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Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. 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. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, 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, 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.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Rhododendron (Rhododenron maximum)

A Rhododendron overlooking a foot path at Laurel Hill State Park

I remember the first time I saw the largest Rhododendron Maximum tree. I had recently moved back to Pennsylvania, and I was driving on 422 towards my parents’ house when I looked to the left and did a double-take!  An enormous Rhododendron, in bloom, at least 40 feet across and 20 feet high was in full bloom.  And, it was dwarfing the house it was growing next to.  After doing a little local research, I learned about how famous this rhododendron has been in our region. Ever since then, each time I pass, the Rhododendron and I exchange a little greeting.

As someone who lives in the Allegheny Mountains, Rhododendron has a special place in my heart.  It is one of the dominant understory trees (and yes, it often is the size of trees here!), growing both in deciduous and conifer (Hemlock) forests, encrusting rivers, and streams, and adding so much beauty to our land. Often confused with Mountain Laurel (see this PDF for some differences), Rhododendron is part of the Laurel-Azalea-Rhododendron group of plants in the Heather family (Ericaceae).  Rhododendrons can be found throughout the world and have some key distinguishing features.  I’m focusing my attention today on the  Rhododendron Maximum species, which is also known as Great Laurel, Great Rhododendron, Rosebay Rhododendron, American Rhododendron, Bayis, Late Rhododendron, or Big Rhododendron. If you don’t have Rhododendron Maximum, you can substitute any number of other Ericaceae species such as Mountain Laurel, another Rhododendron variety (including ornamental), or Azaela. Many people have these shrubs growing already as ornamentals in their yards or local towns if they don’t have them in the wild, making this a good plant to work with not only for those in the Appalachian mountains but those in suburban and urban areas.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  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. Other trees in this series include 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, 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 and Growth

The Great Rhododendron grows within most of the Appalachian Mountains, although the dominance and size can vary greatly.  It spans from eastern Georgia to Nova Scotia, and I will say, it is particularly dominant and amazing here in the Allegheny mounts of Western Pennsylvania. Here, you can see it as a small shrub, 8-10 feet high, and up to enormous sizes.  Rhododendrons can grow to 25 or 30 feet tall, twisting, beautiful, and magical. Their waxy simple leaves are evergreen, offering color and vibrancy year-round.  In June, they bloom with beautiful pink clusters of trumpet-like flowers that provide a fantastic nectar source for bees, moths, wasps, and hummingbirds.  This is why they are planted so widely as an ornamental–because they are truly stunning.

Rhododendron in bloom!

The leaves on the Rhododendron appear almost tropical. They vary from 3″ to over 8″ in length on older branches.  They grow in a spiral pattern starting at the top of the branch and spiral down the branch, demonstrating the sacred geometry present in this lovely tree.  Like other conifers, Rhododendron will drop and regrow a small number of leaves each year but stay green year-round.

In the wintertime, when the temperatures drop well below freezing, the rhododendron drops its leaves straight down and curls them up so that they look like long tubes.  This prevents the leaves from suffering cold damage.  As soon as the temperatures warm up, the rhododendron unfolds its leaves and spreads them to the winter sun. This shows incredible resilience and adaptability.   One of the ways the hillbillies here in Western PA know it is “damn cold out” is by looking at the Rhododendron leaves!

Rhododendrons particularly like to grow along the edges of streams and are found in both deciduous oak-hickory overstory forests and also in Hemlock/white pine forests.  It particularly enjoys wet areas, so you can often find it along riparian zones (particularly on the edges of smaller and medium-sized streams) and also in places where we have rocky outcrops, ravines, and hidden springs.  Rhododendrons are usually kept in check by a thick overstory.  There are cases where logging or other disruption of the overstory will allow the rhododendrons to spread for acres and acres–I once hiked through a few miles of one such situation in New England and it was quite an experience.

Woodburning Rhododendron

Rhododendrons to provide two important ecological functions: because of where they grow, their deep roots perform excellent soil and erosion control.  Because they have large leaves that are evergreen, they also provide excellent shelter–particularly winter shelter–to a host of birds and small mammals.

The rhododendrons also grow in a very whimsical way–they grow twisted, branches coming out at odd angles, and sometimes growing down and back up again.  I have long been a whimsical nature artist, and their whimsical, twisted, spiraling branches and trunks have always been an inspiration for me for my own work.

