THE CONCEALED WISDOM OF THE PLANT KINGDOMAdded: 09 June 2017
Anemone comes from the Greek anemos, meaning wind, an appropriate name for the short-lived nature of this small, fragile flower, which symbolizes the transience of life itself. Ovid said that the flower was both “born of the wind, and carried away by it.” The flower is popular in funeral wreaths where, again, its symbolic meaning carries a hidden message.
There’s a Greek myth, too, which tells the story of the anemone. Aphrodite wept when she mourned the death of her lover Adonis, and as the tears fell on the ground they became anemones. But Aphrodite’s sadness didn’t last long, and shortly afterwards she took another lover; therefore the flowers also symbolize the ephemeral aspect of love.
The aquilegia is an unusual, complex-looking and ethereal flower. It is associated with magical powers, and carries hidden secrets within the elaborate folds and ruffles of its petals.
Aquilegia is associated with two birds that have opposing characteristics. Initially the flower was called the columbine, after the Latin word for dove, columba, since its nectar gland is dove-like in shape and because the petals look a little like a circle of doves. But Latin monks renamed the flower the aquilegia from the Latin for “eagle,” aquila; this is because the curlicued spurs at the back of the petals look like the talons of the eagle. The eagle, of course, is a flamboyant bird, symbolic of kings, emperors, and power. The dove is the diametric opposite of the eagle, a bird of humble appearance associated with peace and love. The dove is the “secret” symbol of the United States and balances the eagle, which is a more overt sign of this nation. Sometimes the columbine is used in religious paintings as a secret symbol for the dove, which in turn represents the Holy Spirit.
A tall, climbing forest plant, ayahuasca is the most important plant in the spiritual life of South America, and is carefully used in sacred rituals so that the shaman or intrepid explorer can reach the depths of his innermost consciousness. The benefits of taking the ayahuasca drug as part of a guided ritual are said to enable the celebrant to witness not only his own birth but also the dawning of creation, receive wisdom from the Ancestors, meet the Great Spirit and also be completely aware of being a part of the All.
The word ayahuasca translates as the “vine of the soul.” The bark of the vine is made into an infusion which is then consumed with due ceremony. Popular shared hallucinations as a result of ayahuasca intoxication include witnessing the appearance of God as a great bright bird.
Basil leaves are said to contain magical powers, used in both love potions and as a divinatory tool to assess the nature of a marriage or relationship. More practically, the leaves can be used to cure wounds. If a basil leaf is laid on the hand of a promiscuous person it will apparently wither. It is the herb of the Haitian Goddess of Love, Erzuli. The importance of basil is a part of Hindu tradition, too, and is partly explained in myth. The Goddess Tulasi was seduced by the God Vishnu. When she realized what had happened Tulasi was horrified and killed herself. As a result Vishnu declared that she would be a reminder of faithfulness and purity, and would thereafter keep women from becoming widows. The holy basil that sprang from her ashes became a symbol of love, immortality, and protection. The Sanskrit name for this holy basil is Tulasi, which means “the incomparable one.”
This plant is called “beautiful lady” because the court ladies of the Italian Renaissance used it to enlarge their pupils and so render themselves more attractive; however, this name belies the deadly poisonous nature of belladonna, a member of the potato family. Its other name, deadly nightshade, is far more fitting to its toxic nature. Another sinister aspect of the plant is its association with witches, who used deadly nightshade to bring about hallucinatory visions. As with many poisonous plants, however, there are medicinal benefits to be had from the plant, and one of its constituents, atropine, is a heart stimulant.
Because the broom shrub has long straight branches with lots of similarly long straight shoots that point in the same direction, it has been used for sweeping for thousands of years, hence the name “broomstick.” In Latin, the broom is called Planta genista, and gives its name to the Plantagenet kings who used it as their emblem.
For the Japanese, the camellia is a symbol of friendship, harmony, and grace. However, for the Samurai class the flower symbolized death and the fleeting nature of life. The flower was one of the most sought-after of the nineteenth century, the cause of financial speculation, and very expensive. They therefore became a status symbol that could be enjoyed only by the very wealthy.
The camellia is similar in appearance to the rose, but somehow has a more sedate quality for all its elegant sexuality. It is also a symbol of pride and aloofness, as reflected in Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s novel, La Dame Aux Camellias, whose heroine carries a bouquet of white camellias for 25 days then swaps them for red ones, as a signal that she is sexually available.
The chrysanthemum is the emblem of the Japanese Imperial family. The flower is a solar symbol, and its many layers of orderly petals mean that it is associated with longevity and immortality. There’s even an annual festival dedicated to the flower, National Chrysanthemum Day, also called the Festival of Happiness. In China, too, the flower is seen as a symbol of vitality.
The flower is an ambiguous mix of restraint and exuberance; it is a show-off, whilst retaining a certain orderliness and formality. The name comes from the Greek chrysos, meaning “golden,” and anthemum meaning “flower.”
The clover stands for protection, fertility, and abundance, and if brought into the home serves as a charm to keep away witches. It is worn for the same reason. The clover has three distinctly heart-shaped leaves, both elements that contribute to its benevolent reputation. The shamrock-the form of clover that is synonymous with all things Irish-was known as the shamrakh in Arab countries and symbolized the triple aspect of the Goddess.
The rare four-leafed clover is a ubiquitous symbol of good luck, and finding one means that the bearer will be able to see fairies and witches, and recognize evil spirits. Accordingly, the four-leafed clover can protect from these creatures, too. The four-leafed clover or shamrock carries all the symbolism of the number 4.
The ancient use of the leaves of the coca plant, which is cultivated primarily in South America, is well known. Mummies dating back to the fifth century AD were buried with a supply of the leaves. When these leaves are chewed, they have a stimulant effect that leaves the mouth feeling numb. The Incas recognized the special qualities of the plant and called it the “food of the Gods,” reserving its use for sacred rituals. However, the breakdown of the Inca Empire meant that the restrictions surrounding the plant, as a sacred herb, were relaxed. It’s possible that Spanish missionaries exploited the use of the coca plant since chewing the leaves masked hunger and meant the Andean Indians’ work output increased. Philip II of Spain decided that the drug was essential to the well-being of the Indians but forbade its use in religious practices. It might be said that this edict signalled the end for the coca plant as a sacred herb. But this would not be the last time that people were exploited because of the drug. The coca plant is now arguably one of the most controversial plants in the world.
The source of this controversy is cocaine, the primary chemical compound of the coca plant. Its usefulness as a medicine is unfortunately belied by its recreational use. Cocaine is highly addictive; not only this, but the value of the drug means that cultivation of the coca plant has profound political and sociological repercussions. It is now US policy to discourage the cultivation of this crop.
The scientific name of the daisy is Bellis perennis, but it attained its more popular name as a corruption of “day’s eye,” since it opens at sunrise and closes again at sunset. In Victorian times, as well as having the association with purity, the flower was a symbol of love; girls would pluck away the petals of the daisy repeating the lines “he loves me, he loves me not” as each petal fell away, and the final petal would give the answer. The daisy is also a sign of the coming of spring, said to have arrived when nine of the little flowers can be trodden on.
The dandelion is so-called because the jagged shape of its petals look like the teeth of a lion; hence, Dents de Lion. If this humble little flower were difficult to grow it’s likely that it would be highly prized for its beauty; since, however, the dandelion is a common weed, its sensational looks are often taken for granted. In an example of sympathetic magic, because the plant contains a thick milky sap it was believed to be good for the production of sperm.
The dandelion clock, the delicate pompom-shaped seed head of the flower, is associated with old age and the passing of time; children count the number of breaths needed to blow all the seeds away as a method of telling the time.
The datura is a jungle plant with beautiful, bell-shaped flowers. There is a (possibly apocryphal) tale that Victorian and Edwardian ladies, sitting in conservatories full of exotic plants from the far-flung places of the British Empire, would place their teacups underneath the datura plant since the moisture dripping from it caused strange and rather pleasant sensations. These ladies may have been shocked to learn that the effects were produced by the psychotropic chemicals in the plant, which makes the datura sacred for shamans in South America and Mexico, who use it to induce a trance-like state. The seeds are pounded into a paste and washed down with beer.
Datura is highly toxic, having reputedly caused more deaths by poisoning than any other plant; but provided the shaman doesn’t take a physical as well as mental trip into the Otherworld, he can enjoy up to three days’ worth of auditory and visual hallucinations that apparently include conversing with imaginary beings.
Garlic has strong antiseptic qualities and is good for warding off disease. As a vegetable symbol of protection, garlic really is second to none. Its most famous use, arguably, is as a talisman to ward off vampires; the garlic needs to be tied to the bed-head in an attempt to dissuade these demonic creatures.
Like its relation the onion, garlic was believed to ward off snakes, and this could well be because of the efficacy of garlic in treating all kinds of infections. Shepherds in the Carpathian mountains still rub their hands with garlic before milking their ewes; this is a symbolic ritual that has its roots in solid fact, since the antibacterial powers of the garlic can prevent the spread of disease.
Garlic used to be carried by brides as a symbol of good luck, although this practice seems to have died out.
