Trees have been growing on our planet for about 390 million years, in what is called the Middle-Late Devonian period. Those trees did not look much like the trees in our woods today, but they did meet a definition that paleontologists use describing a tree as a plant with a single stem that can attain larger heights because they have specialized cells. Trees were small back then.
Nowadays we know how big the family of trees has become, and how big the trees have become. As recently as 2006 a coast redwood, Sequoia sempervierens, was discovered growing in Redwood National Park in California by two naturalists, Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. That newly discovered tree was measured at 379.7 feet. It was forest ecologist Steve Sillett who climbed to the top of the tree and dropped a tape to the ground. A very long tape measure. To prove it we can all go to the National Geographic website or You Tube and search for Steve Sillett Redwoods and see the film.
In ancient times, when people depended on agriculture and the forests for sustenance and shelter, they knew the names of the different trees. They created relationships between trees. The Celts considered that the oak, ash and thorn made up a sacred trio with powers to heal.
The oak is a magnificent large tree that the ancients held in high regard. Myths consider the oak as the most worthy tree. They associated the oak with the most powerful sacred gods like Zeus and Jupiter. Thor, a Norse god, was related to lightning storms, strength and the oak. Thor even gave our modern world the name of a weekday – Thursday.
People in those days believed in the oak’s magic powers which could bring them good luck, financial success and fertility. They certainly appreciated the practical ways that the oak could be used, for construction, and firewood. The acorns could be used to feed pigs. Different groups used oak bark medicinally to treat colds, coughs, fever, arthritis and for improving digestion. They also used oak to make compresses or add oak bark to water to soothe pain. Today there are 58 species of oaks native to North America.
The ash tree is the second in the sacred trio. In Norse mythology the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, which held the nine elements of the cosmos, is referred to as an ash. This tree supports all creatures and represents the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth, the forces that make up life’s journey.
The ancients used ash leaves to make a tea as a diuretic and as a laxative, as well as infusions to treat gout, jaundice and other ailments.
I also read that unicorns were fond of ash trees. I found instructions on how to catch sight of a unicorn. Just carrying ash wood or leaves might do the trick, or you might lie in a bed of ash leaves and cover yourself and wait for the unicorn. It’s clear to me that these instructions would require great patience.
Massachusetts has its share of ash trees. We had a row of ash trees on the road to our house in Heath. We saw lightning scars on their bark, proving their power to attract lightning. As a practical note, both ash and thorn, make good, hot, burning firewood.
Finally, the third of the sacred circle, the thorn. We use the full name, hawthorn. This tree, Crategeus, is known for its large sharp thorns. However, C. viridis, Green Hawthorn, has few thorns. You can see these thornless trees locally at the Energy Park. The Greeks and Romans associated the hawthorn with weddings and babies. Brides and their attendants carried hawthorn blossoms. These trees were often planted by holy and healing wells in England. Homeopaths consider the hawthorn a powerful medicine and use it for heart tonics.
There are many ancient stories about the trees that are familiar to us, like the oak, ash and thorn. However, when we talk about trees today, we talk about their beauty and value to the environment. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. In forests tree roots help rains seep into the ground where they are taken up into the tree and then release that filtered water as vapor and oxygen. Trees also cool our neighborhoods and cities because of the shade they throw and because their transpiration of water also cools the air. We can treasure parks with large trees and leafy canopies that shade us and cool us during the summer.
We can also plan our gardens so that trees will throw their cooling shade on the house, necessitating less air conditioning.
During our first winter in Heath the heavy snows blew and fell on our road, sometimes making it impassible, even for the town plows. During our first spring we began to plant our windbreak. We planted several varieties of conifers in three staggered rows alongside the road to catch the snow. This kept our road from being a giant snowbank. The town crew appreciated it.
Now we are in town and have borrowed shade from the majestic oak, maple and sycamore that grow on our neighbors’ property. We even benefit from the fallen autumn leaves. Mulch! Compost! Trees give us many benefits.
Between the Rows January 12, 2019