Uses

The Rhododendron, as an understory species, does not grow particularly large and thus, has limited use as a wood product. In fact, none of the books and resources that I currently use to research this series, none covered Rhododendron.

Beautiful Rhododendron Bloom

And yet, as someone who has worked with this wood, both to carve and burn, I am delighted to say that it is a wonderful wood.  I seek it out for my artwork because it is just perfect–not as hard to work as oak or hickory, it has a softness similar to maple or tulip poplar. It has a rosy, soft texture, which is excellent for doing precise woodburning and carving.  It has a very consistent light rose color from the thin bark to the core.  I like to turn it into wands, staves, and most especially, create necklaces from slices.  When I am kayaking out here on local streams and lakes, I look for recently dead rhododendron pieces for this work.

In the woodworking community, you’ll find other people posting about their experience in using it for wood carving, woodturning, and other fine wood products. One of the features of this wood that is often lauded is that it rarely cracks as it dries. The bushcraft community also uses this to make very fine charcoals for a variety of purposes.  One of my future plans is to make charcoal and see how it works for art–my choice has been grapevine or willow for a number of years, but I suspect this may also work great.

A Rhododendron in deep winter (outside temperature: 12 degrees F)

One of the big debates about using Rhododendron is that the leaves and flowers contain grayanotoxin, which can be fatal if ingested.   All evidence suggests that while the greenwood is toxic, the dried wood is fine to burn and to use (here is one such analysis).  If you are going to do woodburnings or anything else, because of the plant’s toxicity, I do suggest that you invest in a soldering smoke absorber–these are very inexpensive and can filter out any smoke you may have concerns about.

Beyond the wood, I am unaware of any other uses.  This is in part because Rhododendron (along with Azelela and Mountain Laurel) is poisonous, and thus, they do not have any herbal uses.  When a plant does not have herbal uses, I have found it also often does not have magical ones, at least recorded ones.  I have not found any lore or stories associated with this species, despite its critical importance and dominance in the ecosystem.

Divination and Meanings

Like some of my other overlooked understory plants, there isn’t a lot to go on without any magical or folklore traditions surrounding Rhododendron.  Despite this, the ecological aspects themselves offer us some key insights.  In particular, I think Rhododendron teaches us lessons about how to thrive in adversity and how to make the most of more difficult situations.  While these are lessons that are always appropriate, they are particularly useful now.

Adaptability and Opportunity.  As I recently wrote, there is a wide range of plants that thrive in the understory and that thrive in the cold and dark months when the overstory is bare.  Rhododendron is one of these plants, demonstrating adaptability, resilience, and opportunity.  Rhododendron offers a clear message: in times of dark and cold, find a way to grow, to thrive, and to make lemonade from lemons!

Extreme sheltering!

Sheltering in the extremes. The winter leaf foliage of Rhododendron takes the opportunity to spread wide when the warmer winter temperatures are present.  However, when the temperatures go freezing, Rhododendron drops her leaves and curls the leaves up tightly to prevent frost damage.  This adaptability, combined with shelter, is a powerful healing message.  There are times we need to shelter, but we should only do so when the conditions warrant it.  After a blast of sub-arctic cold and wind, it is ok to curl up tightly.  The key is to remember to uncurl when the situation changes.

Growing your own way.  Rhododendron is unlike anything else in the ecosystem here in Pennsylvania. It teaches us the power of individuality and growing in whatever whimsical and beautiful way you want. Rhododendron reminds us to be whoever we want to be.  And we can do that regardless of the circumstances that are affecting the outside world.  What a powerful and potent lesson for 2020 and beyond!

Dear readers, do you have experiences with rhododendron?  If so, are you willing to share?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!  Blessings!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Ironwood or Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Carpinus caroliniana)

Ironwood tree ecoprint from my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle!

There are actually two tree species that are known as both “hornbeam” and “Ironwood” along the US East Coast and into the midwest: The American Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  After doing a lot of research and interaction with both of these trees, I see them as interchangeable.  First, they are both in the Beech family (Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae). They actually have a very similar growth habit and look to their bark (like muscles), their wood is quite similar, and the hop-looking fruits are similar on both trees.  Thus, if you can find either of these trees, you can apply the information I’m sharing.  I have primarily focused on Ostrya Virginiana (Ironwood/Hop Hornbeam) in my comments here as it is the more dominant tree in my specific ecosystem.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  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. Other trees in this series include 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, 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.

