Tree Stories 12 – Spindle

Spindle is now published on its own page under ‘Tree Stories’, or follow the link here.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

This has been an interesting story for me to write – mostly for all the wrong reasons! It was started in February and I had the basic outline, and then learned in a meditation what the next story should be and that this one was done; it just needed writing down. Well that was it, I couldn’t write another word and had a complete block. For other reasons I then took a break from creative writing for a few months, but still there was this story waiting to be written down. Finally in September I managed to get back to writing and get this story finished, but I no longer felt inspired by it in the same way; I had moved on. So instead, it became an exercise in editing and determination to try and make something of it and do justice to what is a lovely tree just coming into it’s brief season. Strangely though, persevering has been satisfying in its own way, as well as freeing, like I had passed through some barrier, or completed a test successfully.

After finishing the story, I then discovered Spindle symbolised completing lessons in order to move forwards, for the sake of honour rather than reward! Clearly I hadn’t connected sufficiently to this tree while writing the story, or more likely Spirit wanted me to experience the lesson in a very personal and direct way.

Spindle is sometimes listed as the 22nd ogham Oir, which is also known as Gold and therefore associated with wealth and inspired knowledge. Spells using Spindle can apparently be long lasting. When Spindle appears it often heralds unexpected positive things happening as revelations or thunder and lightening go with this ogham. It is also associated with community – to develop knowledge and wisdom of the right relationship with others in the community (another theme which unexpectedly came through in my story), as well as that wisdom giving the right and obligation to question authority when necessary. Finally the Spindle Tree, separate from oghams, is traditionally associated with crafts and creative endeavours, since the spindle was such an essential part of European culture being carried by most women and used daily until the development of the spinning wheel, and so can be used to gain creative inspiration.

Spindle wood was used for spindles, bobbins, knitting needles, pegs, skewers, toothpicks, or any other circumstance where something small yet strong was required; the fact that it splits easily also helps to make thin, pointed items. Other uses include watchmaker’s cleaning tools, organ keys, and ear studs made of Spindle have been found on Dartmoor that are 4000 years old. Spindle also makes high quality charcoal for artists. Oils from the plant are used in soap, and a latex compound from the roots is used to make rubber, used in insulation for electrical components amongst other things, and plastics.

The flowers attract a variety of insects including bees, hoverflies and aphids, holly blue butterflies and several species of moth, and subsequently several songbirds. However the tree is poisonous to most animals including humans, the exception being goats which can browse on it quite happily. As a result, the ground berries have used for getting rid of head lice or as insecticides, and infusions made by boiling used for acne and other external complaints. In parts of Africa the berry juice was used for poison arrows. The berries were also used for a yellow dye (or green with alum), which some people used for colouring butter.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus' with berries

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ with berries

Relatively fast growing to about 6m in height, it can be invasive, but is not long lived. In England it is now under threat; however some parts of the country, in particular the lower slopes of Dartmoor, seem to suit it well where a 2007 survey found it growing in 9% of hedgerows surveyed. This photograph shows not Euonymus europaeus, which has such wonderful pink berries in their bright orange cases, but Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ which is a dwarf form and grows in my garden giving delight at this time of year.

Tree Stories 8 – Blackthorn

Blackthorn is now published on its own page; please use the link above.

Ripening Sloes

Ripening Sloes

There are many blackthorn bushes mixed into the hawthorn hedges around where I live, and some years I have picked the sloes for gin or syrup. They are best after the first frosts. Both can just be enjoyed as a drink, but are also good for coughs and sore throats. Blackthorn flowers and leaves can be helpful for depression, as well as a good general tonic. Birds also enjoy the berries. The flowers are a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees, while several butterfly and moth caterpillars enjoy the leaves.

The wood is particularly hard and dense, being traditionally used for cudgels, blasting sticks and Irish shillelaghs, as well as tool handles and walking sticks. It is very much associated with witches, with the thorns being considered ideal for spellwork such as piercing a wax poppet, although in past times it was the witch hunters who used it; blackthorn seems to be the tree most likely to be used by someone wishing to harm others. The Ogham name for blackthorn, Straif, strife in modern English, is a good descriptor for it. A hard tree to love, it nevertheless does a useful job of keeping cattle in the fields, and in some versions, keeping princes out of Sleeping Beauty’s castle becoming impenetrable to all except true love. Similarly Rapunzel, where the prince looses his eyes on blackthorn bushes, to have it restored by his true love’s tears. Those who hold onto their pain and anger rarely have an easy time with blackthorn and are likely to get scratched by thorns with a reputation for turning cuts septic.

More positive interpretations and uses of Blackthorn vary widely. Some use it for facing death, and it is usually associated with the dark Goddess, Morrigan or Cailleach. Others for piercing negative attitudes in themselves or others, and befriending it can bring understanding of what causes negativity in your life. Yet more use it for protection, either psychically or physically, or as a wand for a banishing spell. My own interpretation, for strength in times of adversity, covers most of these at a deep level.

The Blackthorn was traditionally followed by its sister tree Hawthorn when used for healing – gentling and bringing love where blackthorn has pricked the hidden sores.

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.