Tree Stories 5 – Yew

Yew is now published on its own page – please use link above under ‘Tree Stories’.

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

My first encounters with yew as a witch did not go well. Yew did not wish to speak to me, and when I walked around a local graveyard, having visited the church first and enjoyed several faces peeking out from the stonework, I found a barrier. Yew did not wish me to go any further. I had never had trouble from a tree before, and when I tried to communicate with yew, on several occasions after that, it was closed to me.

I will admit, I was fascinated. I started to read about yew, to understand its nature better and see if I could approach yew on its terms. The first thing I discovered was the incredible age to which yew trees can live. Until relatively recently it was thought that they lived to about eight hundred years or so. Then came a study of a tree in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey, in the 1980s. The foundations are Saxon, and it was found that they were built around the tree’s roots, indicating that the tree was fully grown over a thousand years ago. It is now thought to be around 2,500 years old, but that is only an estimate. The Fortingall yew is thought to be the oldest yew tree in Britain, with current estimates being 3-8,000 years old. However the hollow trunks that older trees develop make it impossible to count rings, so no one can be sure.

Yews can be very slow growing, around an inch in 25 years in normal circumstances, creating a very dense hardwood. However they will regenerate by producing shoots or aerial roots from almost any part of the trunk, including the inside if it becomes hollow. They can also send up suckers to start new trunks, or even layer themselves where a branch touches the ground. Therefore the tree that you see might not be the ‘original’. In fact fossil yews 1,000,000 years old are virtually the same as those growing now.

Every part of a yew tree is poisonous except for the red flesh of the arils, a type of hollow berry open at the end. Few animals can eat yew leaves, although deer are one exception. For some years hedge clippings were collected by drug companies to make the cancer treatment paclitaxel. However it has now been realised that the active part is a fungus that lives on the yew, which is able to be grown in a laboratory. Hopefully this will reduce the cost of production over time.

In the middle ages, yew was considered to make the best longbows. This unfortunately led to the chopping down of many yew trees across England – which is why most remaining ancient yew trees are the churchyard yews, of which it is estimated 500 are older than the church next to them. Further destruction to mature yews occurred when there was a law passed in 1492 to require four longbows to be imported with every tonne of goods, which led to the devastation of yew trees across Europe.

Yew is believed by many to be Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Northern traditions, as it fits the description of an evergreen ‘needle-ash’ best. It is generally associated with higher knowledge and wisdom, and divination. I had not personally associated it with tarot cards until I began thinking about a story inspired by yew. However the darker side of tarot seemed to be what was wanted, and I definitely had to back off to write this one down! Rather than try to contrive something with the cards, after creating the characters and having a rough outline of the story, I asked for a tarot reading to use. I seemed to take on the character of Amy as I shuffled, and the cards that were dealt were exactly as used in the story. The particular deck I used is ‘The Sacred Circle Tarot’ by Anna Franklin and Paul Mason.

I have mentioned before that I had been collecting sticks from each of the trees in the ogham. (A project put on hold after M was born.) I was interested that once I made a connection with yew, within a week I found a suitable sized yew stick lying on the pavement below an overgrown yew hedge. However yew is sometimes used to make a whole ogham set, because its exceptional durability makes it a very potent wood for magical purposes; yew wands are also good for this reason.

To me the yew is not a tree of death, but of reincarnation and eternal life. Yews have been cut down when it was believed they were dying, yet that was only the end of their first incarnation.

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Brambles

Blackberry flowers and fruits

Blackberry flowers and fruits


For the past three weeks M and I have enjoyed picking blackberries on our walks. Apart from just eating them, we have made several pots of bramble jelly, some blackberry ice cream, had blackberry and apple crumble, stewed blackberries for breakfast, and even frozen some. Blackberry cheesecake is a personal favourite that might come soon… It is one of those flavours that you can never quite remember properly, but a good juicy berry is always better than you expect. Or a bad one more pippy and worse.

Brambles love the British climate, growing anywhere they are allowed and rooting themselves wherever they touch the ground. Around here it is in the hedgerows that I find them, often picking a few here and there as I walk. Most branches will have a few ripe ones, but the plants have evolved to fruit over a long period to encourage maximum spread of the seeds so it is rare to find many ripe ones together. M has taught me to notice them even when I haven’t brought a pot to put some in; the odd one or two keep her going on a walk and she can now spot a bramble bush before I can. Even 30 yards away, the other side of a road. Picking half a pound along a mile of hedge is quite easy; if I’m after more than that it takes effort, knowing where to go, and frequently full combat gear! They are the most predatory plant I know, using their thorns to hook onto whatever they find – hawthorn, fences, their own branches. (Take a look at Bramble Scramble from the BBC’s Private Life of Plants if you don’t believe me!) Luckily there are thornless types now available for those who wish to cultivate them, but they are generally not half as satisfying as picking wild berries.