The Ironwood (Ostrya Virginia) has many names in the US, including leverwood, ironwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  These names can teach us quite a bit about the uses of this tree.

Ecology

Ironwood is a small, native tree to the Eastern and Midwest in the United States.  It is an understory tree, and thus, even the largest specimens are typically under 40 feet tall (I have yet to see one even that tall).  These trees are widely dispersed in the US, spanning from Minnesota and down to parts of Louisana and the whole way up the eastern seaboard to Maine–and everywhere in between.

The most distinct feature of this tree is the muscle-like quality of the wood–the wood is a smooth gray and as it grows, it twists and turns, looking almost like biceps or muscles–this tree has clearly been working out!  The tree has leaves like beech and can be mistaken for the American beech upon first glance.  The trees often lean and grow crooked; the largest specimen here on our property is growing in a haphazard way over the stream and into the bank!  The crown is often flat-topped and open, partially because it is a fully shade/understory tree.

I have always seen Ironwoods in forests or along streams, although their growth habit may be different outside of the Allegheny Mountains in Western PA.  I typically see these trees 15-20 feet tall, often thriving in deciduous forests in large thickets.  Most often, you can find them in deciduous forests growing alongside sugar maple, beech, oak, hickory, and birch. They are typically found in shady forests, on damp hillsides, and especially along the edges of streams, where they can handle occasional seasonal flooding and prevent erosion.

John Eastman writes about this tree in his Book of Forest and Thicket.  He notes that the tree is important to wildlife.  Birds, including pheasant, ruffed grouse, and northern bobwhites eat the catkins.  In the winter months, warblers, foxes, the game birds above, and squirrels eat the nutlets.  Beavers also use them in their building and white-tailed deer can eat the foliage, particularly in the winter.

Historical and Herbal Uses

The strength of these trees is incredible–the wood is very tight-grained, white, and quite dense.  I cut some rounds a while ago for woodburning and had to significantly turn up the heat on my burner to make any mark (usually the highest is reserved for ash, hickory, or oak, but it had to go higher than those three!)  Historically, it was used for handles and fence posts for this reason and while it has a small circumference, it is a mighty tree. As I described above, there is some historical record of this tree being used for handles and smaller wooden objects.  However, primarily due to its size, it is not a tree that is part of the lumber industry.  John Eastman notes that if you attempt to chop down this tree, the axe will literally bounce back at you–hence the well-earned name of “Ironwood.”  Finally, Eastman notes that because of its density, its charcoal was once used in making gunpowder.

Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants describes a range of uses that Ironwood had in historical times in North America.  Of the physical uses, the heartwood of the trees (the strongest part) were used for things requiring strength such as ox goads, cogwheels, handles, sleigh runners, and finishing poles.  Erichsen-Brown notes that the Chippewa used the wood for the frames of their dwellings and as poles in wigwams.

Erichsen-Brown also notes some of the traditional Native American uses of the tree as medicine.  The strong decoction of the heartwood of branches was used for a general tonic, having actions on the liver, kidneys, and muscles.  A strong heartwood decoction was used for “auge” (general sickness), particularly with intermittent fever.  It was considered an alterative, supportive of the liver function and for dyspepsia.  The Chippewa specifically used the heart of the Ironwood along with the inner bark of chokecherry and roots of the hazel and white oak to address lung hemorrhages and other lung conditions.  Again, the heartwood was used as a strong tea to support kidney function and those dealing with stiff joints or rheumatism.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used it as one of several “cramp barks” and to treat the flux.

Despite these sources being detailed in Erichsen-Brown, a thorough read of my herbal books comes up empty–suggesting that this tree is not well used, if at all, in the herbal community here in the US or beyond.

Magical Uses

Despite a range of uses physically and herbally, I was unable to find any reference to this tree in any magical sources, including in the American Hoodoo tradition, within traditional Western occultism, or in folk practices.  This isn’t surprising to me–many of the trees that are dominant in North America and that do not grow in the old world do not get any treatment in typical magical texts.