Ginseng is one of the plants accorded magical properties partly because of the appearance of its roots, which look like a human being. In the East, particularly in China, ginseng is revered as being the elixir of life and is called Panax ginseng in recognition of its supposed powers of curing all ills. Symbolically, the ginseng plant represents longevity, vitality, vigor, strength, and clarity. Ginseng is also said to be an aphrodisiac and to increase both sexual potency and virility.
Often overlooked because it is one of the more prolific plants on the planet, the very mundanity of grass is the factor that elevates its symbolic status. As a litmus, grass is invaluable; dry, brown, and dying grass signifies a drought, whereas lush green grass is symbolic of healthy land and fertility. The Roman army gave a crown of grass, or corona graminea, as the highest of accolades to particularly effective warriors; symbolic of the very land itself, this crown was made of grasses, flowers, and weeds pulled from the battlefield. The entire army had to decide whether or not their leader deserved such a high accolade, which was given only after the most desperate of campaigns. Pliny the Elder recorded only nine men who had received this honor.
The very word “hemlock” conjures up the idea of poison, but curiously, although the hemlock is deadly for humans, it does not harm domesticated animals. The hemlock is symbolic of death, pure and simple, and, famously, was consumed by Socrates. After his trial, Socrates was given the death sentence and it was decreed that he must kill himself by drinking hemlock. The great philosopher used his philosophical outlook to great effect and drank the hemlock without fuss, even managing to describe his symptoms as the poison gradually overcame him. The whole episode was described by Plato. To this day, the phrase “to drink hemlock” is synonymous with committing suicide.
Hemlock used to be rubbed onto knives and swords to prepare them to kill the enemy, the poison further enhancing the potency of the blade as an instrument of death. The hemlock plant should not be confused with Tsuga, the tree genus of hemlock.
Hemp is the name for all the different species of cannabis. Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica were species that were smoked in many countries all around the world long before the Conquistadores discovered tobacco. Its ubiquity is reflected in its many different names; in India, it is called bhang or ganja from the Sanskrit words bhanga or ghanjika: in the Near East it is called hashish (incidentally, the origin of the word “assassin”) from an Arabic word meaning hemp: in South Africa it is called dakka, and the native South American name of marijuana was interpreted by the Conquistadores as “Mary Jane.” It’s called “weed” just about everywhere.
The usefulness of hemp in making fabric is really overshadowed by its use as a narcotic plant. Its use as a ritual substance is well documented, with evidence dating back as far as Neolithic times. A mummified shaman was found in China in 2003 along with a leather basket containing fragments of seeds and leaves. Shamanistic use of cannabis included burning of the flowers of the plant to induce a trance-like state.
Of late, hemp has been adopted as a sacred herb by the Rastafarian movement and the cannabis leaf symbol is often depicted in the Rasta colors of red, green, and gold. It is considered that the use of the herb purifies the soul, clears the mind, and promotes peacefulness.
The Mahayana Buddhist tradition sees hemp as a particularly sacred plant because it is associated with the Buddha, who, so they say, lived on one hemp seed per day as he journeyed toward enlightenment.
Ivy is traditionally seen as the female counterpart to the masculine holly, and the two plants are paired together symbolically in Christmas and Yuletide songs. Like the vine, ivy has tendrils that enable it to climb vigorously, and, like the vine, ivy is associated with Dionysus. He is often depicted using the plant to bind the nubile young ladies who would otherwise resist his advances. A wreath of ivy used to hang outside shops as a sign that wine might be purchased there.
Ivy was believed to be able to both cause and cure drunkenness, and an old cure for a hangover was to drink vinegar in which ivy berries had been boiled. It should be stated here, however, that most parts of the ivy are poisonous and it is not recommended that you try this remedy, no matter how bad your headache.
Houses with ivy growing on them are seen as being protected by the maternal nature of the plant, but the clinginess of the ivy is viewed as a less attractive female characteristic. It is this same binding tendency that makes ivy an ingredient in love charms.
Ivy appears in the Ogham Tree alphabet where it is called Gort.
The juniper berry is what gives the alcoholic spirit, gin, both its name and its delicate flavor. In pre-Christian times the juniper bush was believed to harbor spirits so offerings would be made to it to propitiate them. Junipers are symbolic of patience since the berries-which in fact are tiny cones-take three years to ripen. Buddhist monks use juniper wood in their sacred temple fires. The wood does not burn very well but gives off an aromatic smoke which is said to aid both meditation and inner visions.
Junipers happily grow in hilly, windswept places so they are symbolic of resilience. There’s a legend that the infant Jesus and his parents hid in a juniper bush to escape Herod’s soldiers.
Juniper berries are used to aid stomach ailments and are a purgative for worms. The old wives’ method of inducing an abortion with a scalding hot bath and a bottle of gin has some truth in it; juniper berries contain a chemical that can cause uterine contractions, and to speak of a girl giving birth “under the savin” (an old word for the juniper) refers to an abortion induced by the plant.
THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS
The idea that a posy of flowers could convey a secret meaning, particularly between lovers, was originally an Eastern concept, although the flower as divine messenger is an ancient concept. The Buddha’s words manifested as flowers dropping from the sky are an early example. The language of flowers is called floriography, and though this art gives specific meanings to flowers, these meanings do not always tie in with their more generally accepted symbolism.
This idea became popular in Europe (and consequently in America) after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu visited Turkey in 1718. Writing to her friends back home, she described the system she had discovered whereby flowers and other objects were used as a means of communication. This idea, called hana kotoba, also existed in Japan. It might seem strange to Westerners to think that the infamous Samurai warriors were particularly fond of this art, but its influence was so powerful that Samurai families often chose specific flowers as their crests, a similar device to the heraldic coats of arms.
Objects used to convey secret messages apart from flowers included fruits and other food, gemstones as well as valueless pebbles and even coal. Therefore a Turkish love-letter was not simply a piece of paper or a bunch of flowers, but a parcel or packet containing a very odd assortment of items.
The lists of flowers and their meanings did vary, and this ambiguity continues today, although some meanings are generic. For example, the red rose is universally accepted as symbolizing love. The following list has been compiled from several different sources.
ACACIA-Secret love, considered bad luck if given to a woman
AMARANTH-Faith, immortality, unfading love
AMARYLLIS-You are sought after, poetry
ANEMONE-Brevity, “go away!”
APPLE BLOSSOM-Preference, better things to come, good fortune
ASPHODEL-Languor, regret, death
ASTER-Daintiness, a talisman of love
AZALEA-Take care, temperance, passion, Chinese symbol of womanhood
BABY’S BREATH-Innocence, purity of heart
BACHELOR’S BUTTON-Single blessedness, celibacy
BEGONIA-Beware, a fanciful nature
BLUEBELL/BELL FLOWER-Humility, constancy, gratitude
CACTUS-Endurance, my heart burns with love
CALLA LILY-Magnificent beauty
CAMELLIA-Admiration, perfection, good-luck gift for a man, gratitude
CANTERBURY BELLS/BELL FLOWER-Gratitude
CARDINAL FLOWER/SCARLET LOBELIA-Distinction
CARNATION (General)-Fascination, admiration
CHRISTMAS ROSE/HELLEBORUS-Relieve my anxiety
CHRYSANTHEMUM (General)-You’re a wonderful friend, cheerfulness
CONVOLVUS MINOR/ BINDWEED-Uncertainty, tender affection
COWSLIP-Rusticity, winning grace, healing, youth, pensiveness
CROCUS-Cheerfulness, abuse not, gladness
DAFFODIL-Regard, unrequited love, you’re the only one
DAHLIA-Dignity and elegance, forever thine, instability
DAISY-Innocence, loyal love, purity, beauty, respect
DANDELION-Faithfulness, happiness, love’s oracle
DOG ROSE-Pleasure and pain
EGLANTINE/SWEET-BRIAR/ROSA EGLANTARIA-Poetry, I wound to heal
FERN-Magic, fascination, confidence, shelter
FORGET ME NOT-True love, memories, remembrance
FOXGLOVE/FAIRY THIMBLES/DEAD MEN’S BELLS-Stateliness, youth
FUCHSIA (Scarlet)-Confiding love, taste
GARDENIA-You’re lovely, secret love, purity, refinement
GENTIAN (Closed)-Sweet be thy dreams
GERANIUM-True friend, stupidity, folly
GLADIOLI-Generosity, I’m sincere, flower of the gladiators
HEARTSEASE/PURPLE/JOHNNY JUMP UP-You occupy my thoughts
HEATHER (Lavender)-Admiration, solitude
HEATHER (White)-Protection, wishes will come true
HIBISCUS-Consumed by love, delicate beauty
HOLLY-Defense, domestic happiness, good wishes
HONESTY/LUNARIA/DOLLAR PLANT/MONEY PLANT-Sincerity
HONEYSUCKLE-The bond of love
HUCKLEBERRY-Faith, simple pleasures
HYACINTH (General)-Games and sports, rashness, dedicated to Apollo
HYDRANGEA-Thank you for understanding, frigidity, heartlessness
IRIS-Your friendship means so much to me, faith, hope, wisdom and valor, my compliments
IVY-Wedded love, fidelity, friendship, affection
JAPONICA-Sincerity, symbol of love
JONQUIL-Love me, affection returned, desire, sympathy
LADY’S SLIPPER-Win me, capricious beauty
LARKSPUR-Levity, an open heart, lightness, fickleness
LILAC (General)-Beauty, pride
LILY (Day)-Coquetry, Chinese emblem for mother
LILY (General)-Majesty and honor, purity of heart
LILY (Orange)-Hatred, dislike
LILY OF THE VALLEY-Sweetness, tears of the Virgin Mary, happiness, humility
LOTUS-Estranged love, forgetful of the past
LOVE IN A MIST-You puzzle me
LOVE-LIES-BLEEDING/AMARANTHUS-Hopeless, not heartless, desertion
LYCHNIS/CAMPION/MALTESE CROSS-Religious enthusiasm
MALLOW-Delicate beauty, sweetness
MARIGOLD (Common)-Cruelty, grief, jealousy
MIGNONETTE-Your qualities surpass your charms, health
MISTLETOE-Kiss me, affection, difficulties, sacred plant of India
MYRTLE-Love, joy, Hebrew emblem of marriage
NASTURTIUM-Conquest, victory in battle
ORANGE BLOSSOM-Innocence, eternal love, marriage, fruitfulness
ORCHID-Love, beauty, refinement, Chinese symbol for many children, thoughtfulness
PALM LEAVES-Victory and success
PANSY-Merriment, thoughts (you occupy my thoughts)
PASQUE FLOWER-Unpretentious, you have no claims
PASSION FLOWER-Faith, religious fervor
PEONY-Shame, happy marriage, compassion, bashfulness
PERIWINKLE/VINCA/MYRTLE-Early recollections, pleasures of memories, sweet memories
PETUNIA-Your presence soothes me
PHLOX-Our souls are united, unanimity
PINK (Mountain)-You are aspiring
POPPY (General)-Eternal sleep, oblivion, imagination
PRIMROSE-I can’t live without you
RANUNCULUS-I am dazzled by your charms
RHODODENDRON-Danger, beware, I am dangerous
ROSE (Christmas)-Relieve my anxiety
ROSE (Dog)-Pleasure and pain
ROSE (Green)-I am from Mars
ROSE (Red)-Love, I love you, respect, beauty
ROSE (Tea)-I’ll remember, always
ROSE-OF-SHARON-Consumed by love
ROSES (Bouquet of full bloom)-Gratitude
ROSES (Garland or crown of)-Beware of virtue, reward of merit, symbol of superior merit
ROSES (Single full bloom)-I truly love you, simplicity.
