The Druid's Garden

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

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

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

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

 

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

 

Oaks in Many Forms

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

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

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

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

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these

 

Sacred Tree Profile: American Beech (Fagus Grandiflora) – Magic, Medicine, and Qualities July 6, 2015

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

This post is part of a series of posts on Sacred Trees in the Midwest/Eastern Americas and their various uses. For earlier posts see: Eastern White Cedar, Sugar Maple, Hickory, and Eastern Hemlock.

 

When I was a child, my grandfather would often take me and my cousins into the woods to learn about plants, animals, and trees. He had a place he would take us on the edge of an old field and a deep wood. We were so young when he took us, that after he died and we grew much older, we failed to remember where “grandpa’s field” was. On eventful day many years later when we were in our late teens, we found the spot once again. There, using small pocket knives, we carved into the beech trees at the edge of that field, leaving messages of longing and love for our grandfather who had passed. The beech trees welcomed these carvings, and 15 or s years later, the trees still hold those carvings. What I didn’t know at the time was that we were engaging in a very ancient—if not controversial—tradition: the creation of “arborglyphs” for honoring those who have passed, carving words into the species tree that is most associated with learning, words, books, and knowledge. While carving up a tree is not something I would do today given my spiritual path, this arborglyph practice epitomizes many of the esoteric qualities of the beech. To have a deeper understanding of this incredible tree, let us now explore the physical, medicinal, edible, magical, and mythological aspects of Beech.

 

About the Beech

Beech trees are of the genus Fagus (Fagacae) which contains anywhere from 10-12 trees in Asia, Europe, and North America (depending on how one classifies them). The tree that I am discussing and specifically working with is Fagus Grandifolia, the American Beech. The American Beech (I’ll just call it Beech from here on out) tree grows to typical heights of 66 – 115 feet tall, and prefers more shady. It is often found in forests with hemlocks, maples, and birches, and like sugar maple, cannot tolerate pollution, soil compaction, road salt, and other contaminants. Like hemlock, it prefers rich soil and wetter kinds of areas. These two growth habits makes beech a true tree of the forest rather than that of the cities or towns, although very occasionally, you might find one in a more residential area. Beech is a rather slow-growing tree and takes time to establish.

 

If you sit below beech trees, they produce a lovely warm green light, although their foliage is quite dense. If you end up in a grove of hemlocks and beeches (and these trees are often found together) you’ll be amazed by the variation and patchwork of light upon the ground—deep blue from the hemlocks and light green-yellow from the beeches. Beech trees have very light green, thin leaves that are almost like paper. The sunlight easily passes through the leaf, creating this lemon yellowish-light green tapestry of light. It really is a sight to behold.

 

Laying under the Beech

Laying under the Beech

Edible Beech

Beech trees produce tasty seeds, but they can take up to 40 years to produce their first crop. The seed itself, which can be eaten after peeling back the husk and inner shell, is wonderful tasting, reminiscent of a cross between a pine nut and a sunflower seed. If you can gather these in enough quantity (not always an easy task, especially if there is squirrel competition), you can eat them in salads, make a nice beech-nut pesto, or just enjoy them as a snack raw or toasted. Even finding a few seeds in the forest and snacking on them raw can really make your day!

 

Young beech leaves are also edible and taste very mild, almost with a slightly sweet kale-like flavor. I like to enjoy them in salads with other spring greens. When the leaves get older, they get tougher and are not as enjoyable (like most edible leaves), but are still edible in a pinch. In the Wisdom of the Trees, Gifford (p. 150) also explains that Beech leaves were used as an alternative to tobacco by the German army in World War II and the nuts were roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried the beech in either of these last two forms, but its good information to know.

 

Wood Uses

Beech is a very tall, straight tree, and the wood is very dense, light-colored, and thick. Of all of the trees I’ve studied thus far, Beech wood has one of the widest ranges of uses: from culinary to artistic to practical. Beech wood is often used to make drums and handles on guns and other tools (it is seen as a good, less expensive alternative to walnut). Beech wood is used often in preparing foods or beers—in some parts of Europe, beech is used to smoke sausages or other meats and beech wood may be used to smoke and dry out malt for beers. In the USA, even major beer manufacturers use beech as a “fining” agent near the end of the brewing process for flavor enhancement. A type of rayon fabric called “modal” is made from the chemically processed and spun cellulose fibers of the beech tree—note that this fabric, and other rayons are not very biodegradable, and much of it ends up in the oceans—so not really a great use of this tree. Finally, beech-nut fattened swine was traditionally known in Europe to be the absolute best tasting pork and ham. Even Culpepper mentions this in his entry on beech—and suggests that the beech nuts are particularly nourishing to animals that eat them.

