. The cherry seed reminds us of the meaning here: cherry seeds have incredibly tough shells and require scarification to germinate (the surface scratched, perhaps by going through an animal’s digestive system). Determination is necessary for these seeds to sprout.
Sugar Maple – Uileand
Allegheny Tree(s): Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)
Original Tree: Honeysuckle
Meaning: Hidden desires, pleasures, and possibly distractions. Finding our true selves, and discovering insights along the path of our own growth. Subtle mysteries, secrets, and hidden things.
Ecology: Maples are widespread in North America, and since they are also planted for show, they are easy to find even in urban areas. The fall color of maples is fantastic, ranging from deep purples to bright reds, oranges, or yellows, which is why some maples are called ‘fire maples.’ Maples all produce a delicious sap that can be boiled down into syrup or sugar, although tapping trees and boiling it can take some effort. The maple encourages us to look within and find our true selves.
American Beech – Phagos
Allegheny Tree(s): American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Original Tree: Beech
Meaning: Wisdom, learning, history. Ancient knowledge, memory. Beech trees have long been associated with human learning, particularly through words, books, and stories written down.
Ecology: Smooth and light-barked beech trees are often found growing with Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar maple on rich and wet slopes here in the Alleghenies and represents a final stage in ecological succession. Beeches are shade tolerant but can also reach up to 115 tall. Throughout history, the smooth bark has invited humans to carve “arborglyphs” into the bark of the beech—some of these in North America date back to pre-colonial times.
Alternatives: Eastern Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is an excellent alternative.
White Pine – Ifin
Allegheny Tree(s): White Pine (Pinus strobus);
Original Tree: Pine
Meaning: Vision, awareness, perception. Self-work and shadow work. Guilt. Making amends, possibly after a long and bitter time.
Ecology: White Pine is a dominant species on the US east coast, spanning throughout the Appalachian regions and beyond. As the tallest tree in eastern North America, White Pines have been recorded up to 230 feet tall and they can live up to 500 years. Needles that are long, green and flexible, typically come grouped in bundles of 5. White pines were heavily logged in the US in the 18th-20th century for shipbuilding and industry, but still some old-growth forests that contain White Pine (and often also Hemlock and beech) remain. These are a spectacular sight, walking within them is truly like walking in a cathedral. White pine can live up to 500 years.
Alternatives: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
Using the Allegheny Ogham as a Bard, Ovate, and Druid
Working with any Ogham system can be a long-term learning process. The Ogham is a flexible system that you can use for magic, divination, meditation, art, studies in ecology, and more. This section offers some ideas for how to best work with the Allegheny Ogham.
Preliminaries: Creating Your Ogham Set
Foraging for your Ogham Set. For long-term Ogham study and developing a deeper understanding of the ovate arts, you might want to seek out and forage for each of the Ogham fews that you are going to work with. While the symbols are useful, having the wood itself and meeting each of the trees can be a very effective way to work with the Ogham and understand it from the perspective of the ovate arts: that is, the perspective of ecology, identification, and experience.
Foraging for your own Ogham can take considerable time, sometimes a period of months or years, depending on how often you go out. Once you find a tree, you will want to spend some time with the tree. Ask permission to harvest a few from the tree (living or dead, your choice) and make sure you leave some kind of offering (I like to use a home-grown herbal blend. I also will pee on the base of the tree to offer nitrogen if I do not have any of my regular offering blend).
As you collect your Ogham, you can work with and meditate on each of the fews, doing some of the other work as outlined in this guide.
Creating Your Own Ogham set: There are two ways to go about creating your Ogham set. The first is to use a single wood (maple, apple, etc) and create all of your fews from that wood. I recommend that if you want to get into the Ogham and start working with it immediately as a divination tool, you consider this option. You can also use this initial set as you are foraging for your own Ogham, as described above.