SAGE-Domestic virtues, wisdom, great respect, female fidelity
SNAPDRAGON-Gracious lady, strength
STEPHANOTIS-Marital happiness, desire to travel
STOCK-Bonds of affection, promptness, you’ll always be beautiful to me
TRUMPET FLOWER/ANGEL’S TRUMPET/DATURA-Separation
TULIP (General)-Perfect lover, fame, flower emblem of Holland
VENUS FLYTRAP-Caught at last
VENUS’ LOOKING GLASS-Flattery
VERBENA-Pray for me, sensibility
VIOLET-Modesty, virtue, affection, steadfastness
WALL FLOWER-Faithful in adversity, fidelity, lasting beauty
WITCH HAZEL-A spell
YUCCA-Yours until death
ZEPHYR FLOWER-Sincerity, symbol of love
ZINNIA (Mixed)-Thinking (or in memory) of an absent friend
Along with the rose and the lotus, the lily comprises a sacred trinity of the most important flower symbols in the world.
Not all lilies are white, but paleness is synonymous with the flower; we even speak of something as being “lily white.” The lily is therefore a symbol of purity, innocence, and virginity. The Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary carrying a lily, and the flower has always been associated with the Virgin. However, both the shape of the lily’s petals and its phallic-looking pistils, standing erect from the center of the flower, mean that the flower is a symbol of sexuality and reproduction. So the lily effectively contains both male and female reproductive parts; hence when we see depictions of Mary we can recognize the flower as symbolizing virginity as well as fertility and motherhood.
The lily is the symbol of the Goddess, in whatever form she may take, and the Babylonian Goddess Lilith-reputedly the first wife of Adam-who was later demonized by the Christian Church, takes her name from the name of the lily or the lilu (lotus). The flower is also sacred to Astarte, whose name in parts of Europe is Eostre, which gives us the word “Easter”; hence the lilies which have become a symbol of this springtime celebration are a secret symbol of a much older association.
The lotus is arguably one of the most important flower symbols on the planet, along with the lily and the rose. The lotus can only be grown under hothouse conditions in Western Europe, and for a Westerner to see a lotus growing in the wild for the first time can be an astonishing experience. Both the otherworldly appearance of the flower and its growing circumstances make it obvious that the flower is somehow very special indeed. It’s therefore no surprise that the flower is one of the eight auspicious symbols in both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist iconography.
This sensuous and extraordinary flower, with its perfect petals, rises imperiously from muddy swamps, its head above the dirty water. The symbolism applied by generations of Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese sages is obvious. First, the flower rises in complete perfection from the murky primal waters of creation. Next, the flower comes from the darkness into the light, woken by the Sun; third, the lotus symbolizes the triumph of spirit over matter and is a metaphor for the journey to enlightenment.
Because the lotus retreats back into the water during the hours of darkness only to rise again above the surface of the water at dawn, the Egyptians saw it as a symbol of death and rebirth.
The tight bud of the flower is a symbol for the Universe. The flower is also an archetypal symbol for the vulva, and so is associated with the Goddess.
In all cultures the lotus carries within it a reminder of the elements. It has its seed within the earth; it grows in water; the blossom exists in air which also carries its fragrance; and the flower itself is awoken by the Sun, and therefore the element of fire which it also resembles, the curious central circle surrounded by the rays of petals. The symbol of the lotus is often partially hidden in mandalas, the petals forming a border that is both symbolic and decorative. The Buddha sits in the center of the eight-petaled lotus, detached from the material world with its cycle of death and rebirth.
In Hindu iconography, the lotus is seen as the base of the earth from which the holy mountains (such as Kailash and Meru) rise. The stalk of the flower is associated with the World Axis which rises up through sacred mountains.
Mandrake roots have a very human-looking form, the cause of many odd beliefs about the plant. It was said, for example, to grow where the semen of a hanged man dripped onto the ground. When wrenched from its burial place in Mother Earth, the mandrake would utter such a terrifying shriek that anyone hearing it would die on the spot. The only way to harvest the root was to get a dog to dig it up, causing the unfortunate animal to suffer fatal consequences. In the Harry Potter books, the children that are repotting mandrake seedlings have to wear protective headphones.
The Egyptians believed that the mandrake was an aphrodisiac and so it also became a love symbol. Since all parts of the plant, if taken in quantity, are poisonous and have narcotic affects, as a love philter mandrake needed to be handled with care. As the emblem of the great sorceress, Circe, the plant had particularly powerful magical properties, and was treated with both awe and reverence.
The Greeks used it to deaden the senses of people during surgical operations. Charms made from mandrake roots were sold at a high price during the Middle Ages, and were highly prized because of the perceived danger and difficulty of obtaining the roots.
The sacred golden bough of mythology, mistletoe is a mysterious plant, the subject of poem, song, and legend. Its sacred nature is attributable to many factors. It grows only in the sky, and never on the ground, so is closer to the Heavens; it is propagated by birds, themselves symbolic messengers of the Gods; and its pearlescent berries represent drops of semen, so the mistletoe represents fertility. Mistletoe has healing properties, too, and is often hosted by a sacred tree.
A parasitic plant, many people assume that oak trees host mistletoe, but in fact, it is much more usual for it to be found growing on old apple trees. Most visible in the winter months when the trees are bare of leaves, bundles of mistletoe look like untidy birds’ nests, a scribble in the branches of the tree.
Birds play a large part in the life cycle of the mistletoe. The mistle thrush in particular eats the berries; these are “planted” when they are excreted. In addition, when the birds scrape their beaks on branches to remove excess seeds, the seeds are embedded under the bark where they can take root.
Druids traditionally harvest mistletoe with a golden sickle, a magical tool that represents the Sun. It is vital that the plant is not tainted by contact with the ground and care is taken to make sure that it keeps its airy associations intact. It is caught in sheets that are stretched taut around the tree.
As an evergreen, mistletoe symbolizes longevity and immortality, and has become a traditional part of Christmas decorations in the home. However, although holly and ivy have managed to cloak their pre-Christian significance in order to enfold themselves into the mythology of the Church, it has been harder for mistletoe to be absorbed in the same way. The plant is an uncomfortable reminder of powerful pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and is banned in many churches. Despite this, mistletoe is sometimes called lignum sanctae crucis, since the Church said at one time that the cross of Christ had been made of mistletoe wood (an unlikely claim for anyone familiar with the fragile stalks of the plant).