 

Beech and the Arts

Artists, particularly those in the 17th and 18th centuries—including Rembrant, Lorrain, Cozens, and Gainsborough—used beech soot mixed with water to make a transparent ink/pigment called “soot brown”, or bistre. The soot was gathered from a chimney after burning beech wood, and then mixed with water, and later diluted with water for whatever effect the artist wanted. The color is dark gray-brown with a hint of yellow. I have yet to experiment with making this ink (I currently lack a chimney from which to gather soot!) but I could see it being a lovely compliment for other tree-based inks that I have made, including buckthorn, elder, and walnut!

 

Grove of Beeches

Grove of Beeches

I have discovered that Beech also has a use in hand papermaking. In the winter, the beech trees often retains some leaves and they turn a papery ivory color as the winter progresses. The leaves typically are not dropped by the tree till spring. I use these winter beech leaves in papermaking—they don’t contain fibers enough to make good pulp, but they are great added to something else. The whole, feather-thin leaves, are beautiful layered in a handmade paper. I’m sure there are many other creative things you can do with the dried beech leaves.

 

Arborglyphs

Archeologists use the term “culturally-modified tree” to describe human-made carvings and modifications to trees—these trees become artifacts that record messages sometimes centuries after they are carved. Native American peoples and other ancient tribes certainly carved such glyphs in trees—remnants of which can still be found today in some elder Beech trees. To create arborglyphs, three trees are typically used: beech, birch, and aspen, with beech being the most popular due to its light colored and smooth trunk. These arborglyph carvings included both images and graphics, and had, in some cases, substantial personal or cultural significance. As I mentioned in my story opening this post on beech, many people even in the present day choose to carve their sweetheart’s name or their own on beech trees—if you see beech trees frequented by people, they often have carvings. In visiting a local park in Indiana, PA, my current hometown, there was a 270 acre park within walking distance of my home. I saw only one larger beech tree along the many trails we walked—and that one beech tree was carved up by passerby. So many beech trees along pathways I visit suffer this fate.

 

The bark of the beech is one of the lightest and smooths of the forest, and really does make a nice canvas upon which to create! Sometimes, when I’m feeling whimsical, I’ll take some charcoal chunks from a campfire to a large beech tree and add beautiful patterns to the bark—with permission of the tree, of course. Depending on what side of the tree I do this on and the weather, the patterns can last a long, long time. One set of patterns in a trunk sheltered from the rain are still there after several years! I see this as a more tree-friendly version of carving arborglyphs.

Beech tree with Arborglyphs

Beech tree with Arborglyphs in Whites Woods Nature Center, Indiana PA

 

Beech Tree and Sacred Geometry

Examining the beech tree, particularly the seed, through sacred geometry and numerology reveals the magic of the beech. Male and female flowers appear on the same branch (which suggests duality and the connection between the male and the female energies). Beech seeds have an outer husk with little burrs, on it, almost looking like a miniature chestnut husk. When the husk is opened, the magic begins. Beech seeds have an outer husk that opens up in four ways to reveal two tan, semi-hard inner seeds that have three sides each (that is, they are tetrahedrons), placed against each other forming a four-sided, pyramid shaped double seed. So here we have four husk petals, spreading outward in the four directions. In separating the two seeds, we are reminded of the binary, which represents so many things in our world—night and day, male and female, black and white. The shape of the seeds themselves, however, show us the tertiary: tetrahedron-shaped sided nuts, that which is actually consumed. The lessons here are many, and the synthesis of the sacred numbers 2, 3, and 4 are present.

 

The number 40, the typical time it takes a beech tree to produce nuts, is also highly important to esoteric lore. In many traditions, including traditional Jewish Cabbalism, you would not start your advanced esoteric studies till the age of 40. It is at this point that as a human being you were ready for the advanced work—and it is at this point that the Beech tree begins to bear fruit.

 

Beech in Native American Mythology

Of all of the trees I have covered so far in this blog, the Beech has the least written about it in the Native American stories—so little that I don’t have any themes to present. Beech shows up only four times in the database of over 2000 stories I am using for this project, and in most cases, its simply present as a “tree” in a story, in the sense that something is done to or that is simply growing with other trees in a fertile forest. Of these four stories, only one is worth noting: the Micmac Creation story. As part of the Micmac creation story, a sweatlodge is created from seven alders, seven wild willows, and seven beech saplings. The lodge was covered with moose, caribou, and deer hides and mud. The lodge is entered by seven men, who undergo purification and come out clean and like newborns. So we see beech as one of three trees holding sacred space for human ceremonial purification.

