Tag Archives: ancient ancestors

Sacred Trees in the Americas – The Magic, Medicine, and Uses of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

One of the most majestic experiences you can have with trees is being surrounded by old-growth Tulip Poplar trees.  Tulips grow extraordinarily tall and straight, with thick gray trunks and spreading roots. You feel like you are in a cathedral, standing under these magnificent trees. The tulip trees get their name both from the leaves–which are shaped like a tulip and from their flowers–beautiful, large, showy orange and yellow flowers that look just like a tulip. You can find these trees easily in June as the showy tulip leaves begin to drop to the forest floor. They are also easy to spot in the winter–you can look up and see the remains of the tulip flowers, gone to seed, throughout the winter months–they look like little cups reaching up to the heavens, a beautiful sight.

We have one such grove of tulip trees in a local park near here–a local park called White’s Woods. Unfortunately, some township commissioners want to harvest a lot of these magnificent trees, so our community has been in a battle to save our forest for over a year now. What has amazed me about this entire fight, however, is how the tulip tree has become the symbol of the forest: people have gone to the woods, taking photos of the trees, hugging the trees, and more.  I have faith that we can win this battle to save our majestic tulip forest! 

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The Tulip tree is known by many names–here in Western Pennsylvania (USA) we use the term “Tulip” (which is how I’ll refer to this tree in my post). Further out east and in the south, I’ve heard it called “Tulip Poplar.” In his book A Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane notes that it is also called “Whitewood”, “Yellow Poplar”, or “Popple.” It is also known as “fiddletree” and “canoewood” for reasons that will be apparent in this post. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. Whatever your name for this tree–let’s spend some time today getting to know the ecology, mythology, and magic of this most wonderful tree. The magnificent tulip trees throughout North America have much to teach us, if only we listen.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology of the Tulip Tree

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

Despite the fact that they are commonly called a poplar, tulip trees are in the magnolia family, and thus, share some qualities with other magnolias, including the large leaves and showy flowers. The Tulip tree is characterized by an extremely tall and straight growth habit and is one of the largest trees in North America. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. In extraordinary cases, they can grow up to 170-190 feet high, although the average is still about 160 feet tall. The Tulip has several key features that make it a really incredible tree: it grows fast; it has strong, light-colored wood; the wood is not brittle or weak like many other fast-growing trees; and it grows straight and tall. The base of the trunks often flare out and then meet the tall-growing trunk—this is why they are called “fiddle tree” as their root base and trunk can appear to look like a fiddle from the distance. 

The tulip tree is considered a “mid succession” tree from an ecological perspective. They are shade intolerant, so they grow fast and usually come into dominance 50-150 years after a forest regrows. As the climax species take over (hardwood nut trees: oaks, hickories, etc.), they will decline. Thus, you can use Tulip to help read the age of a forest and have a sense of a forest’s history. Here in Western and Central Pennsylvania, this is particularly useful: we had almost 92-98% of the forest cover cut due to industrialization from about 1880 to 1920. So we are in that 50-150 year range where we have many beautiful large stands of Tulip trees.

The other interesting thing to know about history is that the tulip is a very ancient tree representing older forms of tree life. The Tulip tree has an older, less evolved seed pod than other more recent trees, which also accounts for its unique flowers. We have fossils from ancient tulip trees from the upper cretaceous period (70-100 million years ago); from that fossil record, we know that it once was much more widespread but now only two species remain in the Liriodendron family: the North American Tulip Poplar tree and the Liriodendron Chinese, which grows in China and Vietnam. It is likely that many Tulips were destroyed in glaciation in the Pleistocene era.

The trees begin to flower in June here in Pennsylvania, but you might see flowering as early as April in much warmer southern states. The flowers range from light yellow to light green and have bright orange in their centers. I’ve seen photos of tulip trees with almost white flowers, but nearly all of them where I live are light yellow as the photos I am sharing suggest. The leaves also look like a tulip–the leaves grow in an alternate pattern and are 5-6″ wide, heart-shaped, and have four lobes looking like the points on a tulip flower. They are quite distinctive here in the Eastern US–no other tree has a leaf anything like Tulip, making them easy to identify. In the fall, they have brilliant yellow foliage that is brighter but the same kind of yellow as their flowers earlier in the year. Their bark is brown and has many deep ridges as the tree ages—they almost look like the ridges here in the northern Appalachian Mountains, running parallel along the landscape. Younger branches are smooth and reddish and later grow into the darker brown.

Tulip tree flower close up!

John Eastman describes some of the ecologies of these trees: they are often found with beeches and maples. I have also seen them here with Cherries and some limited hardwood nut trees (oak, butternut). Eastman says you can find them in bottomland forests, but here, we see them growing along wet hillsides and slopes. Birds including cardinals and finches, consume the seeds in the winter along with squirrels and mice.

Human Uses

Tulip tree is one of the most valuable hardwoods in North America due to its quick growth, straight growing habit, and strong wood. In the US, it is usually marketed as “poplar” but abroad it is sold as “American tulipwood.” It is used for instruments, like organs and pianos, and can also used as interior finish/veneer, used for wide floorboards, boxes, bowls, and more. It is comparable to White Pine and usually more abundant due to its distribution and growth habitat. It resistance to termites and thus, can be used for barn and house beams (I’m not sure I’d use this over black locust, but it is still a great wood!) The wood is nice to work and doesn’t split. Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes that in Pennsylvania, natives and colonists alike used it for canoes, boards, planks, bowls, dishes, spoons, doorposts, and joiners roofs because it was so easily worked and strong.

