Plant folklore - Tales of myths magic and more
Exploring the ancient folklore and myths around some of Scotland's favourite woodland species.
Nature is a mystical and magical force to be reckoned with. Something that we can often take for granted and overlook. However, delving into the history books, you’ll quickly uncover a world of tales, symbolism and mythology that all stem from plants and flowers. Even some of the most ‘mundane’ botanical species can have intriguing plant folklore surrounding then for generations gone by.
Let’s take a look at the tales behind some of the most common Scottish plant and tree species steeped in magic and mythology. Some of which we have even used as ingredients in our botanical spirits!
A classic summer scent and flavour, the ever so sweet elder tree and it’s dainty carrying of elderflowers have a darker past than you may think.
According to ancient plant folklore, the elder tree is highly sacred with a spirit known as the Elder Mother, or Hylde Moer in Danish, living inside the tree. Legend has it that the plant has magical powers from the Elder Mother which are gifted by her to parts of the tree and it has long been recognised and prized as a medicinal plant.
That’s not all that it is known for. The elder is also symbolic of endings and rebirth from its association with the Celtic festival of Samhain (Halloween). Traditionally during that era, branches of the elder tree were hung over front doors to ward off evil spirits.
The Blackthorn tree (Prunus Spinosa) is best known for its annual bloom of ripe juicy sloe berries - a firm favourite of the Highland Boundary team! On the cusp of Summer the shrub will blossom with pretty white flowers and entering the Autumn months clouds of sloe berries begin to form.
In ancient folklore history, the roots of the blackthorn tree and its sloe berry fruit can be traced as far back as the days of the early man. For generations tales have been told of the sloe berries having magical powers and were often used for medicinal purposes.
The blackthorn tree itself is highly symbolic in ancient Celtic culture. The branches of the tree carried the connotations of death and warfare. It’s even believed to have associations with Scottish witchcraft, whereby the beginning of winter would be announced by the Cailleach (Goddess of Winter) who would thrash the ground with her staff made of blackthorn.
You won’t quite look at the humble blackthorn tree the same way again after hearing that!
Wander through any of Scotland’s luscious landscapes and we’re sure you’ll spot a birch tree or two. Instantly recognisable by their unusual white/silver trunks, the birch tree (Betula Pendula) boasts bright green leaves that open up like canopy in the summer months. Offering protection to a plethora of botanical and wildlife species below.
Renewal and purification were what the birch was best associated with in Celtic folklore. So much so that bunches of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. It is from this mythology that the birch besom was created (a traditional type of broom) as it was believed to purify a space when used.
Birch has also been a symbol of love and fertility according to Scottish Highland folklore. Hence why traditionally, a baby’s cradle would be crafted from birch wood.
Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna) is a species of tree that is often best associated with symbolising Spring turning to Summer. In the early summer months it will bloom with dainty white flowers and by Autumn will be dotted with tiny red berries known as ‘haws.’
The hawthorn plant has many mythological and symbolic meanings. Firstly, the hawthorn is commonly known as Pagan symbol of fertility. It also has ancient ties with the widely celebrated European holiday, May Day. Its green leaves and dainty flowers would often be used in creating May Day garlands and the iconic Green Man wreath.
However, superstition surrounding the hawthorn is not all positive. At the time of the Great Plague, the hawthorn flowers were believed to carry the scent of the disease. For this reason, it was believed that if you brought them into your home that illness and death would fall upon your household.
In modern times, a mixture of essences from the hawthorn leaves, berries and flowers can be used for medicinal purposes to improve heart health.
Head up to the Scottish Highlands and one species stands proud in numbers and it’s Scotland’s national tree the Scots pine. Some of Scotland’s most iconic wildlife species such as the Scottish wildcat and red squirrels reside in the grand Scots pine. Mature Scots pine trees can even be known to live for 700 years!
Various plant mythologies and folklore surround the Scots pine. In Eastern Siberia, Mongolian people used to consider the groves to be sacred. It was standard that should approach the groves, you should do so in complete silence as a sign of respect to the Gods and spirits.
Closer to home, the Scots pine was traditionally used as a building material so there were few Scottish mythologies. However, they were often used in the Highlands as markers for the burial place of clan chiefs, heroes and warriors so it was certainly viewed of high importance.
Another staple to the British woodlands and hillsides is the larch tree (Larix decidua). With the potential to grow up to an incredible height of 42 metres, the larch tree offers a safe and secure home to many species of local wildlife.
It is said that in European folklore the grand larch tree was seen as having protective powers against evil spirits. Its natural force would come alive when burned or when worn on the human body.
Specifically, in Siberian and Lapp mythology the larch was recognised as the ‘world’ tree. ‘Shamans’ of the past were people who could reach and connect to the good and evil spirits and influence their actions through rituals. So, the wood of the larch tree, with such mighty symbolism, was often used by Shamans or constructing the drums used in such ceremonies and practices.