It’s not readily known but Britain as well as Ireland and Scotland used to be densely covered in trees. Trees were an incredibly important aspect of nature and life to the ancient Celts. The trees being the tallest living thing around, it’s easy to envision a past where they were revered. Trees provided shelter, food, warmth and cooking capabilities through fire wood along with acting as a home to many animals. It’s thought that when a tribe cleared a piece of land for settlement, they would leave a great tree in the middle known as the “Crann Bethadh” or tree of life. Did our forbears figure out through meditation that our very lives depended on the life giving oxygen plants create? I find it fascinating to ponder the extent of the things they believed out of intuition that turned out to be scientifically accurate such as worship of the sun (also as a life giving entity) and the effects of the moon.
Classes, meetings and rituals may have been held under this tree or in other sacred groves or clearings known as nemetons. This is confirmed by how many place names were preserved in archaeology, particularly across what would have been ancient Gaul. There is speculation the Celts believed that trees were the ancestors of man, that we began as trees and slowly changed each life into more complex animal life forms. Trees, especially the larger ones were thought to have a spirit and would let out a shriek or groan when they were wrongfully cut. Not only did individual trees possibly have a spirit, but they could have had a dryad, tree fairy or nymph inhabiting them. In the ancient Irish Brehon Law, there is a section entitled “Fidbretha” or tree judgements. Trees were classified as either chieftains (noble trees), peasants (common trees), shrubs (lower trees) or brambles (bush trees) and it was of the highest offense to fell a chieftain tree. Trees are featured in countless folklore, poetry and place names.
The most sacred of trees may have been the oak tree or “daru” in proto-Celtic. Oak groves may have naturally also been places to commune with their deities. Trees in general, but especially the Oak may have been thought of as doors to the Otherworld. The Celtic Dara (Daru) knot, although modern, is said to represent the oak. The oak is one of the longest living trees of about 300 years and understandably known as the “king of the forest” or “keeper of wisdom”. Strabo mentions an important meeting place of the Gauls in the 1st century that was filled with oaks. Pliny the Elder, also in the 1st century mentions the Druids climbing up an oak tree harvesting mistletoe in a fertility ritual. There is a Celtic legend that says you can embrace an oak tree within a sacred grove and it could provide the answers you are seeking. It’s thought the Druids may have originally been the ones to provide the interpretation of this knowledge and answers given by the trees. They may have sat in the tree or under it, and most likely listened to the sound of the leaves or movement of the branches as a way of divination. The three most sacred trees were thought to be the oak, ash and thorn (blackthorn). More trees than not seem to have had protective properties. Each tree likely had its own meaning, uses and specialties, quite a few of which have been passed down through the generations.
An old Scottish rhyme preserves this idea of using “sacred wood” to build the Beltane bonfires that were considered more sacred than usual.
“Choose the willow of the streams,
Choose the hazel of the rocks,
Choose the alder of the marshes,
Choose the birch of the waterfalls,
Choose the ash of the shade,
Choose the yew of resilience,
Choose the elm of the brae,
Choose the oak of the sun.”
Alder- The alder flourishes on riverbanks and in the springtime. It may have represented strength and passion. It likely possessed powers of protection and healing considering how it grew on the borders of water sources. The alder also gave Druids a more vocal power as the pith is easily pushed out of the green shoots to make whistles. This may have been the origination of “whistling to the wind” or trying to change something that ultimately cannot be changed. It was often used to created underwater foundations or parts of a bridge that was underwater because of it’s ability to stay strong and waterproof near water.
Apple- The apple tree was considered one of the most magical trees and not coincidentally was to be found at the center of the Otherworld. It may have represented the Otherworld and magic, particularly healing magic. The apple tree from the Otherworld had magical powers and would give eternal life and youth to whoever ate the fruit. In the famous love story of Prince Connla and his fairy maiden, he falls in love with a fairy woman after set on enticing him, she gives him a magical apple. They sail together to the Otherworld never to be seen again. In the Irish tale of the Children of Tuireann, their first task was to retrieve the magical “Apples of the Hesperides”. Not coincidentally, the apple is an incredibly healthy fruit. There is a reason there used to be a saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Ash- The ash tree is often found growing next to holy wells. It may have represented wisdom and connection. In Ireland, three of the five sacred trees planted in the center of each province was an Ash tree and in Scotland oaths were sworn on the Ash as well as the Oak. This likely would have been a tree for wand making.