Paradoxically, given that the mistletoe is poisonous, it is also called “all heal.” Because of its symbolism, it was used to aid fertility problems, but latterly it has been found to be effective in circulatory and respiratory problems, as well as possessing anti-carcinogenic qualities.
Initially, people hung mistletoe indoors to ward off evil spirits. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is a remnant of its potency as a fertility symbol, and because of the tiny little “x” (kiss) symbol found on the underside of the berry.
The stinging nettle originates in Mediterranean areas, and was spread elsewhere by Roman soldiers who planted it wherever they found the climate to be cold. They would warm themselves by rubbing themselves with the stinging leaves, a practice that might seem odd to anyone who has experienced the pain of the nettle sting.
The nettle is symbolic of healing, protection, courage, and also of exorcism; it was used to ward off ghosts, and in combination with yarrow was said to give courage. Nettles were used in remote healing; the plant was grasped firmly and the name of the patient spoken out loud, the idea being that the pain was taken on by the person carrying out this ritual.
Nettles were the symbol of the God Thor, and like him, were associated with thunder and lightning, hence its old German name “Donnernessel.” In deference to this, bunches of nettles would be thrown over the roofs of houses to deflect the lightning from the home. A decoction of nettles is said to clear the blood, and has been used as an aphrodisiac. Nettles make good strong thread, and nettle fabric was used to make the uniforms of the German army during the First World War when other material was in short supply.
The word orkhis is Greek for testicles, named for the shape of the bulb of the orchid flower. Greek mothers-to-be believed that they could control the sex of their unborn child by eating orchid roots; large for a boy and small for a girl.
Because of this reason and also because of the shape of the flower, which looks like the female genitalia, the orchid scores high as a symbol of sexuality and potency. In China, orchids were used as a charm to ward off barrenness; however, to cut an orchid meant that your children might die.
The beauty of the orchid led to it becoming a symbol of spiritual perfection, and the longevity of its flowers symbolizes undying truth.
The pansy has gained a reputation as being a flower of remembrance, in part because its name sounds like the French, pensées, meaning “thoughts.” The pansy is subject to much anthropomorphism because its petals resemble a little face.
The old English names for the pansy are “love in idleness” or “heartsease,” since it was believed that to carry a pansy would reassure the person that they were loved, truly. Hence the pansy represents loving thoughts.
Parsley has always had association with magical powers, and is seen in some countries as an evil plant despite its usefulness in the kitchen. In Ancient Greece it was the herb which most symbolized death, and graves were strewn with it. It was served with meat in order to calm the spirit of the slaughtered animal.
Parsley can take a long time to germinate, and it used to be said that it had to visit the Devil nine times before the seeds sprouted. If you are brave enough to have parsley in your garden, then it will apparently grow best in a place where the female is more powerful than the male partner. If sowing parsley, the only day on which it can be done that does not throw the immortal soul of the gardener into serious risk is Good Friday, when Satan has no jurisdiction over the soil.
At first glance it might seem odd that this climbing jungle exotic, a flamboyant and unusual flower, should have a Latin name comprised of the words for “suffering flower.” However, the passion flower was discovered by the Spanish when they invaded the Inca territories in the sixteenth century, and when they came across it they saw it as a message of approval from God that it was right to convert the native peoples to Catholicism. A gothic-looking blossom, the passion flower seems to contain within it certain symbols that the Spanish read as being reminders of Christ’s suffering, or Passion. The central part of the flower looks like a crown of thorns. The innocence of Christ is reflected in its white petals, of which there are ten, the same as the number of faithful apostles. The styles that emerge from the center of the flower represent the nails used in the crucifixion and the five stamens are the wounds endured by Christ.
There are other aspects to the passion flower, though, beyond this strictly Catholic interpretation. Passiflorine, a narcotic substance derived from the plant, induces heavy hypnosis or sleep, and prior to its use as a medicinal plant the passion flower was consumed by shamans who believed that it enabled communion with the unseen world of spirits and Gods.
In modern-day Japan, the flower has become a symbol for male homosexuality.
One of the holy plants of Mexico, a part of this small, spineless desert plant is consumed as the peyote “button,” a small protuberance that is attached to the side of the peyote cactus. The hunt for the cactus itself forms a part of a ritual that has been carried out by the shamans of the area for thousands of years. The psychoactive ingredients in the peyote button include mescaline, which causes vivid hallucinations, allowing the psychic explorer to travel in other dimensions, communicate with animals, and experience the world in a heightened state of consciousness. The peyote itself symbolizes a gateway into another world.
The hunt for the peyote, its ingestion, and the hallucinatory process can take several days. Carlos Castaneda records the whole process in great detail in his “Don Juan” books.
Because of the narcotic qualities of some of its species, the poppy is the flower of sleep and oblivion, a reputation it has had for many centuries. The most common opiates-heroin and morphine-come from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum. Morpheus, the Greek God of sleep, counts these drugs among his attributes, as does Demeter in her guise as Goddess both of the harvest and of death.
The story goes that the God of Sleep made the poppy specifically for Demeter because she could not sleep after she lost her daughter, Persephone. Demeter was so tired that she could not get the corn to grow. After the drugs helped her to sleep, all was well again, and it is still counted as good luck to see poppies in a cornfield.
Because of its reputation as a flower that can either cure or kill, there is an ambiguity about the poppy; some see it as a good influence, and some as evil. Where the poppy head appears in paintings, it often secretly symbolizes fertility, because of its numerous seeds.
Latterly, the poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for those who died during the two world wars. In November, around the time of Remembrance Day, paper poppies are sold to raise funds for bereaved families. The poppy is well suited for this purpose because it grew in profusion in the fields of Flanders. However, the poppy as a symbol of grief for lost warriors is not new; in the Iliad, written in the eighth century BC, a description of a dying warrior compares him to a poppy.
In common with the lotus and the lily, the rose is one of the most important flower symbols in the world, its influence as a sacred flower pervading all cultures and religious beliefs. The reasons for many of these beliefs is shrouded in mystery, not a surprise given the age of the flower; fossilized roses from 35 million years ago have been found, and wreaths of roses have been found in the most ancient tombs. These days, the rose (particularly if it is red) is the ultimate flower of love, an ingredient in love potions and philters, dedicated to Venus and Aphrodite.
Love is, however, not the only symbolic meaning of the flower. Its beauty springing from the muddy earth is a synonym for the triumph of spirit over matter, an aspect it shares with the lotus.
Like the lotus, the number of the rose’s petals carries meaning. The original wild rose, prior to human cultivation, has five petals, an example of a pentagram or five-pointed star created by the natural world. Because of its perfection and beauty, the rose is a symbol of purity. At the same time the flower has undeniably sensuous qualities, in both its luxuriant petals and its scent, equating it with female sexuality. Paradoxically, the rose is at once a symbol of life and of death, of heavenly perfection and earthly desire, of fertility and chastity.
The rose is also a symbol of secrecy, perhaps because of the way the petals hide its center, perhaps for some more obscure reason. To speak of something as being sub rosa-“under the rose”-means that any information must be kept confidential. Some Masonic lodges and alchemy guilds still conduct meetings with a red rose hanging from the ceiling as a reminder of the private nature of the discussions taking place. There are three roses on the ceremonial apron of the Master Mason, acting as reminders of faith, silence, and secrecy. The Rosy Cross of the Rosicrucians has a rose at its intersection. Here the rose symbolizes the heart, life, and secrecy.
In alchemy, the wild rose carries rich symbolic meaning, too; it is primarily the sign of the union of opposites, (again because the petals indicate 2 + 3 = 5). Alchemical terminology calls this the “Conjunction.” The colors of roses are as important within the alchemical tradition as anywhere else and carry the same meanings; the red rose for male energy, passion, love; the white rose for female energy, innocence, purity; yellow for compassion and humanity; pink for friendship and thankfulness; and orange for enthusiasm and optimism. The black rose-which does not exist in nature-is symbolic of death, depression, and loss. Roses have long been associated with Mary, mother of Jesus, and rose windows in cathedrals and churches are her symbol. In India, the Great Mother was called the Holy Rose.
The spice saffron is one of the most valuable on the planet because of the difficulty in harvesting it; it is comprised of the tiny stamens of a particular type of crocus. Because of its vibrant yellow color, it is associated with the Sun and also with wisdom, and carries many of the associations of the actual color which is named after it.
The saffron-colored robes of Buddhist monks are a significant part of their identity. Saffron is also made into a paste that is used to mark the followers of certain castes or divisions within Hindu tradition.
Unsurprisingly given its name, sage is said to confer wisdom on those who eat it or who drink an infusion of the dried flower as a tisane. It is also a symbol of longevity, protection, and cleansing.
The sage leaf is a divinatory tool, used in the following simple manner. Write down whatever you desire on the leaf and leave it under your pillow for three nights. If you dream of your desire during this time, then your dream will come true.
Bundles of the herb tied up with cotton thread are used as “smudge sticks;” that is, sticks that are used, ritually, to purify a sacred area with their smoke. The smouldering herb has a medicinal scent. This practice originated with Native American tribes but has spread into many other parts of the world.
The sacred strawberry is one of the fruits that grew in the Elysian Fields, the resting place of blessed souls. There is also strong Christian symbolism associated with the strawberry plant.
