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Archive for the ‘Trees’ Category

When The Snow Came

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Snow came to our corner of the world on Friday, bringing with it that childlike sense of wonder and awe that never seems to diminish with the passing years.

There is nothing like a covering of snow to make us see the world afresh, as if, for those few brief days, it really was the blank slate it appeared to be and and we could create anything we dreamed of when the ice melted away.

The sight of snow-dusted seed heads of monarda, motherwort and lovage made me glad I have been lazy with tidying up the garden this winter.

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The mild winter so far has meant plenty of new growth appearing too, seen here on rose and ivy and the young nettles out in the lane.

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The colours of tree branches make for beautiful contrasts with the powdery snow, the blackness of ash buds and vibrant green lichen on the willow.

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My favourite tree on snowy days is the oak however. It’s sinewy branches trace dark, dancing patterns across the sky as it stands, like a great guardian, in a white washed world.

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One of my favourite oaks stands in the field in front of our house. This is how it looked on Friday as the first snow began to fall:

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And only two days previously, last Wednesday, bathed in low winter sun:

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I hope that if you too are in a part of the world with snow, you are keeping safe and warm.

I’ll be back soon with a post on using herbs to help banish winter phlegmy-ness!

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Firstly, apologies for not having posted the final cream recipe yet, I ran out of time before Christmas and have been having a little holiday from the computer so it will be with you in the New Year instead.

However as 2011 draws to a close, I would like to take a few moments to look back over the Hawthorn trees which I have been observing throughout the year as part of The Tree Year project. Inspired by the UN’s announcement that 2011 would be the International Year of Forests it encouraged people to pick a tree to observe closely for one year and record some of their findings in whatever way seemed appropriate to them.

I followed these trees which sit atop the Sussex Downs from Winter to Summer and back again, observing not only their individual transformations, but the way they have been shaped by their landscape and by the myriad influences of humans and nature.

For many years I have appreciated the Hawthorn as a fantastic source of medicine and food, not just for humans but for wildlife as well. This project gave me the opportunity to learn more about some of its other facets however and the more I learnt, the more I appreciated its story as that of a true survivor. It thrives in many environments, from cities and gardens to woodland edges, hedgerows and open grassland and it flourishes where other trees could not. The Downs themselves would once have been covered in woodland in all but the most exposed sites but centuries of animal grazing have ensured the trees have not returned. Only the hardiest survive atop these windswept and rain blasted escarpments with their shallow, chalky soil. And they are mainly gorse and hawthorn.

Sheep grazing the Downs prevent the return of natural woodland in more sheltered spots.

Here in the UK, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the privatisation of huge amounts of open fields and common land and the removal of  access rights of local people through the Inclosure Acts. This saw the planting of miles of Hawthorn hedging throughout the country as hawthorn grows quickly and densely and has sharp thorns – the perfect way to keep people out. This rapid growth gave rise to one of Hawthorn’s old common names, Quickthorn. I often think that perhaps one of the only good things to come out of such a travesty was the Hawthorn hedges which are now such a distinctive and cherished part of our countryside and support such a wide variety of wildlife.

The hawthorn is home to approximately 150 different insects and provides food and shelter for many birds. Blackbirds, greenfinches, yellowhammers, robins and wrens all make use of it along with migrant birds like redwings and fieldfares. They spread seed through their droppings making this a mutually beneficial arrangement. Small mammals like voles and wood mice also eat the fallen berries and seek shelter amongst the dense growth of hawthorn branches.

Whilst I love the hedges, Hawthorns are by far the most beautiful when allowed to grow into their full splendour as small trees. They will grow well in most soil types, though they need some sun, as their root system is not too extensive and doesn’t require large amounts of nutrients. They are often seen standing alone on hilltops, each one a unique individual having been shaped by natural forces. In folk mythology it was thought that these lone Hawthorns were inhabited by faeries and Hawthorn is still considered one of the faery trees to this day.

New leaf buds forming in early spring.

It is used as a rootstock for grafting pears and medlars and the wood was apparently one of those preferred by the Druids for making runes. A fascinating fact (which I am sure you will all find very useful) is that some myths claim hawthorn wood to be the best for staking vampires! I wonder if this refers to the long association with qualities of protection, part of which must come from all the many species it shelters and provides uses for.

Unfurling spring leaves - delicious in salads.

It is a tree that looks beautiful in each of its manifestations throughout the changing seasons. The small buds emerging early in the year give way to tender green leaves which are delicious in salads before they toughen up later in the year.

The blossom has equally fantastic medicinal properties as the berries and the two preparations are often used together by herbalists. You can read my accounts of some of the medicinal benefits of Hawthorn here and here.

Blossom buds.

One of the most beautiful sights of spring.

The blossom can be used to make teas, tinctures, herbal honeys, elixirs, flower remedies or to sprinkle on salads. Some people find the smell offensive but others, including myself, find its sweet headiness quite pleasant.

