The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) – Magic, Mythology, and Medicinal Qualities March 26, 2014

“MAPLE SUGAR” – Chippewa Song

“Maple sugar
is the only thing
that satisfies me”

 

This is the third in my series of posts about magical trees native to the Americas. In this series of posts, I explore the lore of sacred trees, describe their magical and mundane uses, edible qualities, medicinal qualities, and other assorted lore. While there are approximately 128 different species of maple, I’m going to focus my comments on one dominant maple in this region–the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) although some of the commentary here also applies to other kinds of maple trees. The sugar maple is a tree with which I have always had the strongest of affinities.

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves unfurling early in the spring

Early in the spring, the magic of the maple begins. When the temperatures drop below freezing in the night, but the temperature goes above freezing in the day, the sap of the sugar maple begins to run.  It rises up from the maple’s roots bringing sweetness and nourishment to the tree. When the trees start to bud (and the temperature gets a bit warmer) and the land awakens, the sap ceases running for the year.  I’ve been honored to be part of a maple sugaring operation for the last two years–it has given me yet another perspective on the beautiful sugar maple tree.  In fact, I was just out there today enjoying the smell of the sap as it boils, the dripping of the sap into our buckets, and the community surrounding what we affectionately call “the sugarbush.”

 

About The Maple

The sugar maple grows through much of the Midwest and north eastern parts of the USA, and has been a dominant tree in the four states where I’ve lived–PA, NY, IN, and MI.  In fact, the sugar maple is critically important to the health of forests throughout its range, often forming pairings with beech, birch, oak, and/or ash. A typical tree can grow up to 115 feet tall, although it is also quite shade tolerant and therefore functions as a great understory tree.

 

Maples produce a vibrant display in the fall–and none better than the sugar maple.  The sugar maple is sometimes called the “fire maple” because it produces brilliant red/orange/yellow leaves.  I love watching them slowly change over a period of days until they are all fiery and beautiful!

 

Scene from my garden with fall foilage in bloom!

Scene from my garden with fall foliage in bloom!  Maple trees are mostly red and yellow in this scene.

Maple at Risk

Unfortunately, sugar maples have seen quite a bit of decline due to logging of forests (they are slow growing, and faster growing trees, like birch, will often come up in their places after a forest is logged).  Sugar maples are also not very tolerant to pollution, including soil acidification and acid rain (this is mainly caused by automobiles). While they were once found in parks throughout the USA, with the rise of the automobile, these trees had a harder time surviving in urban areas.  Culpepper goes as far to call this tree a “gentleman’s tree” as it was often found in urban parks.  The salt from roads also damages the tree’s root systems, contributing to its decline. This is not to say that the sugar maple is still not a dominant tree-it is.  You just need to get off the roads and out of the cities to see them.

 

Edible Nature of the Sugar Maple

The sugar maple’s decline in 21st century USA is a terrible shame because the sugar maple is one of the gems of our woodland tree species. Perhaps this tree is best known for its sweet sap, which can be boiled down to make maple syrup or further boiled to make maple sugar (a process I detailed last year). This process requires 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup–certainly, as the native American legends describe below–the maple teaches us that hard work reaps just rewards. I also have made a sacred trees brew with maple, hickory, white pine, and birch.  Its a fabulous drink, and brings in the sacred blessings of these trees.

Pemmican was made by pounding strips of meat and berries with maple sugar and letting those dry out in the sun (Iroquios, The Hunting of the Great Bear). Pemmican was an incredibly important food for native peoples and American colonists alike, especially those in the frontier areas of the USA.

Finally, maple leaves are edible, and they are actually pretty tasty in early spring.  I like them in salads or as a little snack.

 

Wood uses

Maple wood is often used for furniture and flooring. It has a beautiful light color and I have found it nice to work with for carving and natural building. As I learned in a recent round pole framing workshop at the Strawbale Studio, bark from maple poles freshly cut just comes off like butter with a simple draw knife! If I ever get to build my own cob house, I hope to use maple for the rafters! It is also often used for making instruments (I have a beautiful panflute made of maple).

 

Arts and Crafts

The Pennsylvania Dutch used the inner bark of the red maple (acer rubrum) boiled in water for dying flax or wool (they combined it with copper for staying power).  This produced a lovely purple–I haven’t tried this myself yet, but its certainly on my “to learn” list!  The Native Americans also used maple to make aprons or bows.  Women used maple to make aprons, and at least in one story, painted those aprons red.

