Trees of the Celtic Forest
The Alder is a very widely diffused tree, growing abundantly by the sides of rivers and streams and in swampy places unfit for the growth of other trees, throughout the whole of Europe, a great part of Asia, the north of Africa and some parts of North America. It is the common or black alder that grows freely in Britain and there are probably few rivers in England which do not have it growing somewhere or other on its banks. Where they most flourish is in moist loam, upon which rains or floods have washed down good layers of humus from woods at a higher elevation. If its roots are well fed and its head is in a humid atmosphere it will grow to a height of thirty to forty feet and occasionally up to one hundred feet.
The Crab Apple tree is the wild version of our more modern cultivated varieties and has been held in great reverence since earliest times. There are equivalents to our word "apple" in all Celtic and other early European languages showing that at the very least the fruit was of sufficient importance to possess a distinct name long before the separation of the peoples of Northern Europe. The word "crab" is a more recent addition thought to come from the Lowland Scottish word scrab, itself derived from Anglo Saxon scrobb meaning a shrub.
Within the Celtic forest, the Ash is inferior only to the Oak. It readily springs from seed and when conditions are favourable, grows with great rapidity. Its roots have the unusual tendency to grow horizontally producing many fibres close to the surface that check the growth of almost all other vegetation. The roots dislike the presence of stagnant water, but thrive when close to the gravely bed of a running stream, often outstripping the growth of all other surrounding trees. Young plants are easily distinguished from other varieties in winter and early spring by their ash-coloured bark and black buds. In summer the tree is easily identified by its leaves composed of five pairs of leaflets with a single one on the end. In the autumn it is one of the first to shed its foliage.
The poet Coleridge christened the Birch "The Lady of the Woods" and indeed no other tree is more deservedly admired for its intrinsic beauty. It is light, slender and elegant in stark contrast to the majesty, dignity and strength of the oak. However it takes precedence over the oak in that it needs no protection from other trees in any stage of its growth. It grows throughout the length and breadth of Northern Europe and penetrates farther north than any other tree. It can be found growing from Mount Etna to Iceland and in Russia and Siberia it is more common than any other tree. It is particularly valuable to the indigenous people of Lapland. It will grow in places where it is subjected to great heat, as well as where it must endure extreme cold. It will happily send its slender roots into rich humus or cling to the side of a mountain.
The Elder is not the most beautiful of trees either in sight or smell, but is beyond value for its numerous medicinal properties. Evelyn, the great British historian of trees, sings its praises most highly saying: "If the medicinal properties of the leaves, bark, berries and flowers were thoroughly known, I cannot tell what our countrymen could ail, for which they might not find a remedy from every hedge, either for sickness or wound. The inner bark of the Elder applied to any burning takes out the fire immediately, that or, in season, the buds boiled in water-grewel for a breakfast, has effected wonders in a fever; and the decoction is admirable to assuage inflammation.
The Hawthorn has grown in Britain for in excess of ten thousand years and can be found the length and breadth of the land. Its name originates from the Anglo-Saxon, haegthorn, meaning hedge thorn and its other names include May (because it begins flowering during this month), Whitethorn (linked to its white flowers and the colour of its wood), Quickthorn, Quickset and simply Quick. The latter three names derive from its application to the construction of quick, or live hedges, instead of dead branches of trees. It is indeed a most practical tree for forming impenetrable barriers used to mark the boundaries of land. It is found in most parts of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia and when introduced into Australia thrived as well as in its native countries.
The Hazel appears in the wild more often as more a large bush than a tree with its long, flexible stems growing from the same root. On the young stems the bark is ash-coloured and hairy while older stems become mottled with bright brown and grey. The flowers are amongst the earliest harbingers of the rebirth of spring, even earlier than the snowdrop, and from early January the trees are plentifully decorated with yellow catkins called "lambs tails" (also anciently called agglettes or blowinges). If you look very closely at the buds in late January, you will find the crimson pistols of fertile flowers pushing their way up through some of the scaly buds.
The Holly tree is without doubt one of the most important of the English evergreens. In the midst of winter, when all the forest is barren and bare, save for the trunks of trees clothed in ivy, the Holly stands proud with its cheerful array of dark green leaves and bright red berries. Even in the bright days of summer when the forest is filled with greenery and growth, the holly can still be detected far of in the depths of the forest reflecting light from its now lighter and highly polished leaves. Although a welcome sight in any season, Holly is particularly associated with winter and the winter solstice. Since ancient times it has been cut at midwinter and used to adorn homes to honour the spirit of the wildwood and to bring lightness and beauty at the darkest time of the year.
The oak is one of the most written about trees in Celtic literature and was much favoured by the Druids. Indeed the Ogham word for oak, Duir, is thought to be the root from which the word Druid originated. Its title of "The King of Trees" is well suited for not only is it one of the longest living of all the trees of the Celtic forest, but it provides shelter and habitat for an extraordinary variety of different species of plant and animal. It is literally teeming with life from its earliest growth to well beyond its death. In spring the canopy is vibrant with foraging birds and a single tree can have up to thirty different species of lichen growing on its bark.
The Rowan is today one of the most common trees in British suburbia due to its hardiness, its indifference to soil type, the fact that other plants will grow beneath it and the absence of the need for pruning. It has many other names including Mountain Ash and while it is not any relation to the ash tree its leaves do have some similarity to it and it will grow in the wildest and most exposed of situations. The word Rowan has connections to the Old Norse word "runa" meaning a charm and in earlier times the word "runa" in ancient Sanskrit meant magician and indeed it has been highly prized as a protective wood since ancient times.
There are a great number of different varieties of Willow growing throughout Britain and Europe and at least fifteen species have grown here since the end of the last ice age making it one of the oldest of our native trees. One variety, the common osier, has grown in Britain for the last forty-two thousand years. Most varieties grow by the sides of water-courses, although a few grow high up in the mountains, and are found nearer the North Pole than any other shrubby plant. Species vary in height from over sixty feet to a few inches.