The oldest Hawthorn in the country is in a village in Norfolk and is thought to be about 700 years old! I would very much like to take a little trip to visit it this coming year. There is said to be one more than twice as old again in France, though apparently this hasn’t been verified.

Summer green glory.

The summer hawthorn is all green fullness and abundance. I often wonder how the leaves stay on in such windy conditions!

After the blossom dies back, small green berries begin to form which ripen into the wonderful red fruits we so associate with late summer and autumn. These can be made into all sorts of delicious syrups and elixirs as well as being used for tinctures and decoctions. You can read about my Hawthorn syrup here.

Early blushing berries.

Autumn harvest for wildlife (including herbalists!)

Hawthorn has a use for every season; food, medicine and wildlife habitat, it also keeps us warm in the winter months as its hard, dense wood burns hot without being too smoky.

The latin name, Crataegus, comes from the Greek word for strong. Whilst this is thought to reflect the qualities of the wood, I suspect it may actually refer to the nature of the tree itself which is resilient, tough, hardy and above all abundant and unfailingly generous.

Like many of the plants we consider weeds and many of our wilier animal friends like crows and foxes, the hawthorn has only survived and flourished in a changing habitat due to its ability to adapt.

I look forward to many more years of knowing, appreciating and working with this remarkable plant.

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The Autumn King

If the Oak is the King of the woods than at no time is his reign more glorious than in autumn when his leaves glow gold and many beings are nourished from his acorns.

Whenever I have lived or wandered abroad I cannot think of Britain without thinking of oak trees. Perhaps then it’s appropriate that I have ended up in a village whose name means ‘place covered with oaks’ or ‘overshadowed by oaks’. Nowadays there are not so many great oaks remaining but sometimes, my husband and I like to stand atop the Downs and dream of the time when everything before us; the farmer’s fields, the gardens, the roads would all have been covered with oak trees.

Whilst the autumn colours of the oak are not as showy as some of the more exotic trees that are visible at this time of year in parks and gardens, their subtle beauty is somehow more deeply fulfilling. I said to my husband as we walked at the weekend, ‘the maples are pleasing to my eyes, but the oaks are pleasing to my heart.’

Oaks were said to be sacred to the Druids. Some suggest the name ‘Druid’ actually comes from the old Gaelic name for oak, Duir, though others have dismissed this saying that instead, it originates from Dru – meaning ‘highest’ and vid – meaning ‘knowledge.’ Who knows the truth, but I cannot imagine any race who lived amongst the oaks would not have held them sacred. Oaks appear in the mythology of many lands and there are about 600 species in the genus across the world.

The oak has many associations with protection and strength, partly because of the numbers of creatures that it shelters in its bows. Apparently it houses the greatest biodiversity of herbivorous insects of any British plant. Even in death it is home to a great many insects. In the Bach flower remedies, oak is given to those who offer their strength to others and keep persevering until they themselves end up drained and exhausted. Taking the remedy is thought to re-establish the positive qualities of oak, those of courage, protection, strength and endurance.

The oak tree was also associated with weather gods as apparently, it is hit by lightning more often than other trees. It has featured alongside the Gods of thunder and lightening in many European cultures, from Zeus of the ancient Greeks, to the Norse Thor and the Baltic Perkunas. This weekend however, it was also resplendent in the sunshine.

Acorns were of great importance to country folk as  a primary food source for their pigs in autumn. Before this, they were  also an important food source for people themselves and were eaten by a variety of cultures from all over the world. To eat acorns they must be soaked or boiled first to remove the tannic acid. I read a recipe for acorn muffins the other day, it sounded perfect for eating round the fire with a spicy herbal chai when the dark days of winter are upon us.

And of course the oak has its place in herbal medicine as well. A very useful astringent, the bark can be used to staunch bleeding of all kinds from haemorrhoids to a mouthwash for bleeding gums.

In pagan mythology the Oak King was said to reign from mid-winter to mid-summer, after which the Holly King took his turn on the throne for the second half of the year. But for me, Autumn will always be the time of the oak.

What is your favourite autumn tree?

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It’s been a while since I posted about the beautiful Hawthorns that I have been observing as part of the Tree of the Year project. They sit atop the Downs, relentlessly battered by wind and rain, and as a result they differ from many of the other Hawthorns in this area. With everything being early this year, most of the trees already had bright red berries at the beginning of August, not quite ready for harvest, but not far off. On these trees however, the berries were still small and green, reflecting how the harshness of their environment affects their development.

Nearly a month on they are reddening up nicely and the trees from a distance have that exquisite blush which tells you autumn is around the corner.

There is no doubt that the constant high winds we have had all summer have taken their toll. The trees look less healthy than this time last year with many of the leaves browning and some branches swept almost bare. Like people whose lives have been filled with hardship, they are weathered and worn.

It’s interesting to observe how bare of berries the side of the trees that faces the wind is compared to the relatively more sheltered branches.

I feel these trees teach me a lot about resilience, tenacity and strength and about adaptability in the face of hardship. They speak of the beauty of form and motion and of holding fast to this living edge of surrender. Perhaps most importantly they show that, in spite of difficulties, it is still possible to give generously.