Divination Meanings

Since there is not a magical or mythological tradition associated with this tree, I’d like to propose three things that are tied to the ecology, history, and herbal uses of this tree.

Strength. The first and obvious choice for a  tree called “Ironwood” is unyielding strength.  The wood is beyond strong, toughest in the face of floods, axes, and anything else.  Thus, we can gain tremendous strength from this tree.  I also think that we can tie this to traditional Native American herbal uses of this tree–the heartwood of this tree, the very core of the tree, offers relief from a variety of ailments.  I plan on making a decoction of Ironwood heartwood and using it to strengthen and endure.

Endurance and Stamina. The second obvious choice for Ironwood is stamina and endurance.  I learned this by observing the Ironwoods that grow along the creek behind my house.  We had several 100-year floods in 2019.  These are floods that are supposed to happen once in a hundred years, but with the extreme weather events that are too common in the 21st century, we had three of them in a month.  The mighty Ironwoods by the stream were 3 feet under the flood waters…when the waters receded, the ironwoods were still there–leaves and all!  These trees endured countless floods that year–and held the riverbank firm.

Small but Mighty. The final meaning that we can derive from the Ironwood is that one can be small, even underwhelming, but still mighty.  The ironwood is one of the smaller, less noticeable, and less known trees of the Eastern US–and yet, it is one of the most mighty.  Stronger even than oak, hickory, or ash, the Ironwood teaches us that you don’t have to be flashy or large to carr ya quiet strength.  As someone who is routinely underestimated because of how I look, I really appreciate this energy present in Ironwood.

Well, dear readers, those are my thoughts, experience, and research on the amazing Ironwood tree.  I would love to hear from you–do you have stories or experiences to share that can help us develop sacred uses and divination meanings for this tree?  Blessings!

Sacred Tree Profile: The Medicine, Magic, and Uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina)

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

As we begin the march from summer into fall, the Staghorn Sumac are now in bloom.  With their flaming flower heads reaching into the sky, the Staghorn sumac are striking upon our landscape.  As fall comes, the Staghorn Sumac leaves turn fiery red before dropping and leaving their beautiful, antler-like, and hairy stems behind.  All through the winter months, the Staghorn Sumac stems stand like antlers reaching into the heavens, until they bud and spring returns again.  This post explores the medicine, magic, ecology, herbalism, craft, and bushcraft uses, and lore surrounding these amazing trees.

This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern USA and Midwest USA, centering on Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: 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, 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

Staghorn Sumac is a large shrub or small tree in the cashew family that typically grow 8-20 feet high, but can sometimes reach as far as 35 feet tall.  New growth on the trees will be covered with a velvet-like hair, very similar to new stag horns that are also covered in velvet, hence the name).  The leaves are opposite and compound, looking similar to black walnut, with almost a tropical look. Staghorn Sumac is probably best recognized in the late summer to early fall when a large, red, fuzzy berry cluster rises from the tips of the trees.

Staghorn sumac is known in some parts of the US as “velvet tree” or “vinegar tree.”  Velvet refers to the velvety texture of the fuzz on the outer branches that are first year (which is also where we get “stag horn” which refers to the stag’s velvet horns when they are first grown out).  I suspect that vinegar refers to its tart taste (I can’t find any references to people actually brewing vinegar from staghorn sumac, but maybe they did!)

Staghorn Sumac prefers full sun locations and disturbed soil, which is part of why they are so ubiquitous along highways and roads.  Here in Western PA, you can’t drive even a few miles without seeing many clusters of Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac is a delightful tree that sometimes often gets a bad rap because people think its Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  While the two do have similar looking leaves, the open cluster of white berries on the poison sumac is a way to tell the two apart.  Poison sumac also prefers to grow in wet clay-type soils, so you are most likely to find it in a swamp, bog, or another very wet area, where Staghorn Sumac grows in a much wider range of growing conditions.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, you can count the age of the stem by counting the number of branching angles from the top of the branch to the bottom of the crown – each new branching angle is another year of growth. Early in the season, the flower clusters are greenish-yellow and pollinated by insects, but later in the year, these flower clusters grow the bright fuzzy berry clusters, often looking like a flame.  You can often see these berry clusters persist well into the winter and early spring.  Eastman notes that nearly a hundred different bird species eat the berries including pheasant, grouse, turkey, crow, thrush, bluebird, catbird, cardinals, and robins.  The stalks can also be home to wasp species

Craft and Bushcraft Uses

Because Staghorn Sumac has a hollow stem on young plants and young shoots (similar to black elder) you can use it for any number of things.  Once the soft pith is removed (using a thin stick or thin dowel rod), you can use a longer hollewed stick as a blower to stoke the fires.  You can cut them shorter and use them as taps for maple trees (as Native Americans did, along with Elder), or sliced in small segments, as beads or decorations.  I haven’t yet played around with staghorn sumac as a possible flute, but I wonder about that as well!