 

One more Native American story, however, may have relevance. Interestingly, like the Oak, the beech is the only other deciduous tree in this climate that holds its leaves on its branches till spring and beyond—this has profound implications. Specifically, if we look at the Seneca Legend “How the Conifers Show the Promise of Spring” we see that the conifers hold their needles till spring to eventually defeat the winter and encourage the return of spring. In the story, the Oak, likewise, holds his leaves and stands with the conifers to help battle back the winter. This, to me, suggests that Oak keeps his power even through the winter months when the other trees are resting. The only other tree that I have seen do this in my bioregion is the Beech tree—and yet, its not mentioned in the story. I do think the beech holds a different energy during the winter months. Given beech’s substantial connection to books and learning, and the fact that most studies of any kind take place during the winter months (due to traditional farming calendars that we still have today), I wonder if the beech is retaining its power because the dark months of winter are a time of study, reflection, and knowledge seeking—those aspects which the beech presides over.

 

Grandmother Beech

Grandmother Beech

The Book is a Beech: Beech Etymology

Scott Cunningham presents the many folk names of beech: bok, boke, buhe, buk, buke, faggio, fagos, faya, haya, and hetre. The first five of the names on his list give us deep insight into how humans have come to use and understand this tree and how this relationship is woven into the fabric of many European languages.

 

The very first books were made of beech wood, where the beech would be thinly sliced and bound together. A triad of physical connections now exist with the beech tied to books and learning: its ancient connections to the physical book, the creation of bistre from beech soot, and the physical face of the tree used for carvings, a triad of connections to books and learning.

 

From an etymological perspective, we can see connections between beech and words for literacy/books/writing in many European languages and traditions. In Gilford’s The Wisdom of the Trees, he demonstrates the clear connections in our language between books and beeches. “Boc” was the word for beech in Old English, and later that word became “book.” German, a close relative of English, uses “buche” for beech, which later became “buch” (book); “buchstabe” is the word for alphabet. Finally, “bok” in Swedish refers to both the beech and a book. Woven into our very language is the connection to the beech.

 

Beech in Western Magical Traditions

According to Gilford, Beech has connections to many deities associated with trees: Ogma, the Celtic warrior god of the Tuatha De Dannan, who is credited with inventing the Ogham. Beech is also connected with Hermes/Mercury (the messenger), Odin (the supreme God of the Norse, who gave the gift of runes), Chronos (the Greek god of Time and cycles); and Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and mathematics. We can see clear themes emerging: the beech associated with divination tools, learning, wisdom, and other kinds of messages.

 

Traditional folk magic suggests that Beech wood or leaves can be carried to enhance the flow of creativity (so in druidic terms, it has a connection to the flow of Awen). Its also associated with wishes, where one folk magical tradition has a person write their wish on a beech stick, then bury the stick in the ground. As the stick returns to the earth through the natural process of decomposition, the wish will be manifested in the world. A final piece of folk lore suggests that beech is also tied to prosperity, but I had a hard time tracking that beyond Cunningham’s work, so I’m not sure where that theme comes from beyond Cunningham (who I am generally skeptical about).

 

Beech is sometimes included as an additional Ogham in the original Celtic Tree Alphabet. It is represented as a curly cue and is titled “Phagos.” Since it is part of the last five fews, however, its not consistently used as such. I generally refer to the presentation of Ogham in the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer, which presents beech as the Ogham Phagos, and, it is connected to lore, learning, education, knowledge and study as well as lessons learned from the past.

 

A final connection can be see through the ancient poem, “The Battle of the Trees” from the Welsh Cad Goddeu. This is attributed to the 6th century bard and magician Taliesin, who has a very prominent place in the modern druid tradition and who is commonly viewed as the greatest Bard who ever lived. This segment here is translated by Robert Graves from The White Goddess:

The tops of the beech tree
Have sprouted of late
Are charged and renewed
From their withered state

When the beech prospers
Through spells and litanies
The oak tops entangle
There is hope for trees
.

In the first stanza Taliesin describes the renewal of the beech tree, which I interpret as the dropping of the dried, paper-thin leaves in the late winter so that the tree can renew its leaves with the coming of spring. This suggests that the beech has a great deal of power during this time of early spring. The second stanza has the beech seems to be using literacy-based spells and litanies to prosper and bring hope to all trees. The beech, as the holder of knowledge, also gives us access to this wisdom and knowledge. The presence of the Oak, another tree of wisdom, further cements this emphasis. What a powerful scene and delightful tree ally we have in the beech!