Elsewhere on the Downs other Hawthorns tell their stories, each as unique as snowflakes.

I loved this one, entangled with the wild rose like lovers.

And everywhere the berries are fat and red and perfect. I’ll be out next week to get the first harvest in. Who wants pills when your medicine can look like this?

The Downs themselves are carpeted with wild flowers at present.

The yellows and whites of bedstraw, yarrow, burnet saxifrage and cat’s-ears mix with the mauves and purples of two of my favourite wild flowers;

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and Round-headed Rampion.

Whilst lone stalks of agrimony wave in the breeze.

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Hedgerows In Bloom

My train journeys this week have been an absolute pleasure due to the beauty of the hedgerows at this time of year. Everywhere Blackthorn has blazed into great clouds of white blossom making the landscape sing with the rising energies of Spring.

Here the fresh verdancy of the young Hawthorn leaves mingles with Blackthorn blossom and the golden puffs of Pussy Willow.

A small deciduous tree, Blackthorn often grows with Hawthorn but is easily distinguished from it by the fact that that it’s blossom arrives before the leaf where as the leaf of the Hawthorn comes out before the blossom. When it does come into leaf they are small, oval and darker than Hawthorn’s deeply lobed leaves.

Blackthorn, known as Straif in the Celtic Ogham or tree alphabet, has been typically associated with the dark half of the year and with the mysteries of the unconscious mind. Long regarded as a powerful magical ally it was much maligned by the superstitions spread by the Church during the witch burning times.

Despite it’s association with all things dark and mysterious, Blackthorn is one of the first plants to bring us the glimmer of Spring and shows us well how dark turns to light, and back again, with the turning of the year. In her brighter aspect she earned a place alongside Hawthorn in the May Day festivals where she was known as ‘the Queen of the Woods’. Blackthorn can help us attune to the rhythms of nature and is also a powerful ally to help us transform negative emotions into sources of strength and compassion.

Pussy Willow is also bedecking the hedgerows with colour and vitality. To me they so well express the vitality of Spring with their vigorous upward growth and explosive yellow flowers.

How beautiful it looks against the backdrop of blossoming Blackthorn.

In other news, this month Leslie over at the lovely Comfrey Cottages blog will be hosting the April blog party on the 20th. She says:

“I have chosen for a theme Spring Wild foraging/Wild crafting and Spring Herbal Gardening I am hoping that everyone who wants to be able to participate has a spot they can forage in, but if not, I think by including the herbal gardening in the theme all should definitely be able to participate who want to :)”

Click here to find out more.

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What a pleasure it has been to watch the emerging of the Hawthorn leaves this month. The trees I am observing for the Tree of the Year project were a little behind their more sheltered relatives but now they too have begun to burst into life.

Over the past couple of weeks they have been slowly opening out of their protective buds and are now adorning the escarpment and hedgerows with the fresh green vibrancy of spring.

At this time they are just perfect for adding to spring salads as they are still very tender and delicious, as spring wears on the leaves become too tough to be enjoyable. In olden days they were referred to as ‘bread and cheese’ because they were such a staple of country diets and were often added to a cheese sandwich!

In this salad I combined them with finely sliced wild garlic-mustard, sorrel leaves, dandelion leaves and handful of chickweed. Adding chopped almonds and seeds with a dressing of cleavers infused vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil made this a lovely side dish.

 

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February Hawthorns

One of my favourite Buddhist meditation teachers, Venerable Antonio, used to remind us during the long days of sitting practice in retreat that, whilst it may feel like nothing is happening, in fact everything is happening, we are just not so good at paying close attention.

At this time of year everyone is getting impatient for spring and the last days of cold, grey weather seem to drag on interminably. It seems like nothing is happening but, when we look closely, we can see that actually everything is happening!

This is how I felt whilst observing my Tree of the Year this month. Nothing much was changing at first glance and the escarpment Hawthorns looked as wintery and asleep as last month.

Looking a little closer I could see that perhaps changes were appearing after all…

Do you see the tiny buds? Look closer still…

And even closer …

Lean in…

And marvel at the beauty and potential held in the smallest of things.

Now is also a fine time to admire the twisted roots of Hawthorn, before we get distracted by leaf and blossom. Like miniature landscapes they rise and fold, their contours are at once hard and soft and I’m quite convinced the faeries live amongst them.

On the way back down I took a detour to visit another of my favourite Hawthorns. Sheltered beneath the Downs she can grow straight and tall compared to the trees at the top who are forever bent to accommodate the unrelenting winds. I’m convinced the quality of the medicine from the two trees will reflect the differences in their circumstances and, this year, I will make flower remedies and tinctures from both to compare.

Hawthorn blossom allows us to expand and flourish and I imagine that a remedy from the escarpment Hawthorn would lend us strength to do this in even the most adverse conditions where as one from the second tree would allow us to create a sheltered, loving and safe space in which to grow.

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