The wood itself, when 2″ or more across, is stunningly beautiful.  This spring, my neighbor went to war with the Staghorn sumac grove on the border of our properties.  While I was absolutely devastated by his cutting of this beautiful grove of staghorn, he allowed me to harvest a lot of the wood.  Since then, I have been working deeply with this amazing wood and have been learning just how wonderful it is to work with.  Slices of the branches, trunks, and roots reveal brilliantly colored wood with green bands when fresh, eventually fading to darker olive and brown.  The wood has a fairly loose grain, so can be difficult to sand, but woodburns beautifully and is really unqiue and beautiful to behold.  Some of the slices that I sliced (using my miter saw) of both the trunks and roots are outstanding art in and of themselves.

Although I do not have personal experience with this yet, John Eastman reports that due to their high tannin content in the bark, leaves, and berries, Staghorn Sumac can be used for leather tanning (similar to oak, which would be a veg tan).

Edible and Herbal Qualities

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine and food

Staghorn Sumac is an absolute blessing to humanity and all life and has a wide range of uses from craft to beekeeping, from herbal to edible. The berries are high in Vitamin C and have incredible amounts of antioxidants, making them a wonderful healthful food. Here are just some of the uses that I have direct experience with.

Jim McDonald taught me much about Staghorn Sumac and its uses as an herbal medicine.  Staghorn Sumac is a fantastic astringent, and can be used in any cases where astringency is needed: when tissues are soft and lack structure or when moist/damp conditions are present.  Thus, Staghorn is great as a wash for acne or a mouth rinse for soft and bleeding gums.  It can be used to tone or tighten skin, for reduce inflammation, and remove oil from the skin. It can also be safely used internally.

If you are interested in making your own herbal smoking blends, Staghorn Sumac leaves, harvested when bright red in the fall, is a fantastic addition.  They will not only add color, but will produce a smooth smoke, especially due to their high astringency.  I often will make “beat the nicotine” blends for people and Staghorn is one of my main ingredients (along with lobelia, damiana, and mullen).

Staghorn Sumac also makes a great spice.  If you look into any middle eastern recipes, sumac berries are used to spice up hummus, chicken, and many other dishes.  Why buy sumac berries when you can forage them yourself!

My favorite way to prepare Staghorn Sumac is sumac-aid or Sumac ‘lemonade.  Starting in late July and into August, keep an eye on the Staghorn sumac berries-. As the berries go to a deep red (and ideally, before a big rain as the rain can wash away some of the tartness) gather up your staghorn sumac berry heads.  As you gather them, make sure to knock off any bugs living in them (I like to bang them on the side of my bucket to invite crawly ones to exit!) .  You can make some fresh and dry the rest. I like to dry out the berries (using a simple air dehydrator) and store in a jar till I’m ready to enjoy.  Crush up 6-8 heads and pour cold water over them.  Let them sit about an hour, then strain with a cheesecloth and add honey, maple syrup, or sugar.  You will have a delicious and extremely nutritious drink.  This is also a very cooling drink and is thus wonderful for those very hot and humid summer days.

I have not personally done it, but I know that some people also use Staghorn Sumac as a start to brewing a wine.  If you boil the berries, you lose a lot of the flavor, so you start with a cold brew and pitch yeast into it.  Here’s one such recipe.

Finally, because of the astringency present, the berry heads are my absolute favorite thing to use in my smoker for beekeeping.  If you dry out Staghorn Sumac heads, you can keep them for several years and when you are ready to open your hive, use them in your smoker.  They will smolder nicely and produce a very calming smoke (even better, add some dried chamomile).  My bees were always much calmer with this rather than the commercial crap they try to sell you to put in your smoker!