The three parts of the leaf are emblematic of the Holy Trinity, and the white flowers stand for the purity of the Virgin Mary and the innocence of Christ. The fruit of the strawberry has neither thorns nor pips and is eaten whole, thereby representing good deeds; the red color symbolizes the blood of Christ. Where strawberries grow at the feet of the Virgin in religious paintings, the plant carries all these different meanings.
The strawberry, in its fruiting stage, is symbolic of fecundity and sensuality, both being aspects of any seeded fruit that are often overlooked by the Christian Church. In the interplay of the sacred and the profane that is an intrinsic part of the allegorical perception of nature, strawberries are symbolic of spiritual development as well as physical sensuality.
As a symbol of vitality because of its bright red color, there was an old belief that eating plenty of strawberries would ensure a long life. It seems that this old wives’ tale, as is often the case, has a basis in truth. Recent research shows that strawberries have anti-carcinogenic properties.
As its name signifies, the sunflower has close solar associations, not only because of its appearance, but also because of its habit of turning its head to follow the course of the Sun during its journey across the sky. The sunflower has magical powers, too, and adorned the crowns of Roman emperors, thereby conferring the ruler with the potent power of the Sun that the flower held within it. The sunflower was later adopted by the Christian Church to denote the saints, prophets, and apostles of the faith; as the flower follows the Sun, so the true believer follows God.
The sunflower was sacred to Native Americans; the flowers were used extensively in celebrations and festivities, and the image of the sunflower was carved into golden breastplates.
The sunflower is a symbol of light, hope, and innocence, and has been adopted fairly recently as a symbol for world peace.
The seed head of the sunflower contains a magical symbol. It shows a perfect example of the golden spiral that has been created naturally. This shape is one of the cornerstones of sacred geometry.
There are many different kinds of tea, and lots of different herbal decoctions are called by the name of tea; however, “real” tea, the “cup that cheers,” is made from the plant called Camellia sinensis, a member of the camellia family that originated in India. There is a story telling how, in AD 1510, the Indian prince Bodhidharma arrived in China to spread the teachings of the Buddha. He swore that he would not sleep until his mission was accomplished. This proved to be an ambitious aim, and although he managed several years of non-stop teaching and meditating, the prince eventually fell asleep. When he awoke he was so angry with himself that he cut off his eyelids, and where they fell the Buddha caused the first tea plant to grow. Tea leaves have an eyelid shape and the herb contains caffeine, which hinders sleep, so the story aptly explains the origins of both the plant and its qualities. Tea’s ability to refresh and revitalize was soon realized and its popularity spread rapidly. Because it was expensive, it was the provenance of the wealthy, and so tea became a status symbol.
The tea ceremony in Japan is a Zen ritual that aims to remove the ego from the action, and is carried out in accordance with strict guidelines. The English tradition of afternoon tea is not religiously significant but became an essential part of the day after the Duchess of Bedford made it a fashionable habit in the mid nineteenth century.
It’s impossible to say precisely when man first started chewing, smoking, or sniffing various dried plants, but it’s safe to say that he has done all of these for several thousands of years all over the world. The reasons for this are many; for medicinal purposes, as a stimulant, or as a narcotic, for relaxation, and for ritual purposes. However, no herb used in these ways has gained the worldwide popularity of tobacco.
Originating from the Americas, tobacco was used by Native American shamans long before it was “discovered” by the Conquistadores and other Western colonizers. Drinking tobacco juice was a ritual carried out during training for these medicine men, the juice invoking hallucinations or visions. The juice was squirted into the eyes to confer the gift of second sight. Smoking tobacco was considered to be even more profoundly magical an act than drinking it, enabling the smoker to come into direct contact with the spirit world, and passing the pipe of tobacco around a circle of people signified the unity of the group and the shared vision. The ceremony began with the ritual pipe, or calumet, being offered to the sky, then the Earth; then smoke was puffed towards the four cardinal points to acknowledge the spirits of the directions and of the elements. The smoke was blown over people to heal diseases and to confer strength.
The tobacco ceremony was carried out with due solemnity in honor of the sacred properties of the herb; however, when it was introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century, people rapidly became addicted to it. Tobacco “drinking,” as smoking was called at the time, became a fashionable pursuit, and by 1610 there were as many as 7000 tobacco shops in London alone.
As with many of the most sacred herbs and plants that were originally designated for use only very occasionally, tobacco is extremely poisonous, and the enormous amount of deaths caused by its consumption could arguably be said to be indicative of a general lack of respect for the magical substances given to us by the natural world.
The tomato-because of its red color and its succulence-was viewed with great suspicion when it arrived in Europe from the Americas in the sixteenth century. A sensual fruit stuffed full of many seeds, the tomato was called the love apple and was believed to be an aphrodisiac, and therefore it incurred the disapproval of the Church as a lewd fruit. The tomato as a sexual symbol is also common in Africa, and in Bambara territories couples eat them before making love. Women make offerings of tomatoes to the God Faro. The biggest tomato fight in the world, La Tomatina, occurs annually in August in the town of Bunyol, near Valencia, in Spain.
In Christian symbolism, the vine, with its far-reaching tendrils, represents the Kingdom of God, and is described as such in the Gospels. Although there are many different types of plant that have vine-like attributes, the vine referred to is the grape vine since, of course, grapes give us wine, which is seen as conferring knowledge and immortality. The vine grows vigorously and has tendrils that both climb and bind, using available surfaces in order to reach the sunlight whilst using the minimum of energy. In some cultures, including that of the Babylonians, the vine was symbolic of the Tree of Life itself. Indeed, the Latin word for vine, vitis, came from the same root as that of “vitality.” The Sumerian hieroglyph for “life” was a vine leaf.
The vine is associated with the Greek God, Dionysus (or when in Rome, Bacchus). Because vines need to be chopped back in order to grow most vigorously, they are symbolic of renewed vigor after a sacrifice.
The vine appears in the Ogham Tree alphabet where it is called Muin.
The Greek word for this herb, apsinthion, means “without sweetness” and lends its name to the alcoholic liqueur (absinthe) which is made from it and which can cause a disease called absinthism if too much of it is consumed on a habitual basis. A symptom of this disease is complete paralysis. The drink became so problematic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it was banned, although it is gaining popularity once more. Because of its bitterness, the plant symbolizes this quality as well as that of grief or of something that is poisonous to the soul. In the Book of Revelation, “Wormwood” is the name given to the star related to a devilish figure that, it is predicted, will lay waste to Israel; the star falls from the Heavens and poisons a third of the water on Earth. This story is believed to foretell the Last Judgement, symbolized by the poisoning of our waters. Wormwood was used in magical spells to make the dead rise from their graves, and, rather unexpectedly in view of this, was an ingredient in love philters. The plant is said to confer psychic powers and the gift of second sight
The Latin name for the herb is Artemisia absinthum, showing its association with the Goddess, Artemis, the huntress and the Great Goddess of the Woods.
It’s not difficult to see why the tree is universally revered as a sacred, living being. Trees are not only beautiful but also benevolent, providing food in the form of nuts, fruits, and syrups, medicines (aspirin, for example, comes from the bark of the willow), and its timber provides material to build houses, ships, and carriages, as well as weapons and tools. Trees, too, provided the material to make gallows, and people were executed by being suspended from their branches.
The tree combines all the elements within it. It has its roots in the Earth, which nourishes it; its sap is the water element, the “dew of Heaven,” as well as being its life blood; it has its leaves and branches high up in the air. Not only is fire produced when its sticks are rubbed together, but the wood provides fuel for that same fire. One of the most important functions of the tree, however, is its processing of carbon dioxide. The destruction of the rain forests is akin to a vital organ being removed from a human body. These forests are so great that they even create their own atmosphere, as do the coast redwood (or sequoia) forests in northern California. The Doctrine of Signatures-the ancient idea that a plant possesses the qualities of the thing that it physically resembles-makes sense in the case of the tree. Denuded of leaves, the branches look like a huge upturned lung, and indeed, trees are the lungs of our planet.
The idea of a World Tree, a giant tree that grows through the cosmos linking the Heavens, the Earth, and the Underworld, is completely universal, constituting a primal image or archetype, having parallels with the Axis Mundi and the omphalos. This tree represents not only the idea of something that strives toward the Heavens, but the life-cycle of the tree itself is a reminder of the endless cycle of regeneration; of life, death, and rebirth. The birds that sit in the tops of the branches of this tree symbolize the souls of unborn beings. The symbolism of the tree is far reaching; it is used to represent the idea of a family; the Kabbalah itself is imagined as a tree; and in alchemy, the World Tree appears as a naked woman, crowned with sprouting, fruiting branches, wands in her hands, the Sun and Moon appearing to her right and left.
The inverted tree with its roots in the air, on the other hand, is a sacred symbol that has largely been forgotten. It symbolizes the idea from the Upanishads that the whole Universe is an upside-down tree, its roots in the Heavens and its branches embracing the Earth. The same image appears in Kabbalistic imagery, the ten spheres of the Sephiroth and their twenty-two connecting branches generally represented as a cosmic tree.