Gaurdian maple tree in the snow

Guardian maple tree in the snow

Herbal/Medicinal Qualities

Culpeper’s coverage of the maple tree suggests that the maple strengthens the liver and opens obstructions of the liver and spleen.  Hagender’s coverage of the maple suggests that the Chippewa used a decoction of the bark to treat sores, the Mohegan to cure coughs, and the Tsalagi used the silver maple bark for sore eyes, cramps, and other gynecological problems.  There really isn’t a lot of coverage about the maple in most modern herbals, which is pretty surprising.

 

Native American Lore

In order to understand the sugar maple in the Native American lore, I reviewed numerous legends–the sugar maple features prominently in their tales.

  • The maple as a gift that takes work. The maple was one of the only sources of sugar for the native peoples–as such it was seen as a gift from the creator.  While the maple is a gift, the native tales are clear that this gift takes work (in the form of collecting sap and boiling it down to make sugars). In Gluskabe Changes Maple Syrup, the Creator had originally had sap flow from maple trees as rich and as thick as honey–one needed only to break off a branch and the sap would flow out at any point of the year. However, Gluskabe, who’s job it is to report back to the Creator, comes across a group of people who were fat and lazy, who abandoned their village and instead laid down in a maple grove sipping sap all day. Gluskabe was instructed to fill the maple trees with water each day for a full moon cycle, and now, people would have to work to have the sweetness of the maple and they would only have it for a short time in the spring to learn the error of their ways. At the end of the story, the people worked to turn the sap into sugar by burning cedar and making white birch buckets (using the magic of those two trees as well).  The work of the maple sugar is also found in the Senaca legend, Woman who Fell From the Sky, where the maple sap is changed to keep people from living too easy. In another legend, The Sugar Maple, the Sugar maple gets help from Woodpecker, who helps him by pulling out the grubs that are under maple’s bark.  Later, Woodpecker is dying of thirst during a drought, and Maple allows him to drink by pecking holes in the tree.
  • Maple as a delicacy. Maple sugar was seen as a delicacy by the Native Americans.  In several tales, babies appear sucking maple sugar.  In other tales, it is prepared as a drink with herbs.  In one Ojibwa legend, a maple syrup feast is mentioned.
  • Honoring the maple tree in ritual. In order to keep the maples producing the sap, Native Americans did maple ceremonies to ensure good sap harvests each year.  These were typically done right as the sap began to flow from the trees.  These ceremonies usually involved having everyone gather around the tree, addressing the tree in ritual language, and offering the tree tobacco incense.  This reminds me quite a bit of apple orchard wassailing.
  • Maple as a gentle tree. When talking sticks are made out of maple, it is said to represent gentleness.
  • The Fiery Red Leaves of Maple represent blood. The reason that maples turn red in the fall can be explained by Chasing the Bear, where a long bear hunt ends with the hunters piling up sumac and maple branches and butchering the bear upon the branches.  In another version of this legend, “Hunting the Great Bear” reported by Hageneder, the long bear hunt happens each year.  The the four brothers (who make up the constellation of the great bear) finally kill the bear and the bear’s blood falls down from the sky and turns the maples red.

Western Magical Information

The maple tree is ruled by Jupiter (Culpeper). Hopman suggests that maple is used for love and wands, its also often used as a handfasting herb. Again, I found very little in the western esoteric traditions, and what I did find, I’m not sure of its source. I do think that the native American legends provide us with some wonderful information about the maple, however.

 

My Experiences and Insights

With her running sap, her gentle presence to her striking bright reds, yellows, oranges, and purples, I truly believe the Maple tree is a gift from the land.  Her sap typically runs between Imboc and Alban Eiler (spring equinox) and her leaves brighten between Alban Alfed (fall equinox) and fall by Samhuinn. I think the fact that the two more prominent events of the Maple occur around the equinoxes is no coincidence, for I have always seen the maple is a tree of balance, a tree that sits between the worlds.

 

Maple as a tree of gentleness and yet as a door opener. has always resonated with me. Meditating near a maple often leads one on unexpected journeys on the inner landscape.  Sometimes, as I sit by an old maple tree, the tree tells me her story and I listen and learn.

 

When I was a child, sugar maple was one of my favorite friends.  With her smooth, light gray bark, and evenly distributed branches, she made a perfect tree for climbing.  From the canopy above, I would hide in her embrace, looking out at the world below.   I would spend hours in one particular maple tree, sitting on a long, outstretched limb and observing the world around me.  Inch worms lived in the tree, and once in a while, a bird might land.  The sugar maple tree has always felt very protective and nurturing.

 

I hope that you find a chance to have your life enriched by the blessed sugar maple tree!