As a final caveat, Staghorn sumac is in the cashew family, and so anyone who has an allergy in that family (e.g. allergic to cashews or mangoes) should not consume any Staghorn Sumac.  I have also known folks with severe allergies who can break out if they handle or touch the leaves or berries, but this is pretty rare!

Magical Lore in the Western Traditions

Staghorn Sumac from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Sumac as a species more generally is used in the Hoodoo traditions, more generally for addressing difficulty and bringing harmony among people. According to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, you can make a homemade triple strength peace water by using sumac leaves and berries in a bottle of existing peace water and adding some of your personal fluids. Shake that bottle up and then use it in the house as a floor wash or spritz (any way you’d use regular peace water) (p. 194). Sumac can also be used in court cases–if you have already been found guilty, gather up nine sumac berries and put them in your pocket when you got to get your sentence. Your sentence will be lighter with the berries supporting you.

Beyond uses in Hoodoo, I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of Staghorn Sumac in the Western Magical traditions (which honestly, surprises me just a bit because the tree is such a beautiful and powerful one).

Using the doctrine of signatures and basic elemental theory, I can draw some of my own conclusions surrounding the symbolism of this tree. The bright red “flame” of berries, the firey bright leaves, the powerful astringency, and the connection to the stag are all indications of the connection to this tree to the element of fire, to the quickness of the stag, and to the sacred fires and smoke that this tree can produce.  Let’s now turn to the Native American lore to see what else might be indicated.

Lore in the Native American Traditions

Staghorn SumacWild eneergy.

Sumac was certainly used by Native American peoples for a host of sacred purposes.  For example, in “Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona” by Erna Fergusson (1931), the nahikàï is a wand used as part of a Navajo shamanistic healing ceremony.  It is sumac, made about 3 feet long and about ½” thick.  Eagle down is attached to the end of the wand, and it is burned off as part of the ceremony.  In the Hopi “Legend of Palotquopi” a young boy, Kochoilaftiyo, asks his grandmother what to do about a ghost that is coming to the village.  Young men in the village have been attempting to catch the ghost to no avail.  Grandmother has him go get a sumac branch, and with this branch and prayer plumes made of cotton and feathers, she creates a pipe and smokes a prayer over him that he might prevail. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, (1908), describes an initiation ceremony where young girls are initiated as women into the tribe.  As part of this ceremony, a young girl is placed in a sumac and sedge-lined hole, where she says for three days, while members of her tribe dance and sing night and day around the hole.  This practice is part of a larger ceremony of womanhood.

There are also a few stories of bear. In the Musqauake legend, “Chasing the Bear” a group fo hunters are trailing a bear.  Eventually, they catch him and slaughter him on a pile of maple, and sumac ledge Bear is slaughtered on pile of maple and sumac branches.  According to this legend, this is why their leaves now turn “blood red” in the fall.  In a second bear legend, this from the Apache, called “Turkey makes the corn and Coyote plants it” a brother and a sister are hungry.  Turkey overhears this and shakes his feathers and fruits and food come out.  Bear comes and brings juniper nuts, various kinds of nuts, and sumac.

Magic and Meanings of the Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac presents a compelling tree to work with in a variety of ways: magically, herbally, through craft and bushcraft uses, and just as a great tree to spend time with.  Given everything above, here are some of the magical uses and meanings you might consider for Staghorn Sumac:

Energy of the wild.  Because of the strong connections to the stag, the staghorn sumac offers energy of the hunt, the wilds, and the energy of nature in its more wild form.  Staghorn sumac is a tree that expresses the wild energy of nature in all its forms.

Energy of Fire. Staghorn Sumac, perhaps more than any deciduous tree located in the Eastern US, has a  strong connection to fire.  The asringent properties of staghorn, its striking berries and blood-red leaves in the fall, and its bushcraft uses all speak to the strong power of fire that this tree holds.

Vitaility. A final conneciton, again tying to its ecological function as well as herbal and medicinal uses, is one of vitality.  This is a tree of life, of energy, of movement.  This tree colonizes damaged areas and brings life back into disurpted spaces.  If you are looking for a tree ally to vitalize you, consider working with Staghorn Sumac!