Bramble hedgerow

Bramble hedgerow


In some areas of Europe there is a taboo against eating blackberries – either because they belong to the fae, or because they represent death. The former is an interesting one, given blackberry wine is apparently okay! This is not a question I have had the opportunity to ask directly, but I believe the point here is about balance, respect, understanding, and above all sharing, especially if you make wine… And remembering that the bramble bushes feed and shelter many animals and birds as well. Cutting them all back, especially when they are about to fruit, would not be appreciated. Others suggest that eating blackberries or drinking blackberry wine at the Equinox is a good way to contact the fae. This is the time when the energies start to withdraw, spiralling down into the earth, and in some legends the Lord of the Harvest enters the Underworld, through the hollow hills, into the care of the fae. Black will take you down into the dark, finding the way through the tunnels of the Earth, while the sweetness will bring pleasure and enjoyment and lightness of heart, helping us to remember life is to be lived.

As for death, well being a pagan is all about the cycles of nature and death being a necessary part of life. The old must be cleared away to make space for what is to come, and Spirit is eternal. Death is not to be feared, but to be embraced, worked with, even thanked at times, for it is the only way we may pass out of this life and into the next part of our spiritual journey when it is time to leave.

There are also many superstitions against eating blackberries after a certain date, usually Michaelmas day (11th October) but sometimes Autumn equinox, or October 1st. The reasons given vary with the date, but in my experience it is a rare year that the late blackberries have been properly pollinated and ripen to full sweetness; the August berries always taste the best.

Planted on graves, brambles were supposed to stop the dead from wandering. Children or cows can be passed through a bramble arch rooted at both ends to bring health, for the blackberry has the gift of abundance as well as protection. Whooping cough was a favourite to be cured in this way, leaving an offering afterwards of bread and butter for the fairies of course.

Aconitum

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus


I first started growing Aconitums in the garden when I discovered it looked a bit like delphiniums but didn’t get eaten by slugs. Also known as Monkshood, thanks to the flower shape, or Wolfsbane thanks to its poisons; all parts of the plant are highly toxic.

There are few traditional uses for Aconitum, poisons for spear tips or arrows to kill wolves or tigers being the main ones, but some have used it on the skin as a painkiller for severe joint pain apparently, and horses can eat it when dried to give them a powerful narcotic stimulant. Used with Belladonna, Henbane, Hemlock and soot, it is said to produce a ‘flying ointment’ for witches – the landing may be a little more insecure than most of us would wish however! Modern witches have created a number of uses for Aconitum such as consecrating knives to banish old energies and give protection, burning at funerals, or when calling upon Hecate with whom the plant is associated.

Recently I have discovered Aconitum can be used for a very effective homoeopathic remedy for colds. Many homoeopathic remedies are based on poisons; my interpretation is that because of the way they are diluted and shaken to have a high energetic presence of the poison, the body is triggered into a reaction. However, as there is no actual physical poison there, the body’s reaction is used instead to fight the disease, in this case a ‘common’ cold. Magic. But not something I would want to prepare for myself…

So why grow it?
Besides being a way of becoming familiar with a great plant, it is actually very garden-worthy. A. napellus, pictured, grows to nearly six feet tall in my windy garden, yet never needs staking. It is a very pretty plant with a full four seasons of interest – the fresh young growth in Spring, flowers in Summer, good leaf colour in Autumn, and finally dried stems and seed cases through the Winter. It seems to be fairly undemanding, neither taking over nor being easily squeezed out, and grows happily in the middle of borders which conveniently ensures it is not brushed accidentally.

I see its parallel with Yew in the world of trees. Equally poisonous in almost all parts, Yew teaches us about death and transformation, letting us see the dark side of the cycle as a positive experience and allowing us to be reborn. Aconitum can be used to clear what needs to be cleared at a stroke, and see the fundamental truths. It is fast acting, being fast growing, but carries the power of renewal from the deep taproots. Having cleared, there is a store of energy there which can be used to create something new out of the ashes.