The Sacred Grove

B~Beithe~Birch

The Celtic year has 13 lunar months, each one named after a tree. The first of these, November, is the birch. The silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) is the most common tree in much of Europe. It grows up to 100 feet high,and is often found in sandy soils. It is one of the first trees to grow back in an area after a mature forest is cut; this is probably a large part of its symbolic connection with new beginnings. Formerly covering the whole of the United Kingdom, it is a graceful and slender tree with a characteristic white bole.

The birch represents new beginnings and opportunities. The name for the birch in the Tree Ogham, Beithe, has two meanings in Irish. It can mean "being," in the sense of the verb to be, and it is also a noun meaning "a being."

Children's cradles were made of Birch, and the inner bark provides a pain reliever while the leaves can be used to treat arthritis. Axe handles were also made from Birch. On the Isle of Man, off the west coast of Scotland, criminals were 'birched' to purify them and to drive out evil influences.

L~Luis~Rowan

The rowan, or mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia L.) thrives in poor soils and can colonize well in disturbed areas. In some parts of Europe, rowans are most commonly found around ancient settlements, either because of their weedy nature or because they were planted. Rowans flower in May. They grow to 50 feet and are members of the rose family (Rosaceae).

The rowan, which presides over the month of December, has a reputation as a protector against enchantment. Rune staves, (sticks upon which runes were enscribed,) were cut from this tree. Rowan wood was also used to divine for metal, as hazel twigs are used for water.

Along with several other trees, the rowan played a central role in Druid ceremonies. Sprigs of rowan were hung over the main door of the house, and often worn to ward off enchantment or "the evil eye." In Wales, rowans were planted in churchyards to watch over the spirits of the dead.

F~Fearn~Alder

The alder is a very ancient tree that has grown in the British Isles for thousands of years. The January tree is easily recognized by its regularly spaced branches and its conical shape. Like the willow, it is a water-loving tree. The timber is oily and water-resistant, and is often used for under-water foundations. Parts of Venice and many medieval cathedrals were built on alder foundations.

The common alder (Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertner) is found along lowland rivers, where it grows with aspens, poplars, and willows. Like willows, alders sprout from stumps. This allows them to regenerate after heavy flooding. In protected areas they may grow to 65 feet tall. Alders are members of the birch family (Betulaceae).

Bran the Blessed, or Bendegeit Bran is the god associated with this tree in the Ogham Tree alphabet. Legend says that he used his body to span the river Linon, forming a bridge to protect his followers from the flooding waters, as alder wood does when used as a building foundation.

S~Saille~Willow

The willow in the Tree Alphabet, stands for the female and lunar rhythms of life. It is water-seeking, with a preference for damp, boggy areas, river banks, or low-lying meadows. It is an imposing tree, with a thick trunk covered by dark gray, heavily ridged bark. Its spreading branches create a very full shape, and its leaves are long and slender and covered with silver hairs that give the whole tree a shimmering appearance.

The willow is sacred to the moon goddess, who rules the month of February, the willow month. The festival of Imbolc is held during the willow month, one of the two female fire festivals in the yearly cycle. The willow was also used as a protection against damp diseases.

N~Nuin~Ash

The world tree is an ash, or is known as "The Cosmic Ash." It appears in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil (or the tree of Odin.) The ash tree has deeply penetrating roots and tends to sour the soil, which makes it hard for any other plants to grow around it. Its branches are thick and strong - in Norse mythology, it spans the universe, with its roots in the lower world and its branches supporting the heavens.

In Celtic cosmology it connects the three circles of existence - Abred, Gwynedd, and Ceugant - which are sometimes interpreted as the past, present and future (or as confusion, balance and creative force.)

The ash can grow to one hundred and thirty feet high. The March tree has distinctive black buds and its seeds grow in bunches, each with a long, thin wing. It grows in all climates, but tends to do best in soil that is rich with lime. Its white wood is excellent for burning, and was often used for oars, ax handles, and was a favorite of the Celts when making spears.

H~Huathe~Hawthorn

"A hundred years I slept beneath a thorn
Until the tree was root and branches of my thought,
Until white petals blossomed in my crown."


From "The Traveller" by Kathleen Raine

The Hawthorn is the female tree of April, which leads up to the fertile central Oak month after Beltane. It is often known as May, as it is closely associated with the tradition of 'maying,' or riding out on a spring morning and gathering hawthorne boughs laden with white flowers. These fragrant white blossoms were used to decorate the halls, and worn as crowns by maidens in wedding ceremonies.

Young girls rose at dawn to bathe in dew gathered from hawthorn flowers to ensure their beauty in the coming year.

"The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be."

The Hawthorn is a rather small tree that grows with a dense, many branched and twisted tangle. Due to its impenetrable growth, it is mainly used for hedgerows, and the origin of its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'haegthorn,' meaning hedge-thorn. It is also known as whitethorn.