Dear readers, do you have experience with this tree? If so, please share–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Rituals and Prayers for Peace

Peace is a fundamental part of the druid tradition. The ancient druids had roles as peacemakers and justices, and today, many druids find themselves in a position of promoting and fighting for justice and peace.  A lot of this work is happening right now: working towards for the equal rights and treatment of black, brown, and indigenous people; fighting on the front lines of the pandemic as a medical worker or essential personnel; or and trying to work for inner peace in these challenging times, just to name a few.  Given what is happening at present, it seems like a very good time to start, reaffirm, or deepen a spiritual practice that focuses on spreading peace. Thus, in this post, I’ll share a peace meditation, peace prayers, and peace rituals that you might use as part of your practice. I also think that the more of us that do the work of peace in our spiritual lives, the more peace we can spread throughout the world at this very critical time when it is so needed.

Meditations on Peace

Peace

Mediations on peace can be an excellent first step in starting or re-affirming a peace practice as part of your spiritual work. I find two kinds of meditations that are particularly useful for this: discursive and energy visualization.

Discursive meditation allows us to work through difficult concepts and come to deep understandings. Meditating on the definition of peace–what it looks like, what it entails, and what it would take to bring that peace into the world can be highly productive.  You might explore peace from multiple angles:

  • Definitions: what is peace to you? How do you define it?  What features does it have?  How might this definition align with or deviate from other perspectives?
  • Peace within:  What does peace within look like? how might you foster peace within? What are the concrete steps you can take?
  • Peace at home: What would peace look like in your own life and in your immediate family? How can you foster peace at home?
  • Peace in your community: What might peace look like in your broader community? In your country? In the world?  How can we foster peaceful interactions in our communities, especially among diverse groups?
  • Peace between humans and the land: What would peaceful interactions look like within your landscape? How can we foster peaceful interactions between human and non-human life?  How can we be at peace with nature? How can we achieve balance?

This set of meditations can take some time, but it is certainly worth work doing.  I recently worked through this list, doing five distinct meditations for each of the bullet points above.  This helped me affirm my commitment to this work, both within and without.

Envisioning and visualizing peace is a second meditation technique, this one with an outward focus.  For this meditation, you might focus on one of the above spheres (e.g. peace within, peace in your immediate surrounding, peace in your local community, peace in your country, peace in the world, peace among humans, and non-human life).  The alternative is just to focus on peace broadly and let the energy go where it is needed.

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

The white pine, the tree of peace here in North America

Begin this meditation by sitting quietly and focusing on peace within.  Pay attention to your breath (using breathing techniques, like the fourfold breath or color breathing, both described in the Druidry Handbook by John Micheal Greer).  Recognize that this initial step can take some time–both in terms of an individual meditation session or a number of sessions.  For me, peace within means a quiet mind where I am able to slow racing thoughts, anxiety, or any other stressors and just be in the present moment.  I breathe through this for a while and then continue.

The second part of the meditation is simply sending some of that peace out into the world, directing it to whatever sphere you see fit (a caveat here–keep your direction of peace broad and unspecific.  Let spirit work with your intention as is best.)  You can envision peace in the four quarters of the world, for example, or envision specific scenes that would promote peace over violence (use some of your meditations from the first meditation activity).  I think this should be fairly intuitive–the more you practice, the more you will be able to send peace.

Prayers for Peace

Prayers for peace are also a wonderful way to begin, continue, or deepen a peace practice. Within druidry, both of the most common prayers invoke peace, justice, or both:

The Druid’s Prayer for Peace

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace
Quietly within this grove, may I share peace
Gently within the greater circle of [humanity / all life] may I radiate peace.

The Druid’s Prayer (Gorsedd Prayer)

There are actually a few different versions of the Druid’s (Gorsedd) Prayer.  For peace prayers, I prefer this version, which Iolo Morganwg attributes to the Book of Trahaiarn the Great Poet

Grant, oh spirit, Thy protection;
And in protection, reason;
And in reason, light;
And in light, truth;
And in truth, justice;
And in justice, love;
And in love, the love of spirit,
And in the love of spirit, the love of all existences

Peace Within: A Daily Peace Ritual

In druid rituals stemming from the druid revival, we often begin by declaring peace in the quarters (either going around the circle starting in the east (AODA style), or crossing the circle (e.g. going from north to south and east to west, OBOD Style). I have found that in this time, affirming peace in the four quarters, as well as within, has been a very useful daily practice and have developed the following ritual for peace.  I’ll first share how I do it, and then share the general model that you can adapt.