To make your set, you want to start by making sure that each of your fews are about the same length. A pair of hand pruners is an easy way to cut them to size. I would then recommend at least some light sanding to take the hard edges off of your Ogham staves. From there, you will want to burn in the images of each of the Ogham. The most common way is to take a sharp blade (knife, box cutter, or the like) and shave off an inch or so of the bark, cambium, and some of the wood so that you get a smooth surface. From there, you would draw, paint, or woodburn the specific Ogham symbol into the wood. If you have difficulty remembering the symbols (or you have dyslexia), you could also burn the name into the wood or add some other detail to help you, like an image of the leaf.
In this specific Ogham, Cattail and Blackberry are not trees, so they do not have a woody stem. For those, I would not cut away any of the branch structure but would rather mark the symbol right on the wood.
Storing your Ogham. You should have something to keep your Ogham in when you aren’t using them. Traditional materials include linen or silk, both of which are known in esoteric circles to be fairly neutral energetically. You can also store them in anything else you like—a small leather bag or small wooden box also works great. If you want to use a casting cloth, you can also store your cloth with them (or use the cloth as a wrap itself).
Ogham and the Druid Path: Divination, Meditation, and Magic
Ogham for Divination. Learning how to use the Ogham for divination is an art form—while its easy to get started, you can also deepen your understanding over a period of time. You can keep it simple or get very advanced with casting cloths and stave directions. Here are three such ways to start to use the Ogham. I would also recommend a book-length work for more info on using Ogham for divination such as Ogham: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie and the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.
The Daily Draw. To start to use Ogham, and to continue to build your skills, I suggest a daily Ogham draw. This can be an Ogham few that offer you a message for today—something to reflect upon, meditate upon, and carry with you as you go forward in your day (or if you do it at night, as you rest and start your new day). Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, arriving at this moment and allowing other thoughts, feelings, and issues to retreat. Set your intention for your divination. Reach into your Ogham bag and feel for an Ogham few that speak to you. Pull that Ogham, and look at the meaning. Reflect on it for a few moments.
Three Rays Draw. The three rays draw has a number of different possibilities and interpretations. For this, you will be drawing three staves. The three staves can represent any of the following (choose in advance what you’d like them to represent)
- Light aspect (right), Dark aspect (left), how to bring them into balance (center)
- Current situation (left), suggested action (center), possible outcome if action is taken (right)
- Mind (left), Body (center), Spirit (right)
- To bring stability (left), to bring flow (right), to bring balance (center)
To engage in any of these draws, you will use the techniques described in the daily draw and draw three Ogham fews. Lay them out, look at their meanings, and meditate on the message.
Additional draws and options. Once you’ve done the above draws, you might want to get more elaborate in your divination. Many different methods exist for this. You can start by selecting a number of Ogham (three or seven) and then dropping them on a surface to see how they land. Pay attention to the interaction between them (e.g. are any of them touching? Which direction are they facing? How do they interact?) This gives you additional insights and experiences with the Ogham. Once you’ve practiced this a while, consider adding a casting cloth to your experience. A casting cloth allows you to “cast” any number of Ogham (I usually use 7) and where they land on the cloth, and in what direction, can help you interpret the meanings. You can create your own casting cloth or purchase one (there are a number of options out there, including some typically used for runes that will work great for Ogham).
Ogham for Meditation. A second way to use Ogham is to use it as a meditation tool. Meditation on the Ogham, their meanings, relationships, and associations can help you have a deeper understanding of what the Ogham means and their divination meanings. Meditation on the Ogham can also put you in a deeper connection with these trees and your local ecology. Here are three meditation strategies:
- Energy meditation. The first meditation is one where you simply feel the energy of the Ogham few. Relax and get into a receptive space (with breathing, candles, quietude). From there, breathe deeply and allow the air to flow in and out of your lungs. Once you have found quiet within, turn your attention to one of the Ogham fews. See how it feels in your hand. Run your fingers over the bark. Engage it with your senses. Now, close your eyes and feel the energy of this Ogham few—is it welcoming? Cold? Strong? Try picking up a second few and comparing the two. What is the difference?
- Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation is a type of mediation based on focused thought. Prepare yourself for meditation by getting comfortable, engaging in deep breathing, and grounding yourself. When you are ready, focus on one of the Ogham fews (one you draw or select in advance). Consider the meaning of this few. Work your way through this meaning, allowing your thoughts to go where they would like as long as they continue to focus on the meaning. If you find yourself straying too far from the Ogham few itself, retrace your thoughts and focus back on the main theme—the Ogham few, meaning, and the tree itself. You can repeat this meditation for each few and work your way through them. I have found it useful to meditate on each one as I was learning, and then, about once a year, return to these meditations as my own experiences with the trees themselves and working with the Ogham deepened.
- Journey Meditation. A final way you can use these Ogham for meditation is through spirit journeying. Journeying can allow you to meet the spirit of the trees and Ogham directly. Journeying, in this sense, involves meditating on the specific Ogham you wish to connect with, envisioning an inner grove where you can meet that tree, meeting that tree, and engaging in conversation, travel, or receiving teachings on the inner place from that tree. While it is out of the scope of this article to describe this in detail, I’ve written extensively on spirit journeying with plants in The Plant Spirit Oracle: Recipes, Meanings, and Journeys as well as on my blog (see: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/plant-spirit-communication-part-iii-spirit-journeying/ ).
Ogham for Chant Magic
A final way you can incorporate the Ogham into your druid practice is to use it for chanting. This can be simple, simply chanting the Ogham itself so that you can bring that energy into your life. Or, you can do something much more elaborate, like this Hemlock Galdr ritual!
Ogham and the Ovate Arts
As I described above under “preliminaries”, foraging for your own Ogham set and finding all of the 25 sacred trees is certainly a fantastic way to connect more deeply with nature and learn about these Ogham trees. That search, in itself, is a very powerful journey that allows one learn a variety of ovate skills: plant and tree identification, observation and interaction, getting out in nature, and communing with nature.
Beyond that work, I would also recommend seeking out places where these trees are dominant and doing some ritual work in these places. For example, some of the trees on this list, including Oak, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine, can be found in old-growth groves throughout the East Coast. Visiting some of these groves and doing a kind of Ovate pilgrimage to these places is an excellent way to commune deeply with them. Bring your Ogham set with you (if you have one) and intone the Ogham as you sit among these trees.
Planting and tending some of the 25 sacred trees is another way to practice the ovate arts. You can get most of these from the Arbor Day Foundation (if you are in the US). Consider also learning how to forage for these trees for medicine or food—ethically and sustainably, of course.
Finally, you might learn about these trees in more depth: what other plant species are associated with these trees? What insect, animal, or bird life depends on them? What is their life cycle? How do they look at different points of the year? The more you can learn about the trees on the physical plane, the more that your spiritual connection with them will deepen in time.
Ogham and the Bardic Arts
Beyond making your own Ogham set (which is certainly a very Bardic skill), you can learn about the Ogham and work with them in a number of ways, both the trees themselves and with the symbols and sounds themselves.
The Ogham can be an inspiration for you for the Bardic arts. You might consider how the Ogham might be developed into chants, music, dance, or song. Poetry, short stories, or other literary works would also lend themselves well to considering the Ogham. If you are a visual artist, you might work the symbolism of the Ogham into various artistic creations.
Another option here for the Bardic arts is to work with the woods and materials from these sacred trees. Tulip poplar, for example, allows you to make amazing bark baskets—if you find a Tulip tree that has recently fallen, you can harvest the bark and learn basketry. The cambium of this same tree is excellent for using as kindling for fire starting. The woods of many of these trees, including Cherry, Sassafras, Oak, and Beech, are excellent for woodworking (including woodburning, turning, carving, and more). Learning each of the trees by working their wood in a Bardic tradition allows you deeper insight into the trees themselves.
I hope that this guide has inspired you to work with the Ogham or deepen your practice. Questions and comments about the guide can be posted to this page. I welcome your comments, feedback, and thoughts!