The acacia thrives in barren, desert climates, and specimens have endured for thousands of years despite drought and famine. It provides shelter for both animals and people from the scorching heat of the Sun, and its leaves and seeds are edible. These characteristics make it a symbol of protection and resilience. The tree also has vicious thorns that conceal the secrets said to be hidden by the tree. The wood of the acacia is particularly hard and durable, close-grained, of a beautiful orange color, impervious to insects, and seemingly incorruptible. This incorruptibility means that the tree signifies purity and its wood is therefore burned only for specific, magical purposes.
The acacia tree was around a long time before the Bible was written, and it is believed that this is what was meant by the Shittim tree mentioned in the Old Testament, the timber of which, plated with gold, was used to make the Ark of the Covenant. One of the trees speculated to have been used to make Christ’s crown of thorns is the acacia; ancient kings who were sacrificially slaughtered wore these agonizingly painful crowns. The Cross-sometimes described as a “tree”-upon which Christ was crucified, too, is likely to have been made from strong and durable acacia wood. For the Jewish people, the acacia was so sacred that it would never be used for mundane purposes such as furniture. One of the foremost symbols in Freemasonry, a spring of acacia leaves is laid on the coffin at the funerals of Freemasons in memory of Hiram Abiff, builder of King Solomon’s Temple. Hiram had the sprig of acacia laid on his grave as a sign not only of death and resurrection, but as a reminder that, like the tree, Hiram refused to divulge certain secrets. Its evergreen leaf is a symbol of the immortality of the soul, and the acacia, as a symbol of incorruptibility, signifies the purity of Hiram’s soul.
The apple tree is a tree of the Underworld, a tree of immortality, and sacred to Apollo. The mythical (from afal, the old Welsh word for apple) is the resting place of Celtic kings and heroes, and one of the places where King Arthur is meant to wait until he is needed to rise once more to protect his people. For Celtic people, the apple tree symbolized the World Tree, the axis of the Universe. They considered the apple the most magical of fruits, a fruit of immortality and prophecy. At Samhuin, or Halloween, the time of the apple harvest, the fruit has a large part to play in the rituals and celebrations, including divinatory practices
The apple itself contains a potent magical symbol within. If it is cut across its “equator” (with the stalk at the top), there are five pips inside, contained within a five-pointed star or pentagram. The pentagram, in turn, can be the basis of the golden spiral. The spherical shape of the apple symbolizes eternity.
In the biblical story, when Eve persuaded Adam to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, she also handed him the pentagram hidden inside the fruit (although the Bible never specifically states that this fruit was an apple). Here, the pentagram stands for the spiritual nature of man, and eating it awakens Adam to new possibilities; the flesh combines with the spirit, and immediately Adam and Eve cover their genitals, signifying sexual awakening. In Gypsy wedding ceremonies it is customary to cut the apple in the way described above, the bride and groom each eating a half of the fruit.
In Latin, the word for apple, malum, also means “evil,” and reflects the paradox of the apple as a symbol of both good and evil. Although in the Tales of the Arabian Nights the apple of Prince Ahmed cures all ills, in the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the eponymous heroine is poisoned by a shiny red apple offered by the witch and falls into the sleep of oblivion.
The ash is one of the more important of all symbolic trees, and it is said to have been the first tree ever created. The plethora of myths and legends about it, which emanate from all corners of the globe, are testimony to its elevated mythological status. Just as the oak is the “King of the Forest,” the Ash is the “Queen of the Forest,” associated with the color and element of silver, and other feminine qualities such as water and the Moon. The Goddess Nemesis, daughter of the sea god Oceanus, carried an ash wand as a symbol of divine justice. As a counterpoint to this, oaths were taken on spears made of ash wood. The quality of the timber of our symbolic trees provides clues as to their meanings; ash wood is strong, does not split, and because it is hard and close-grained, it polishes well. In the days when wood was used more often than metal for mechanical objects, ash was used to make axles, the hard-polished wood ensuring the smooth turning of the wheels. Witches’ broomsticks, made of ash, helped them to fly quickly through the air, as well as providing a powerful link with the Goddess.
Perhaps the most famous ash, and the one that gives the most information as to the symbolic nature not only of the ash but of the tree archetype in general, is Yggdrasil. In Northern European mythology, Yggdrasil is the great World Tree, whose roots stretch to the very heart of the Earth where the Norns dwell. These are creatures that decide the fate of human beings. The extensive roots of this giant tree also reach down to the underground well, Mimir, which is the source of all the secrets of magical power and mystical revelation. The branches of Yggdrasil stretch right up into the Heavens, sheltering the entire Universe in its branches, a mythic tree that is the one constant feature of a changing world. Here we see the ash as a symbol of stability.
Because the ash was seen to exist in both the worlds of spirit and matter, it’s a symbol of the union of opposites and therefore of marriage. The ash is also a fertility symbol, and amulets of ash wood are said to attract love. Older ash trees sometimes grow or split in such a way that a hole is formed in the trunk; it was customary to pass new-born babies or small children through this hole to ensure their protection or to cure illnesses, showing an aspect of this great tree as the mother-protector and healer. When this ritual was enacted, small tokens of food or coins would be pushed into the ground around the roots. The ash, or Nuin, is the third letter of the Ogham Tree alphabet.
The banyan, also known as the vata tree, the bodhi tree or the Asiatic fig, is one of the trees considered to be the World Tree by the people who revere it. This tree is particularly special because the Buddha happened to be sitting underneath one when he was suddenly illumined as to his true nature-the word bodhi means “enlightened.” Although the particular tree under which he was enlightened is no longer living, a cutting was taken in the second century BC by a Sri Lankan princess, and this tree now grows in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where it is the object of pilgrimage. The banyan can now be found anywhere in the world where Buddhism or Hinduism are practiced, and it is often grown near temples. Although it is sacred, it is said to shelter many different kinds of spirits, and so it is considered unlucky to sleep under one at night. The tree grows in quite an unusual way, with its roots reaching down from its branches which then take hold in the ground. This is why the banyan is sometimes called the “walking tree.” The structure of the tree, which is a little like a strange organic building that casts a deep shade, makes it a perfect place to meet, and village councils in India (whose national tree symbol it is) still meet under these trees to discuss important matters.
This is one of the oldest and largest of all trees, its gigantic, contorted shape a curiously cartoon-like silhouette against the skyline. The tree seems to be an amalgam of animal, vegetable, and mineral, with a distinct personality of its own. Because of its wrinkly, scored bark, size, and great age, the baobab is sometimes compared to the elephant. A creation myth from West Africa says that all the animals were each given their own tree. The hyena, appalled to be given the baobab, immediately tipped it upside down, which explains the root-like appearance of the branches.
The baobab occupies an important position in the community in places where it is prevalent, such as West Africa and Madagascar. At one time, the people buried their dead in its hollow trunk, no doubt in the hope that this massive, benevolent tree might protect the soul. In addition, when a baobab dies, people still commemorate it with a full-scale wake, according this tree a sacred status that is on a par with a human village elder. When the Kariba Dam in Zambia was built in the 1960s, the people had to evacuate the spirits from the baobab trees before the trees were submerged by water; branches were taken from the trees and attached to baobabs in unaffected areas.
Beech woods are shady, magical places, but the trees are most commonly used in hedging these days (one of the tallest hedges in the world, the Meikleour beech hedge in Scotland, is over 100 feet tall). The tree forms nuts that are packed, three at a time, into an outer husk, and although they are edible, they are most commonly used in animal feed. Indeed in medieval times in Europe, pigs were often left to feed in the forest on the “mast”-the collective name for the beech’s nuts. The beech, like the ash, often plays the role of “queen” to the oak’s “king.”
Like the birch, the beech tree is associated with written communication, and thin slices of its bark were used as paper. The name of the beech, boc in Anglo-Saxon, shares the same root as “book,” a concept also found in German and Swedish etymology. It was an old custom to write a spell or magical charm on a sliver of beech wood, then bury it in the ground and wait for the desired item or situation to manifest itself.
The birch, being fast-growing, is often planted with the saplings of slower-growing trees (such as oak) in order to shelter them as they develop. Therefore, the tree is seen to have protective qualities. Suitably, given that the birch is often the first visible tree in the forest (hence its nickname, the “pioneer tree”), its name Beth is the first letter of the Ogham Tree alphabet, and as such it represents the start, the beginning, the birth. Accordingly, birch wood was often used for babies’ cradles.
The root of the word “birch” is the same as that of “bright,” and appropriately its bark, particularly those of the silver and the Himalayan birch, is both bright, beautiful, and symbolic of purity. This bark does not rot, lending the tree an aura of indestructibility, and the bark is quite flexible and can be written on; it is sometimes used as a parchment for spells. The Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa Indians, uses birch bark rolls to depict the symbols that serve as a reminder of the secrets of their society, and they become one of the most treasured items of an initiate. These birch bark rolls have the same sacred significance as the tracing board in Freemasonry.