Its bark is smooth and gray and its wood is used to make maypoles for Beltane (now celebrated as Mayday.) Its leaves can be used to make tea, and it is said to be good for people with cardiac or circulatory problems. It is also a remedy for emotional distress or long term nervous conditions. Its juice can be used in the treatment of asthma, rheumatism, arthritis, and laryngitis.

D~Duir~Oak

The oak was a central tree to the Druids, and is the king of the forest. Our modern English word "door," comes from the Gaelic word 'duir' - the word for solidity, protection... and the mighty oak tree. Oak groves were sacred to the druids. The oak tree has always protected Britain, by providing wood for the building of ships, and as boundaries between one area and another. Ovates Bards and Druids preached under their branches, gaining strength from their strength.

The oak is associated with the seventh of the thirteen Celtic lunar months. He is central, standing between Hawthorn and Holly, and presides over the celebration of Beltane, the spring Fire Festival of fertility and renewed growth. . The month of Oak (May) is one of celebration, and the rebirth of life and living things.

Besides providing strong timber for building, the oak's bark produces tannin, which was used extensively in the leather industry for tanning raw hides. The oak is one of the longest living trees in the forest, often living for seventy to eighty years, even after being struck by lightning.

Acorns can be used to make a powerful antiseptic, and the juice from crushed oak leaves can be applied directly to wounds for the same purpose. A gargle made from the inner bark is useful to relieve sore throats and a decoction of the outer bark can help relieve severe fever symptoms.

T~Tinne~Holly

Holly is male, and symbolizes paternity and fatherhood, and the fight. With the Ivy and the Mistletoe, the Holly has always been regarded as a potent life symbol, both for his year-long foliage and for his winter fruits. Concealed within the verses of the "song of Amergin," chanted by a chief Bard as he landed on the shores of Ireland, is the line "I am a battle-Waging spear" wood of the June tree was generally used for spear shafts.

The old name for Holly is Holm, preserved in such names as Holmsdale, Surrey. With the coming of Christianity, the Holly became the Holy tree, the tree symbolic of the crown of thorns.

C~Coll~Hazel

The hazelnut, in Irish legend, was the fruit of wisdom, and was eaten by the salmon swimming in the pool of life. Thus the hazel is associated with meditation, wisdom and mediation. Hazel branches were also used for divination because of their pliancy and affinity for water.

The hazel tree, which presides over the month of July, reaches 30 feet in height, but is often cut back. The nuts can be ground up and used to sooth sore throat and head cold symptoms. The dry skin covering the nut can also be ground up into a powder and used for the relief of heavy menstrual flows.

Q~Quert~Apple

All apple trees are descended from the crab apple, which was likely the tree mentioned in the tree Ogham, as it grew wild in the British Isles and across much of Europe during the time of the Druids. The apple represents choice.

The wood of the apple tree is good for both burning and carving, and poultice made from roasted for boiled apples removes burn marks from the skin, and eases inflamed eyes. It is also known to be good for the bowels and for sufferers of asthma and other lung ailments.

M~Muin~Vine

The grape vine governs the month of August, the month in which the festival Lughnassadh is held. The fruit of the vine, the grape, can be used for many purposes: to make wine, calm coughs and distraught nerves, and aid in digestion. The leaves can be used (if boiled,) as a lotion for sore mouths, and as a poultice for inflammations. They are good for skin conditions, and a decoction of the leaves is often used as a treatment of kidney or bladder stones.

G~Gort~Ivy

The ivy is not considered a tree, but depends on a host tree for support. Ivy belongs to the evergreen family, and oversees the month of September. It's leaves are deep green and rather waxy, and it has thin tendrils that attach themselves to surfaces, and are strong enough to force their way into bricks, cracks, and plaster. Ivy can grow in such abundance on a host tree that it smothers the tree and actually kills it.

Ivy berries can be used for medicinal purposes, but can be poisonous if taken In large quantities. A broth of fresh leaves can be used to cleanse sores or wounds. A powder made from dried leaves and berries can be used to clear stuffy heads, and is also believed to be a cure for hangovers.

The Ivy was considered to be a very powerful tree to the Celts because of its ability to kill even the mightiest Oak tree. Because of its tendency to create dense, inpenetrable thickets in the forest, it is seen as more powerful than the vine, and rather sinister in nature.

Ng~NgEtal~Reed or Broom

The broom is a wide, bushy shrub that grows in abundance in the British Isles, and blooms in yellow pod-shaped flowers. It can grow to seven feet in height, and its stem can grow very thick and strong. Its branches are often dried and used as brooms (as the name suggests,) and a decoction of young branches and seeds can be used to treat malaria, gout and painful joints. It is also a good diuretic. Oil drawn from the stems (by heating them over and open fire,) can be used to treat toothaches, and for the removal parasites such as lice.