Grandmother Beach asks for peace

Each morning, I go out to care for our homestead flocks (our chickens, guineas, ducks, and geese). This is part of my morning ritual–and after I’m done letting everyone out of their coops, filling up water buckets and food troughs, I make sure I pause, take in the day, and declare peace. I just stand in the yard and spend a moment meditating on each direction (I start in the east since that is where the sun is rising).  I observe the east, seeing birds, watching the sun through the clouds, and paying attention to the air.  Then I say “May there be peace in the east.”  I do the same thing at each of the remaining three directions.

Finally, I focus on my own person and put my hands on my heart and say the Druid’s Prayer for Peace.   This is my adaptation from the OBOD’s Prayer for Peace.  I’ve adapted OBOD’s prayer to expand to all life, not just human life. And so I say:

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.

I then intone three ogham for peace, Koad (Grove); ifin (Pine), and Eastern Hemlock (Onn).  The first ogham is the grove ogham, representing the grove of trees coming together to resolve disputes and come to peace.  Thes second is pine, which has been a symbol of peace in North America for millennia, and I honor the peace of the ancestors of the land hereby intoning it.  The third is Gorse, which represents hope, potential, and the possibility for change.

This simple daily ritual helps me not only radiate peace and embrace life in the broader world but send a little bit of that peaceful energy out.  It also helps me get off on the right foot during this challenging time.  Here’s the ritual in a condensed form that you can use:

Druid’s Daily Peace Ritual

Face the east and quiet your mind.  Visualize peace in the east.  Say “May there be peace in the east.”  Do the same with the other three directions: south, west, and north.

Place your hands on your heart and say the Druid’s prayer for peace.

Deep within the still center of my being, may I find peace.
Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.
Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.

Intone the three ogham three times each. As you do, envision peace radiating outward:
KO-ud
EE-van
OR

Cross your arms and say, “I thank the spirits for peace, justice, and blessings.”

Honoring the Peacemakers

A final thing that I do to envision peace is to honor the ancestors of the druid tradition.  The ancient druids were considered wise people who were justices, diplomats, and peacemakers among their people. This is an idea to which I can try to strive.  Meditation on this concept regularly along with some ancestor-of-tradition work can support this practice.

You might consider honoring other ancestors of peace in your practice, those peacemakers of the past whose work in the world is useful to remember.  Dr. Martin Luther King, James Farmer, or others who have fought for racial peace might be good focuses right now.

The Work of Peace

The work of peace is not easy, but extremely necessary to create a more equal, just, and welcoming society for all. I hope these simple practices support you during this very challenging time and offer you some additional tools in the work of peace in the world.

The Allegheny Mountain Ogham: An Ogham for the Northern Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA

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

 

GORT
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
The Forfedha
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

Pronunciation: “BEH”

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

Pronunciation: “LWEESH”

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

Pronunciation: NOO-un

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

Pronunciation: FAIR-n

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

Pronunciation: SAHL-yuh

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

Pronunciation: OO-ah

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

Pronunciation: DOO-er

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

Pronunciation: CHIN-yuh

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

Pronunciation: CULL

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

Pronunciation: KWEIRT

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

Pronunciation: MUHN

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

Pronunciation: GORT

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

Pronunciation: NYEH-tal

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

Pronunciation: STRAHF

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

Pronunciation: RWEESH

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

Pronunciation: AHL-m

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

Pronunciation: UHN

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

Pronunciation: OOR

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

Pronunciation: EH-yuh

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

Pronunciation: EE-yoh

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 Forfedha

The Druid Grove – Koad

Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.

Original Tree: Grove

Pronunciation: KO-ud

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

Pronunciation: OR

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

Pronunciation: ULL-enth

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

Pronunciation: FAH-gus

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

Pronunciation: EE-van

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.

Ogham for dyslexics!

Ogham for dyslexics- with all of the words burned in.

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.

Conclusion

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!

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata)

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.

 

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more!  I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees.  So this series does just that–providing research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the Juniper tree!

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whose leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we have particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high-quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has a diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

Juniper offers hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!