Tulip tree is well known in the bushcraft communities for a wide range of uses. Tulip inner bark (cambium) is an excellent emergency food (which I have not tried); the inner bark can also be used as an excellent tinder to make a nest for starting a fire using a bow drill, hand drill, or flint and steel (which I have tried). You can use a single tulip poplar downed branch to start a warm fire: stripping the bark for kindling and your nest, and then using the branch wood itself to start the blaze. You can also make a nice bow drill set from tulip poplar—it is harder than a beginner set (made of something soft like paw paw) but is a great for both a hearth board and a spindle. The inner bark also can be twisted into a rope or cordage. Tulip bark, when freshly cut, can be cut and peeled in the spring, so you can use it to make really nice bark baskets, arrow quivers, and more. It is also a very popular carving wood for spoons, bowls, and other functional crafts. I often will hike through the forest and look for downed tulip trees, eagerly ready to harvest their bark if the chance permits! Here’s an overview of some of the uses.

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest


Tulip poplar makes an excellent early to midseason food source for bees, and you can sometimes find honey from Tulip trees at local farmer’s markets.Tulip flowers also have some nectar that is in the cup that can be enjoyed directly—but best of luck trying to find low hanging flowers for your to enjoy. I’ve only had a chance to taste this very infrequently in my foraging travels because usually the flowers are 150 feet up the tree! Speaking of foraging, you might get lucky and find morel mushrooms near or under these trees as this is one of the common places they grow.

The Native Americans used this tree extensively for a range of uses as described by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. For example, one name of this tree is “Canoewood” which refers to the fact that many Native American tribes, including the Harriot in Virginia, used the massive Tulip tree trunks for making large dugout canoes (using fire-based methods). Captain John Smith in 1612 described these canoes as being 40-50 feet in length and carry 40 passengers.  This, most certainly, is how the tree got its name “canoewood.”

Tulip Poplar Medicine

The tulip tree is really a tree that keeps on giving and helping humans in so many ways, and that includes a range of medicinal treatments.

Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: New World Herbs notes that the tulip tree bark is used primarily for medicine. The bark is sweet, acrid and aromatic. Quinine, which is a very effective Malaria treatment, was made from the Cinchona tree—in the absence of Quinine, you can use the bark of the Tulip tree. Tulip tree contains salicylates, which, along with Willow and Birch, can be used for pain relief. It can also be used to support digestion, restore people to health after they are worn out with fever and tension, strengthen and calm the heart/cardiovascular system, and also supports arthritis. Other modern uses of this tree include using the leaves as a poultice for sores or scrapes. The inner bark can be used to support a healthy fever and to aid in digestion. The inner bark can help treat pinworms or other worm issues.

Traditionally, as Erichsen-Brown notes, the leaves can be crushed and placed on the forehead to help with a headache. The Osages collected the bark in the winter months for a range of treatments–the winter bark has a higher medicinal content. A bark decoction (strong tea) can be used as a dewormer for horses, as a powerful blood purifier (alterative), and for treating a variety of stomach conditions. The inner bark of the root is considered the most powerful, but any of the inner bark can work for these purposes.

The Magic and Mythology of the Tulip Tree

Tulip Roots -- this is about a 30 year old tree.

Tulip Roots — this is about a 30 year old tree.

The Tulip Tree does not appear to have any recorded uses within the traditional Western magical traditions: in consulting my giant pile of usual sources, I do not see it listed at all.  This is honestly the case with many Northern Appalachian trees I’ve been covering recently in this series–if they do not have an old-world equivalent or if they are also not located predominately in the deep south, they have no record of magical use.  This doesn’t mean that they aren’t magical–Tulip is a magical tree!  It just means that it does not appear to have use in Hoodoo or traditional Western Occultism. In a similar manner, the Tulip isn’t discussed in the Native American lore that I can find in any way outside of the utilitarian uses.

One small tidbit: the American poet, Walt Whitman, indicated that the Tulip Tree was the ““the Apollo of the woods–tall and graceful.”

Magical and Divination Uses of the Tulip Tree

Given the lack of sources on magical uses, we have to draw upon the doctrine of signatures, the historical uses of tulip, the ecology, and growth habits to explore some possible magical and divination uses for the tree.  Here are three possibilities:

Utility and Practicality: one of the things about the tulip tree is that it has a tremendous amount of utility: it grows fast, produces amazing food, shelter, and medicine, and it offers bountiful—yet—utilitarian gifts to all who seek them.  This is a tree that encourages us to be practical and to think about utilitarian uses rather than frivolous ones.

Mid-succession and Transition: I think that the fact that the Tulip is a mid-succession tree is important to its potential magical qualities. Trees often take on specific qualities depending on if they are first-aid responders / land healers, mid-succession, and pinnacle species. As a Mid-succession tree, Tulip occupies a very important place in the larger lifespan of a forest: it helps us move beyond the first responder trees, carrying on from their early work.  It holds space for a period of time, and preparing the way for what is to come. When I think about a lot of work that many of us do as land healers, permaculturists, herbalists, and druids—I think about us now as having this kind of energy. The past is gone, and with it, a lot of knowledge was lost.  We are in a very difficult time of transition and suffering for nature, but we are here to hold those spaces and help aid in the transition. Whatever is coming, we are not there yet, but we are holding space in this time and place for what is to come.  The Tulip tree tells us to stand tall and strong in this regard!

Connection to Ancient Ancestors: Because the Tulip is such an ancient tree, it can connect us with our ancient human ancestors, those whose ways and names are lost to the mists of time.  That reminder is in every seed pod and flower, and certainly, in the roots of these magnificent ancient trees.  They have survived an ice age, they have witnessed countless changes over hundreds of millions of years, and they stand with us today to share that ancient wisdom and bridge to tomorrow.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the Tulip Poplar tree! If you have any stories, information, or ideas about the Tulip tree, I would love to hear from you. Blessings!

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?