Traditionally the Celts were a nomadic people. They camped on one place throughout the cold winter months, and would break camp in the spring when the first yellow blooms appeared on the broom. Although it has associations with spring, broom stands for the month of October in the Ogham Calendar.

Ss~Straif~Blackthorn

The grape vine governs the month of August, the blackthorn is more of a shrub than a tree, and grows in dense, impenetrable thickets, often a nesting site for birds. It is covered with sharp thorns, has white, red-tipped flowers, and small oval leaves. It is the traditional wood of the Irish shillelagh, and is also used to make walking sticks.

The fruit of the blackthorn bush are deep purple berries known a sloes. These berries ripen only after the first frost, and are used to make jam, and to flavor the famous sloe-gin. It is a good astringent and can be used to stop bleeding, both internally and externally. The leaves can be boiled into a decoction and used as a treatment for laryngitis and tonsillitis.

R~Ruis~Elder

The elder tree rules the thirteenth month of the Celtic moon calendar, which was only three days long, and ended at Samhain. In popular Celtic folklore, it was believed that it was unlucky to use Elder wood for a child's cradle, but that only Birch wood should be used to symbolize purity and new beginnings.

The elder tree can grow to thirty feet in height, and is covered with a light brown bark with deep ridges and groves. Its leaves are broad and oval in shape, and it has a tiny white flower with five petals and a sweet scent. In autumn it is covered with bunches of black berries which are used to make wine and jam.

Rich in vitamin C, a tea from the flowers is also used for the treatment of coughs and sore throat. Boiled leaves can be used in a mixture for the relief of pain in the ears. A distillation made from the flowers is used a skin cleanser, a cure for headaches and treatment for the common cold. The bark can be dried and used as a laxative.

A~Ailim~Silver Fir

The silver fir, from the family 'Abies,' is a variety of pine that grows in the mountainous regions on the upper slopes overlooking the lower forests. Firs are known to grow to tremendous heights. Two silver firs planted by the Duke Of Argyll in the early seventeenth century stood until recent times, and reached heights of 124 and 130 feet.

The wood from fir trees is used in the making of furniture, and because of the straightness of the trunks, was used in the making of ship masts. It is a source of turpentine, resin and tar, and a tea made from the shoots can be used as a protection against urinary tract and kidney infections.

At one time, much of Scotland was covered with these great trees, but now only small patches of them remain.

O~Ohn~Furze

The furze is a yellow-flowering shrub that grows profusely on the open moors and hillsides of Great Britain. It blooms year around, although its densest bloom is in the spring and early summer. Its flowers are rich in pollen and nectar, and give off a strong sweet honey/coconut scent. They are a favorite of honey bees.

A decoction can be made of the flowers for the treatment of jaundice and to cleanse the kidneys of stones and obstructions.

U~Ur~Heather

Heather is often connected with death and completion in the Celtic tree Ogham, but its name, Ur, means 'new.' Heather is the symbolic gateway linking the earth with the spirit world.

Heather is a rather twisted gnarled plant that grows profusely on the moors and heaths of Scotland. It blooms in small purple, red and blue flowers, which are favored by bees for their pollen. As a medicinal, it is used chiefly as a treatment of nervous disorders and cardiac palpitations. It can also be used to treat menstrual pain and migraine headaches.

Bees make a distinctive honey from its pollen, and the Picts used heather to brew a potent ale. Its roots and stems are used to make rope, thatch for roofs, and brooms.

E~Eadha~White Poplar

Of all the trees of the Celtic tree Ogham, the white poplar is most concerned with earthly and material aspects of life. Used by the ancients to make shields, it is believed to have the power to protect from death and injury.

Poplars are often referred to as the 'whispering' or 'talking' trees, and in Irish Gaelic, as 'Crann Critheac', the quivering tree. The long flattened leaf stalks grow in such a way as to make a noise with every breeze that passes through the leaves.

I~Ioho~Yew

The yew tree lives the longest of all of the trees of the Celtic Tree Ogham. They are often found in cemeteries, but may be far older than the cemetery itself. The Crowhurst Yew in Surrey is believed to be at least 1,600 years old. Research work by dendrochronologists indicates that some yew trees in British churchyards may be as ancient as four thousand years old!

This longevity is achieved through the style of growth. The yew's branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which grow to become trunks of separate but linked growth. In time, the central trunk becomes old, but a new tree grows from within the decay, and is indistinguishable from the original growth. Thus the yew tree represents age, rebirth and reincarnation - the birth of a new soul which springs from ancient roots.

The average yew tree grows to fifty feet in height. It is an evergreen with dark green needles, light on the underside, and bears a bright red fruit containing a single seed. Female flowers are green and small, as contrasted to male flowers which appear on different trees and are slightly larger and yellow in color. The needles bark and sap are extremely poisonous and has no medicinal uses.


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Revised: November 17, 1998.