Beech- Beech was commonly used for Ogham writing purposes. It was said that the Irish god Ogma, the creator of Ogham, wrote on beech. It may have represented communication and guidance.
Birch- The birch tree is one of the first trees to gain leaves in the spring and likely played a part in Imbolc or Spring Equinox activities. It may have represented fertility or renewal. Birch twigs were traditionally used to make brooms.
Blackthorn- The blackthorn is a tree that was thought to have protective powers and traditionally taken on a sacred journey or pilgrimage. It may have represented the journey and protection. It was a small sturdy tree with many thorns and protected any bird and their nest that inhabited it which is likely what it owes its symbolism to. The tree is even featured in the famous song “The Rocky Road to Dublin” by The Dubliners.
Elder- The elder grows to have fragrant white flowers and purple juicy berries used for jams, jellies, wines and medicinal purposes. It may have represented continuation and purpose. This likely would have been a tree for wand making.
Elm- This tree is often associated with the mother or earth goddess. It may have represented stability and grounding. It was highly valued for its ability to not split and frequently used for furniture.
Fir- The fir is a very tall and slender tree. It may have represented protection and vision. The needles were said to be burned at childbirth to bless and protect the baby and mother.
Hawthorn- This tree was most associated with the month of May. It may have represented relationships and fertility. It’s likely associated with May and Bealtaine because around this time, the hawthorn is blooming with beautiful white flowers. Young couples who went “a maying” in the woods at Bealtaine would bring these branches back from the woods and decorate their homes. Hawthorn fires are thought to burn the hottest which may have some significance and relation to Bealtaine and sexuality. This likely would have been a tree for wand making.
Hazel- The tree that grows by the “Well of Wisdom” in the Otherworld. It may have represented knowledge and creativity. It’s nuts fell into the water that are eaten by salmon and therefore they gain the tree’s knowledge. It’s thought that hazels were sought after by poets. There are a few references in Irish literature to drinking hazel mead and it may have been a drink to alter consciousness. This likely would have been a tree for wand making and “diviner’s dowsing wands” all the way up through the 18th century were made with hazel.
Holly- Sprigs of holly worn on the coat protected against evil spirits. It may have represented protection and rebirth. Sprigs of holly would have most certainly been brought in for the winter season to add color and a sense of vivacity to the household. In Arthurian legend, Gawain (oak king) fought the green knight (holly king).
Ivy- Ivy is one of the many sacred shrubs of the Celts. It may have represented patience and determination. It was used as a guardian over milk and flocks. It likely had a protective element to it as well.
Oak- The oak was the tree the Druids held with the utmost reverence. It may have represented strength and nobility. It is also synonymous with longevity and protection. Doors were often made of oak and were thought to dispel negativity and malevolent spirits. The oak tree may have been associated with Taranis the god of thunder because they were frequently struck by lightning.
Pine- The pine tree is an evergreen that was also likely brought in during winter months as a symbol of vivacity. It may have represented cleansing and purification. Pine needles were often included in herbal mixtures to burn and cleanse the home.
Poplar- The poplar tree was another tree that grew next to watery areas and was often used to make shields. It may have been associated with protection and nobility.
Rowan- The rowan was used in many forms about the homestead. It may have represented protection and connection. A rowan branch was placed over the lintels of the barn, byre and stable as a safe guard against malevolent spirits. A rowan board may have been placed above the heart fire or entrance of the home to keep away bad spirits as well. Rowan berries were almost certainly used to brighten up the home during the Autumn and Winter seasons. Ale and beer was sometimes brewed from Rowan berries and was likely thought to be gifts from the gods.
Willow- The willow was thought to bring good luck and frequently used to make the Brideog doll as the branches are perfect for illustrating hair. It may have represented love and intuition. The willow bark contains salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin and likely would have been ingested for various ailments given in the form of a tea.
Yew- The yew, along with the beech were frequently used for Ogham writing purposes. It may have represented divination and transformation. All parts of the tree are poisonous except the outer covering of the berry. Yew may have been used to induce visions or an altered state of consciousness.
This was a mere sampling of the symbology and usage of a few of the more renowned trees and plants. There is an incredible wealth of knowledge out there if you’re inclined to go deeper into tree study! I would suggest A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine or Tree Medicine Tree Magic by Ellen Evert Hopman being good places to start! Dana Driscoll has also written a wealth of knowledge on tree lore and usage on her blog at A Druid’s Garden!
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.