Trees - myths and folklore

Information sheet

Bring trees alive with the fascinating stories that surround them.

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s): English, Art&DT, History

Hazel

Hazel has a reputation as a magical tree. A hazel rod is supposed to protect against evil spirits, as well as being used as a wand and for water-divining. Stirring jam with a hazel twig prevents it from being stolen by fairies! 

In some parts of England hazel nuts were carried as charms.

Birch

When birch is burned it aids concentration and uplifts the spirit. 
 
Dried leaves of birch used to be used to charm a baby’s cot, giving the child strength to cast off any weakness and get the best start in life.

Traditional broomsticks are made of birch twigs. Birch twigs brush away evil spirits.

 Apple

Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, has the symbol of the apple. When an apple is cut diagonally it shows Aphrodite’s 5 pointed star.
 
In Celtic times apples were considered the food of the Gods.
 
Traditionally apples have been wassailed over by country folk to ensure a good crop.
 
As they are the symbol of plenty felling an apple tree has always been said to bring bad luck.

Hawthorn

The May Queen is dressed in blossoms of hawthorn for May Day.
 
The May King is also known as the Green Man. He courts the May Queen and wears hawthorn blossom in his leafy costume.

Henry VII claimed Hawthorn as the badge of the House of Tudor because at the Battle of Bosworth the crown was stolen from Richard III and hidden in a hawthorn bush.
 
Hawthorn is regarded as a sacred tree, great misfortune was threatened to come to those who destroyed it.
 
Hawthorn crowns were plaited and left out for angels and fairies to dance around and bless people.

Young girls in Northern Counties eagerly awaited the first blossom and the girl who found it would break it and leave it hanging. That night she would dream of her future husband. If she found it again she would keep it as a charm until her husband appeared.

 

Rowan

In the British Isles the rowan has a long history in folklore as a tree which protects against enchantment. Pieces of the tree were carried by people for personal protection.
 
On the Isle of Man crosses for protection were made from rowan twigs, worn by people and hung inside on the Eve of May Day each year. From Scotland to Cornwall similar crosses made from rowan twigs and bound with red thread were sewn into the lining of coats or carried in pockets.

 

Alder

When cut, the pale wood turns a deep orange, giving the impression of bleeding. As such, many people feared alder trees and the Irish thought it was unlucky to pass one on a journey.
 
Alder wood is said to protect the heart and chest. Talismans worn about the neck are excellent for this.
 
When used in Fairy Magic it is believed that alder is the secret doorway used by the fairy folk to pass from one realm to another.
 
Alder wood makes a good wand for wind and weather magic. For the purpose of wind magic, sticks are only gathered from ‘wind-blown’ branches.

 

Maple

In parts of Europe it was the custom for maple branches to be hung around a doorway to prevent bats from entering the building.

 

Beech

No harm could befall a traveller who sought shelter under the branches of a beech tree.


Holly

There is a widespread belief that cutting down a whole holly tree will bring bad luck! Hanging holly leaves around the house was also thought to keep evil spirits away and used as a charm against house goblins. Decorations for the house should also be burnt in the garden for continual good luck throughout the year. The Romans believed holly kept witches away!

 It was also said that the trees are magical and one should always ask permission from the tree to cut a branch and a useful gift should be given to the tree in return.

 Holly trees were often used as boundary trees planted in the hedgerows to prevent the passage of witches, who were known to fly along the tops of hedges.

 Folklore suggested that holly wood had an affinity for control, especially of horses, and most whips for ploughmen and horse-drawn coaches were made from coppiced holly.

 Holly trees were traditionally known for protection from lightning strikes and so were planted near a house. In European mythology, holly was associated with the thunder God Thor.
 

Ash

The ash tree was thought to have medicinal and mystical properties and the wood was burned to ward off evil spirits. In Norse Viking mythology, ash was referred to as the 'Tree of Life'.  In Britain we regarded ash as a healing tree.

 Passing an injured or ill child through the opening of a young, flexible ash that had been severed and held open with wedges, would cause the child to be healed as the ash tree healed. On the mornings of the three successive days, the child was to be washed in the dew from the leaves of this tree.

 Oak

The Green Man is wreathed in oak leaves.The acorn is considered a symbol of immortality and to carry one will prevent illness and ensure a long life.

Elder

Elder was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful plants. It was said it had the power to charm away warts and vermin!

 

Tree sayings

To predict summer weather:

Ash before Oak, we're in for a soak
Oak before Ash, we're in for a splash

To keep healthy:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

To be granted a wish!

Mini whirlwinds of leaves, are said to be evidence of a "Fairy Dance". The tiniest of Fairies are believed to ride on falling leaves. If a leaf is caught in the air, before it has touched the ground, the Fairy must grant the "catcher" a wish.

Tree facts

  • There are over 80,000 species of tree
  • The largest tree is a giant sequoia 
  • The tallest tree is a coast redwood measuring 83 metres tall - about the length of an average football pitch!

Storytelling

Why not create a storytelling willow star and decorate with collected tree seeds and leaves. What story will you weave with your folklore knowledge? 


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