The bay tree was sacred in Greek myth. The virginal nymph Daphne, pursued by the lustful god Apollo, chose virtue over pleasure and called to her father for help. Hearing her plea, he put her out of harm’s way by turning her into a laurel tree.
Laurel adorned his hair evermore, and since antiquity Apollo has been depicted with a laurel wreath.
The tree is associated with purification, and returning Greek generals originally wore laurel to purify them of bloodshed. Over time their wreaths, and those of the Romans after them, became linked to victory and achievement.
Now the national tree of Peru and Ecuador, Cinchona changed the course of world history. Its claim to fame is the effectiveness of its bark for treating malaria.
In the early seventeenth century, when Spanish colonists and Jesuit missionaries in Peru were first introduced to cinchona bark, there was no malaria in South America.
Historians suggest that cinchona was an indigenous medicine used to treat an unrelated fever, and that inspired desperate Europeans to make an incredibly lucky guess. In Europe, malaria was so rampant that it killed more than half of all Europeans who ventured into Africa and Asia. In the British settlement of Virginia, more people died from ’swamp fever’ than at the hands of the Native Americans. When they found that Cinchona bark could both cure and prevent the disease, its use spread quickly.
To disguise the bitter taste, gin, lemon and sugar were added to make it more palatable, resulting in the forerunner of today’s gin and tonic drink. Modern tonic water has more sugar and much less quinine—enough, though, to make it fluoresce pale blue under ultraviolet nightclub light.
Enough also for this author to drink tonic water for my foot and leg cramps.
This tree is named after Cyparissus, a mythical figure whose father was friendly with the Greek god Apollo. Cyparissus accidently killed the god’s favorite stag.
Full of remorse, he begged that his grief would endure forever. Apollo transformed him into a cypress, its resinous sap representing his tears.
The cypress became the symbol of the immortal soul and eternal death, and an emblem of the underworld. Cypress is still widely planted in cemeteries. Garlands of cypress were placed about homes to indicate that those within were in mourning, and it was one of the woods traditionally used for funeral pyres and coffins.
Endemic to the Yemeni island of Socotra, off the Horn of Africa, dragon’s blood trees have an eerie, prehistoric aspect. Their bizarre shape, like umbrellas blown inside-out, helps them to survive on the arid, thin soil that covers the island’s granite mountains.
Dracaena’s otherworldliness is heightened by the teardrops of translucent blood-red resin that ooze from its wounded limbs. Local residents encourage the flow by carefully incising the bark and returning a year later to collect droplets and small chunks of resin. Heated, dried and formed into small slabs, it has the creepy, powdery quality of dried blood.
The origin of the name came from a Hindu myth, repeated by Pliny the Elder, involving an elephant and a dragon, in which the dragon gulped the elephant’s blood before getting squished, spilling the blood of both animals. The scientific name Dracena derives from the Greek for female dragon, so the resin is called ‘dragon’s blood.’
Well known for her descent into the Underworld, Persephone eats a pomegranate that keeps her tied to Hades. Why does she happily stay and return every year?
Some tellers of the story of Persephone say that eating the pomegranate seeds damned her to be trapped below the Earth. Others say that she gained so much knowledge, that the Underworld was no longer seen as a scary place, but as a provider of balance.
Either way, pomegranates are deliciously magical. Their fruit is filled with seeds, not just five or six or even ten or twenty, but 840 seeds. Because of this, pomegranate’s fertility magic is about diversity. Pomegranate teaches us to cast our seeds far and wide, to send out many branches, to find strength in a diverse or wide array of creative pursuits.
Pomegranates feature in writing from ancient Egypt and Greece, in the Old Testament and Talmud, and in the Qur’an. They also have many health benefits. Traditional uses for diarrhea, dysentery and intestinal parasites are long established, and the fruit contains antioxidants that are beneficial, including anti-cancer and anti-aging claims.
A fall-winter fruit, pomegranates begin to ripen in September, just in time to adorn High Holiday tables, providing both beautiful decoration and important symbolism. Perhaps this year, you will incorporate the meaningful blessing for magical pomegranates into your fall and winter celebrations.