In the same way that oak groves were sacred in Ancient Greece and throughout Britain, so too were cedar groves sacred in their native locations in the Middle East and North Africa, where similar oracular rites were carried out. The Epic of Gilgamesh describes cedar woods as being the dwelling place of the Gods. Long-lived, large, dark-hued, and imposing, the cedar-particularly the stately Cedar of Lebanon-is clearly identifiable, being a symbol of longevity and nobility. The wood of the cedar is tough and durable, making the tree synonymous with the qualities of incorruptibility and purity. Its timber was used in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Like all evergreens, the cedar is emblematic of immortality. It is one of the trees which, it is conjec-tured, was used to make the Cross used in Christ’s crucifixion; Christ sharing the incorruptibility and purity of the tree. Paradoxically the original forest that used to cloak Mount Lebanon has now been reduced to a handful of scattered remnants. Cedar wood has a particularly fragrant scent, which is used in incenses; it is likewise burned by Jewish people to mark the New Year.
The old pagan custom of bringing a living tree indoors in the middle of the dark months of the year and decorating it with candles and trinkets was introduced to Britain by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The idea rapidly caught on. Bringing evergreen vegetation in the form of trees, boughs, and branches from the outside to the inside was a magical ritual, a piece of sympathetic magic, meant to encourage the return of spring and the growing season.
The timing of the entrance and exit of the tree was critical. Any time before Christmas Eve was too soon for the tree to come inside, and all decorations had to be taken down and the tree removed by Twelfth Night, January 6. This tradition, however, does not seem to signify for the department stores who start to display artificial Christmas trees from September onwards.
The Christmas tree is traditionally an evergreen tree, usually a spruce or a fir, which is cut down from the forest. The tree itself symbolizes immortality and everlasting life, and the lights draped on it are a reminder that during the darkest time of the year, lighter days are just round the corner. The Yule Celebrations in northern Europe were echoed in similar rituals in southern Europe. The Roman God Atys or Attis was a savior God whose life story very much parallels that of Christ. Atys was born on December 25 to a virgin mother, and was sacrificed to save mankind, killed beneath a conifer, remaining for three days and nights in his tomb before resurrection. His priests, called den-drophori (meaning “tree bearers”), were charged with selecting a conifer from a sacred grove that would be brought indoors in memory of the death and resurrection of Atys, who is also linked with Apollo, the Sun God.
The elder appears in the Ogham Tree alphabet as the 15th letter, called Ruis. It is a prolific tree, happy to grow in poor soil and dense shade, although it rarely attains the height or girth of which it’s capable; an elder with a 2-meter girth is an unusual sight. One of the most beautiful aspects of the elder is its flowers. Abundant, frothy heads with hundreds of tiny flowerlets reach toward the sky and fill the air with a heady, distinctive, ethereal scent that can be used to flavor sorbets or cordials, or used to make a delicate sparkling wine. As well as these more worldly uses, the scent of these flowers, if inhaled deeply, will apparently open up the doorway into the realms of the fairies and elemental spirits. The ancients, particularly the Celts and some Native Americans, believed that the elder held the spirit of the “Elder Mother,” a great Mother Goddess or nature spirit that would wreak havoc on anyone chopping down the tree. In England, permission had to gained from “Old Gal” before a tree could be felled. Witches could shape-shift into the form of the elder, and an old superstition says that if an elder tree is “injured” then the tree would not only gush blood but would revert back into human shape; the witch would bear the same scars that had been inflicted on the tree.
Sadly, the elm population in both the UK and the US has been decimated by Dutch elm disease, and this lofty, dignified tree, which used to reach an age of 400 years or more, is now considered lucky if it reaches thirty.
However, the symbolism of the tree is rich, as befits such a beautiful specimen. Groves of elms were sacred to the Goddess or the Great Mother, and some believed that the first woman was created by the elm tree. Such a large tree would be seen as a protective force, and the elm was planted in particular in vine-yards to shade the plants and protect the vines. As a result it came to be linked with Bacchus, the Roman God of wine; the vine and the elm were effectively “wedded.”
The elm is also connected with death, and the wood was used to make coffins at a time when the tree itself was not so rare. The elm has a special affinity with the elves that are said to guard burial mounds, so the tree was associated with these places. The size of the elm meant that they made a good marker in the landscape, so much so that they often had pet names, and were used as meeting places. In the US, the famous Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts, was a colossal elm beneath which the so-called Sons of Liberty met from 1766 onwards. At the time of the American Revolution, an unauthorized meeting was a punishable offence, but it was relatively easy to meet, hidden, beneath the branches of such a tall tree. Soon all thirteen colonies each had their Liberty Tree as a place to meet under. The elm itself therefore became synonymous with the ideas of independence and liberty.
There are many varieties of fig tree, and, wherever they appear and in whatever form, they are revered as the Tree of Life, symbolic of abundance, plenty, and peacefulness. The tree under which the Buddha received his enlightenment was a species of fig, appropriately called Ficus religiosa in Latin. This tree-also called the banyan or the bodhi tree (meaning “enlightenment”)-is from the same genus, Ficus, as those which in Africa house the souls of dead ancestors.
For Muslims the tree is held to have great intelligence, its consciousness only one step away from that of an animal. So the fig tree is also associated with knowledge; it’s no coincidence that Adam and Eve chose to cover themselves with fig leaves after they had realized that they were naked.
The fig tree’s milky sap also contributes to its symbolic meaning. Any tree containing a liquid that looks like semen is naturally associated with male fertility. The shape of the fruit of the fig itself, and its many seeds, give further emphasis to the idea of male fertility and sexuality. There is also an obscene hand gesture called the “fig,” made by sticking the thumb through the first and second fingers of a closed fist.
FIVE PACIFIC GIANTS
The following five species of tree all grow in the north-west of North America on the Pacific coast of both the US and Canada. Apart from the two species of redwood (or Sequoia) discussed below, they are among the tallest and largest of all trees. Their common names, however, are slightly misleading. The western hemlock should not be confused with the hemlock; it is quite a different plant from the one that killed Socrates. The Douglas fir is not a true fir at all, the Lawson’s cypress is a false, not a true cypress, and the western red cedar has nothing to do-botanically-with the cedars of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, such as the Cedar of Lebanon and the deodar.
This huge tree-an introduced specimen is the tallest tree in Britain-is named after the Scottish explorer David Douglas, who died in his 30s after being gored by a buffalo in Hawaii that had fallen into a trap that Douglas himself had set. The unusual arrangement of the seeds in its cones is explained by a Native American myth which holds that the three-ended bracts of the seeds are the tail and two legs of a mouse which hid from forest fires in the cone. The Douglas fir should not be confused with two other giant firs with a similar geographical range: the grand fir and the noble fir, which are true firs from the genus Abies.
The several hundred varieties of this tree make it one of the great symbols of suburbia. Bred by nurseries mainly in Britain and Holland, cultivars of the Lawson’s cypress can be seen in most gardens in the West, such has been its success. Varieties can be totally different in character from the vast and brooding wild tree, and come in a range of colors from green through blue to yellow, including dwarf varieties that grow no higher than five feet.
Large specimens of Sitka spruce can be found in the old-growth forests of the Pacific north-west, the closest thing in the temperate world to a rain forest. Covered in mosses and tree ferns, these trees grow to an enormous height-the biggest so far discovered is called the “Carmanah Giant” on Vancouver Island, which is 315 feet tall (surprisingly it is less than 400 years old). A similarly massive tree, called Kiidk’yaas, which was sacred to the Haida people, was illegally felled in 1997. Tribal elders believed that this act was a sign that the days of their people were numbered.
It is as a symbol of the unchecked advance of industrialstyle agriculture that the Sitka is perhaps best known. Around 100 million saplings a year are planted in the uplands of Britain, forming vast, sterile blankets of uniform forest over much of the north and the west of the country. Ecologists who resent the spread of non-native trees in the country see Sitka spruce as the most culpable tree of all.
This elegant tree, which can reach a height of 200 feet, has boughs which were used by Native Alaskans-particularly the Tlingit people-to collect herring eggs during the spawning season.
WESTERN RED CEDAR
Another enormous tree from the Pacific coast, the western red cedar was particularly sacred to the Native Americans of the region, some of whom called themselves the “people of the red cedar.” Its timber was used in the making of totem poles, houses, tools, and canoes. The foliage, when crushed, has a distinct scent of pineapple.
For the Celts, the hazel was the Tree of Knowledge, the nuts of the tree believed to encapsulate great wisdom. In Druidic lore, it is closely aligned to the Salmon of Wisdom, which was believed to have acquired its knowledge from eating magical hazel nuts. Both the Druidic salmon and the hazelnut appear in the fall.
The hazel favors damp places, and this association with water means that the wood makes good dowsing rods, primarily for detecting water in the form of hidden underground wells or springs, but also for finding other things such as mineral seams. These rods were made from coppiced hazel, a forestry practice for which we have evidence from Bronze Age Britain. The combined power of the hazel wood and the perception of the dowser were especially valuable in Cornwall, where they were employed to detect tin. However, given the penalties for harming the tree, selecting the wand or rod from the tree had to be carried out in a specific, ritualistic way, using a sickle. Cutting could take place only at dawn on a Wednesday, since this is the day of Mercury, the God that rules the hazel.