 

Beech in the forest

Beech in the forest

Healing and Medicinal Uses

Culpepper describes the beech as being governed by Saturn. Saturn is connected with overall weakness and chronic diseases, all of the bones, joints, and connected tissues; lung-related issues, and also the skin. So Saturn can help leaves as cooling and binding, which he suggests they be applied to “hot swellings” (in traditional western herbalist’s stems today, the beech seems good as an outer compress for inflamed and/or infected areas that are swollen or hot to the touch). He says you can use the leaves as follows, “you may boil the leaves into a poultice, or make an ointment of them when time of year serves.” He suggests that beech can treat dry scaly skin, dandruff, and other kinds of skin diseases (eczema, psoriasis, or herpes). Another way to use beech for the above conditions is to find water in a hollow of a decaying beech, it can be used for both human and animal to wash away these issues.

 

The Beech also has a medicinal use of a more energetic nature. The Bach Flower Remedies, a system similar to homeopathy developed in the 1930’s by Edward Bach, includes Beech. This system collects the dew from flowers and then dilutes it down considerably, to leave an energetic signature of the plant as the medicine taken. Beech is used for intolerance of all kinds and the associated issues stemming from that: arrogance/lack of humility, finding fault and blame in others, criticism, condemnation, and a lack of sympathy for others and their circumstances (As described in Vohra’s Bach Flower Remedies: A Comprehensive Study, 2004).

 

Now I find this interpretation of the Beech particularly interesting, as beech is a tree associated with learning and wisdom (and therefore quite air dominant). The negative qualities of air (intolerance, lack of humility, criticism, lack of sympathy, lack of compassion, and so on) are exactly what the beech cures. So we can see the beech here being associated with the positive qualities of air, and aiding one in balancing the negative qualities of air in their lives.

 

Energetics and Meaning of Beech

Beech trees have a welcoming energy to them. They physically brighten up a forest with soft light and bright trunks. In my own spiritual work with trees, I have found that beech trees have extremely positive energy that melds well with human energy, that they are always willing to share and teach, and that they are one of the most accessible trees of the forest.

 

In an earlier post, I described the process of finding the “face of the tree” and using this face to help you connect on a spiritual level. Beeches are the very easiest tree to use this practice with (and the tree that taught me the practice). This is truly a tree that reaches out to humans and has knowledge to share.

 

Face of the Beech

Face of the Beech

We are left with so much evidence in for the meanings of this incredible tree. Beech represents:

 

  1. Connection to writing, writing systems, literacy, and messages. Beech’s etymological connection to book, and the fact that the first books were made with these trees, and the messages carved into the trees suggest a strong connection to writing and literacy. This tree could, for example, be useful to those who are writers, who are looking to become writers, or anyone who wants or needs to craft a compelling message with words. This tree could be useful to someone who needs to get a particular message out.

 

  1. Connection to knowledge seeking, wisdom, and wisdom of the ages. The Beech has a more broad connection to any kind of learning or study. Its power is retained during the traditional months of study and it is associated with gods of wisdom and learning. This tree could be useful to anyone wanting to learn new knowledge, skills, or create new knowledge themselves.

 

  1. Connection to sacred human knowledge (sacred geometry, numerology). Beyond knowledge and literacy, the beech also seems to have a particular connection to specific kinds of magical knowledge used and understood throughout the ages. The beech seed itself expresses magical and profound sacred geometry. Furthermore, the tree is able to carry such knowledge on its bark or in beech books. This suggest that those wanting to study magic, sacred geometry, sacred mathematics and numerology, and other such areas would find assistance from the beech tree.

 

  1. Connection to Divination and Magical Written Systems (Ogham, Runes): The beech, likewise is associated with magical writing systems and divination practices, especially those employing magical alphabets like Ogham and the Runes. This suggests that those studying these systems or seeking aid from them draw upon the magic of the beech tree.

 

  1. Connection to creative expression. The beech tree is connected to forms of expression that require a pen or some other writing instrument. Arborglyphs, the creation and use of bisre, and anything than be preserved on a book page fit this. Artists involved in drawing, painting, sketching, or creative writing.

 

  1. Connection to preservation across time. One of the great things that the book did for people was to allow thoughts to be written down exactly and preserved across great distances and time. Pre-literate societies relied on memory and various mnemonic devices to pass on general stories that were reinterpreted over time. With the coming of the written word, spoken language took on new form, to be preserved and moved. The beech epitomizes the ability to preserve our thoughts, feelings, and expressions over great lengths of time. This suggests that those wanting to pass something on, over time, or preserve something seek the aid of the beech tree.
  2. Connection to lessons learned over time. These might be past life lessons, lessons from an earlier part of your life, or lessons reinforced again and again. The beech asks that you remember what time has taught you, and to move forward having integrated that knowledge and not to make that same mistake again.

 

I hope you have an opportunity to get to know the amazing beech–truly a tree worth learning from!