Native to the foggy hills of the Pacific North West, the colossal coastal redwoods are the world’s highest trees, and among its oldest. Gazing upwards, one might wonder whether there’s any limit to high a tree can grow. Turns out, there is.
Historically, the world’s tallest individual redwoods all reached just a little more than 120 meters (394 feet). And the same is true of the very tallest specimens of other giant tree species. To understand why, we must understand water, and how it reaches a tree’s top.
As with any plant, most of the solid matter of a tree is constructed (synthesized) using two simple ingredients: carbon dioxide and water. It possibly the most important chemical reaction on Earth, and it’s powered by sunlight, hence its name, photosynthesis. Every leaf has hundreds of tiny pores, which allow carbon dioxide from the surrounding air to enter. The only way that trees can draw water up from the roots to the top of the tree is if some of that water evaporates through the leaf pores.
As individual cells near the surface of the leaf dry out, they such water from the next wettest cell below, then the next and the next, until the pull reaches a vein in the leaf and sucks on the tiny tubes, perhaps just a thirtieth of a millimeter across, carrying water all the way of through the woody part of the tree.
The theoretical limit to the height that columns of water inside trees can be lifted is about 120 meters. Any taller and gravity would overpower the cohesion between water molecules and the top of the tree would dehydrate and die. Turns out, trees can’t grow any taller because of fundamental laws of physics.
The sugar maple is found in the Midwest states to Vermont and Quebec, Ontario. It’s known for its delectable pancake-smothering syrup; its timber, solid enough for baseball bats; and its gorgeous show of autumn color. With her smooth bark and evenly distributed branches, she makes a perfect tree for climbing. From the canopy above, I would hide in my grandmother’s maple tree overlooking the street, and watch the life flow by her house.
Those glorious orange and red colors are always there, but masked by the tree’s green chlorophyll. In autumn, when the trees begin to slow down, they recycle anything that could be useful the next year. As chlorophyll is broken down and reabsorbed, the leaves’ green coloring disappears, leaves the oranges, reds and yellows unobscured.
Unfortunately, sugar maples has been in decline due to logging. They are slow growing, and faster growing trees, like birch, will often grow in their places after a forest is logged.
As maple was one of the only sources of sugar for the American Native peoples, it was seen as a gift from the Creator. Her sap typically runs between Imbolc and spring equinox, and her leaves brighten between fall equinox and Samhain.
To keep the maples producing sap, the Native Americans held maple ceremonies to ensure a good harvest, with offerings of tobacco. When walking sticks are made of maple, it is said to represent gentleness. Ruled by Jupiter, the maple tree is used for love and wands. I think the fact that the two more prominent events of the Maple occur around the equinoxes is not coincidence, and I see the Maple as a tree of balance, a tree that sits between the worlds.
At the approximate center of Scotland grows what is Scotland’s—and possibly Europe’s—oldest tree. Estimates suggest the Fortingall yew in Glen Lyon could be anything from 2,000-9,000 years old. A popular legend relates how Pontius Pilate was born under this tree or played as a child. This suggest that it was already a landmark over 2,000 years ago.
Rings cannot be counted and carbon dating is tough on most yews because their ancient hearts rot and disappear. One of the tree’s mystical qualities is its ability to regenerate, producing fresh shoots from apparently “dead” wood. Drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground.
Thus the yew came to symbolize death and resurrection in Celtic culture. Themes of death and resurrection for the yew shows up throughout history. People buried yew shoots with the deceased, and used boughs of yew as “Palms” in church at Easter. Yew wood and branches are laid on graves as a reminder to the departed spirit that death is only a pause in life before rebirth.
In fact, very old specimens of yew trees are now rate outside of church grounds. No other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently around churches and cemeteries.
The Celts were surely familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles. And Shakespeare had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew. The deadly rink included, “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse.”
The hard, close-grained wood was used for medieval longbows. Archers used these to devastating effect during the Hundred Years War, as well as at the Scots’ battle at Bannockburn in 1314.
In interpretations of Norse cosmology, the tree Yggdrasil traditionally been interpreted as a giant ash tree. Some scholars now believe that the tree is most likely a European yew.
Next week we will discuss ‘baneful’ plants, and my own poison garden planting plans.
Until then, be safe and Blessed Be!