One of the trees most commonly associated with Christmas, like other evergreens, the holly is symbolic of immortality; its red berries stand for life and vitality, as well as for blood. These scarlet berries appear in Christmas songs specifically as the blood of Christ, the redeemer. Both the masculine holly and its female counterpart, ivy, are welcomed into churches, unlike the mistletoe whose pagan origins are less easy to disguise.
The custom of bringing holly boughs into the home in the depths of winter has its origins in the original pre-Christian idea that its prickly leaves sheltered the fairy folk, who were delighted to come indoors at such a cold time of the year.
The Romans also brought holly into the house during the time of the Saturnalia, in mid December. Holly trees planted close to the home guarded the house and its occupants from evil influences; the spiny leaves of the “male” tree are a symbol of protection. Holly with smoother leaves has more female attributes.
The name of the holly comes from the Teutonic Goddess Hole, who was the mother of all unborn children and was responsible for naming them. However, so sacred was the holly that it was also named the “holy tree.”
The “holly king” is a symbol of a giant man, constructed from holly, who carries a holly club in his hand. The seasonal counterpart to the oak king, the holly king is the guardian of the midwinter solstice. Holly stands for the letter T in the Ogham Tree alphabet, and its name is Tinne. It is ruled by the element of fire.
Before there were temples and shrines made by man, the Gods were worshipped under oak trees. The oak is particularly sacred to the Druids, who take their name from the name of the tree, duir. The word for “door” is a derivative of the same root; the tree symbolizes a door to another world, the Siddhe, the invisible realm of the Celts that runs parallel to the “real” world. Oak, or Duir, is the seventh letter of the Ogham Tree alphabet. The oak is symbolic of strength (the root of the Latin word for oak, robur, is the same as that for “robust”), power, longevity, and protection; it’s also a friendly and benevolent tree, proving a useful ally to animals and human beings. A practical use of the oak as a great protector is seen in the many oaks that were used to build the ships that repelled the Spanish Armada from the shores of Britain; there are ancient houses still to be seen with beams that came from these ships.
Because of the great size of the oak, it attracts lightning; this gave it the reputation of being somehow able to control the weather and further promulgates its association with the Gods, as the rulers of storms and lightning. The fruit of the oak, the acorn, provides nourishment and also carries a rich symbolic meaning all of its own. A give-away sign of a witch was that she wore a necklace of acorns, since the nut in its cup symbolized the phallus, as well as birth and the womb.
The gift of the olive, from Athena the Goddess of Wisdom to the city of Athens, meant she won the privilege of having the city named for her. The alternative gift that was offered was a spring of water given by Poseidon, but the water proved salty and unfit to drink. There’s an old spell or charm related to this story. To cure a headache, write the name of Athene on an olive and hold it to your head. This will induce the Goddess to take away the pain.
The olive branch has long been a symbol of peace and of hope. When Noah sent a dove from the Ark to see if land was close, the bird brought back a sprig of greenery believed to have been from the olive tree. This showed that both land and hope were at hand. To offer someone an olive branch is a universal symbol of peace and the desire for harmony. Olive oil was of primary importance to any people who seldom ate meat since it has high nutritional value. It is therefore considered to be a sacred plant wherever it grows, and in times past to harm an olive tree was a punishable offence. Because olive trees grow to a great age-olive wood is an antitoxin and has protective powers-they are also symbolic of longevity. The olive tree is the most important of all trees in the Islamic faith, and is a symbol of the Prophet Mohammed. Each of its leaves is said to have one of the names of God written upon it.
The rowan stands for the second letter of the Ogham Tree alphabet, Luis. Because it’s at home in mountainous places and is sacred to the Goddess, the rowan is sometimes called the “Lady of the Mountain.” It’s also called “witchbane” or “witchwood,” underlining the belief that rowans act as protectors from witchcraft or malevolent magic. The power of the tree is such that the stake driven through the heart of the vampire to kill it once and for all was meant to be made of rowan wood.
Although the rowan is a symbol of protection-particularly against witches-it’s also said that the trees grow in places where they are needed, primarily where witches make their homes (in Britain, the tree was also known as witchen or wiggin). Witches themselves favored it as a magical tree, using its wood, berries, and leaves in spell-casting and charm-making.
Because the rowan is believed to have magical powers, the wood is among those used for wands and dowsing rods. There’s also a charm made of rowan which is particularly efficacious, since it combines the protective powers of the tree with the similar powers of the Cross; two twigs are tied together with red thread to make a small amulet. This was used as a symbol of protection over doorways and also over babies’ cots to protect the infant from being kidnapped by fairies or other mischievous spirits.
The rowan is also symbolic of psychic powers, and is believed to confer the gift of divination. The berries of the tree possess hallucinogenic qualities, and the wine or simply the juice made from these berries was favored by the Druids in their shamanic practices. Groves of rowan trees were sacred places where oracular practices were carried out, and which were especially powerful in the presence of water.
The two species of redwood-the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)-are the biggest and tallest trees in the world. The largest giant sequoias are even given names, such as “General Grant” and “General Sherman”, and they are the biggest of all single living organisms. General Sherman, the outright champion in terms of size, weighs 1500 tons, has a volume of 55,040 cubic feet, and achieves a height in excess of 274 feet. The tallest coast redwoods, a more graceful tree than the grizzled giant sequoias, have achieved a height of 400 feet. Inevitably, these trees have become symbols of longevity, but not necessarily of survival. The coast redwood was used extensively for its timber (it is said that San Francisco was built from it) and although the tree is now protected, there is little more than three per cent left of the original 500 miles of forest that spread from Monterey to Oregon.
Although the redwoods have not been adopted by any particular culture as being the epitome of the World Tree, they make likely candidates for this sacred status. So tall that their heads are sometimes in the clouds-the upper parts of the coast redwood are so tall that they cannot draw water from the soil, instead surviving by absorbing the sea fogs that roll in off the Pacific-these trees can be virtually impossible to photograph, and usually all we see of them are their feet, with a small human figure dwarfed somewhere in the picture to try to give a sense of the scale. The giant sequoia became known as “Wellingtonia” in Britain, it being seen as a suitable tree to commemorate Britain’s most famous soldier, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who had died the previous year.
Unimpressed by this attempt to snatch the glory of their own largest tree, the Americans responded by naming it “Washingtonia” after the first president.
Because of its shape, perhaps, the willow tree has long been associated with death and mourning; one of its varieties-Salix “Chrysocoma”-is even called the “weeping willow.” Willow branches were believed to ease the passage of the soul into the Afterlife, and were placed on the tops of coffins. Graves were lined with willow branches for the same reason. In Ancient Britain, burial places were planted with willow trees to protect the spirits of the dead, and the Greek sorceress, Circe, had a riverside cemetery full of willow trees; the corpses of men were put into the topmost branches of the trees where they were eaten by the birds. The willow is used in magical rites at Samhuin since it helps communication with the spirit world. However, death is not the only meaning of the willow.
The word “willow” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “pliancy,” and willow is the wood of choice in basket making. It’s supple and strong, able to make baskets safe enough to hold people underneath a hot-air balloon. Moses was found as a baby floating in a willow basket, hence the tree is a symbol of protection. Witch’s broomsticks were traditionally bound with willow that was used to tie the broom to the handle; this practice may have been a nod to the Moon Goddess, Hecate, who rules both the willow and the Moon.
The willow contains a very important chemical constituent, salicylic acid, which is a very effective painkiller. Salicylic acid is the primary ingredient in aspirin, and the meaning behind the willow’s folk name of “the witch’s painkiller.” The willow-or Saile-stands for the letter S in the Ogham Tree alphabet.
One of the longest-living of all trees, certain yews are in existence today that are said to be up to 9000 years old, although it is difficult prove these claims definitively. Because of its great longevity, the yew is a symbol of everlasting life. It grows in an unusual way, too, its new stems growing down the outside of the tree, giving the yew an association with rebirth and regeneration, as the new is born from the old. Adding to this symbolism is its habit of putting in a growth spurt when it is around 500 years old. So sacred was the yew as a symbol that-to a pre-Christian society-wherever it grew was considered to be sacred ground. It was considered both immoral and illegal to chop down the tree. It is likely that the yew is often seen in churchyards because the church itself would have been built on this sacred ground in the presence of the tree, in an effort to align the incoming Christian belief system with pagan traditions. The association of the tree with death therefore started to overlay its former meaning. Because the berries of the yew are poisonous, they can effectively carry people into the spirit world.
The hollow center of the yew tree is a symbol not only of the power that lies in empty space, but underlines the significance of this tree as belonging, in part, to a spiritual dimension. Recently, the yew as a symbol of life has been shown in a practical and unexpected way. One of the constituent chemicals of the tree, taxol, has been found to be efficacious in curing breast cancer. Yew wood is tough and durable and was used for making shields and spears, and also-using both heartwood and sapwood to gain extra strength-the famous English longbow that helped the English win the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, at which they were completely outnumbered. Hence the yew is also a symbol of the warrior.