Plants of the Celtic Regions

  • Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

    The flower of this lovely plant closely resembles the familiar snapdragon, a favorite of children all over. It is quite common throughout Wales, where its yellow flowers are often spotted along hedgerows. In Scotland it is known as “Doggies” and is usually to be found in open spaces.

    Long ago, an infusion of this plant was commonly used as a laxative. An ointment was also made that was a popular compress for burns. Some say that you can cook and eat the shoots, but rave reviews of this recipe are few and far between, so I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Today, here in Flagstaff, you can easily find a relative of this plant, the “Dalmatian Toadflax”, which is one of our most tenacious invasive plants. While toadflax fills an important ecological niche in many Celtic regions, here it aggressively takes over large areas, pushing out our native plants. Just one Dalmatian Toadflax plant can produce over 500,000 seeds in one growing season!

  • Forget-Me-Not (Mystotis sylvatica)

    The earliest folklore in Celtic lands regarding this attractive flower stressed its origin as a “Fae Flower”, or plant of the fairies. Its presence was believed to indicate hidden treasure, but the seeker of secreted wealth should always beware the wrath of the Little People.

    The roots of this plant are quite extensive, and as gardeners who have tried to remove it soon find out, one of the Forget-Me-Not’s prime virtues is its tenacity. Perhaps this is how it came to signify “undying love and devotion”.

    Many ancient herbalists used a syrup made from this plant to treat a variety of pulmonary ailments. There are also some legends associated with it that say by mixing the juice of this flower with other ingredients you can make a potion that helps harden your sword and spear.

  • Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

    The original name of this flower was “Little People’s Glove”, and many Celtic legends tell how the fairies used the florets of the plant as gloves or wee bonnets. Since this flower was believed to belong to the fairies, it was considered unlucky at best to bring it into your home. However, planting some near your garden would please the Little People, who would make use of the flowers when you were not looking.

    The juice of the plant has long been considered a poison, but in Irish mythology the juice of ten leaves could be made into a potion that would cure children who had been “fairy struck”.

    In addition, many Celtic tales mention that Foxglove was a key ingredient in witches’ flying potions.

  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum)

    Ah! The amazing scent of this wonderful flower cannot help but bring a smile to your face. Perhaps that is why so many different Celtic people viewed this flower as an aphrodisiac. Alas, in latter years young women were warned never to bring it into their homes, lest it encourage erotic dreams.  Aside from its lovely aroma, Honeysuckle (or “Woodbine” in many Celtic regions) was used by “wise women” as a cure for a variety of ailments. Interestingly , the leaves and flowers of this plant are rich in salicylic acid – a key ingredient in aspirin. Woodbine also contains natural antibiotics, making it a popular folk remedy for a variety of physical complaints. Some Celts believed that Woodbine would protect dairy products from spoilage, and therefore braided it into hoops and placed them around their milk containers.

    Woodbine also has a high sugar content, leading many people to make a very fragrant wine from the plant. It is said that Woodbine wine is a favorite among witches celebrating their Sabbats.

  • Lupin (Lupinus albus)

    This plant is part of a wide-spread family that spreads through Europe, Asia, and North America. Here in Flagstaff we can often see its cousin’s beautiful purple flowers while out hiking.

    The White Lupin, which is quite common in Cornwall as well as other Celtic lands, has long been used as a medicine (as well as admired for its beauty). Many early books, putting Celtic folk medicine down on paper for the first time, mentioned that adding ground cumin to a mixture of wine and lupin, made an excellent lice remedy. At least your head would smell good.

    Lupin was also added to a variety of other ingredients to make a flea repellent, and in some areas was fairly popular as a compress to relieve minor aches and pains.

  • Red Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

    “We shall not sleep though poppies grow in Flander’s Field”. So wrote John McCrae after the First World War, securing the poppy’s image as a memorial for loved ones lost in battle. But the poppy was already well entrenched in many legends as a symbol of Eternal Sleep. Many ancient tales explain this flower’s vibrant red color as the result of terrible strife and suffering. However, a closer look shows that the Red Poppy is actually a veritable floral toolbox!

    The foliage can be cooked and eaten, and many Celtic people used the seeds in cakes and breads. (This is still quite common in Brittany and other Celtic lands.) In some areas folk still extract a high quality oil from the seeds, which is often used as a substitute for olive oil.

    The beautiful red petals are not very effective as a dye, but they have long been used to add a richer hue to old ink and to color syrups.

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

    This small evergreen is most commonly found in fairly rocky terrain, especially near the sea. It has long been valued (for very good reason) as a highly prized culinary herb by many different cultures. Rosemary can be found growing wild in all eight of the Celtic regions, especially Cornwall and Galicia.

    In addition to its well-known uses in cooking, rosemary has long been used as a “pick me up” tonic, combating depression, fatigue and headache.  Many herbalists today use this plant to combat a variety of nervous disorders, citing its antispasmodic properties. It may be that many Celtic “wise women” used it in a similar manner.  The International Society for Horticultural Science is currently studying the traditional uses of rosemary in Galician folk medicine.

    Other uses of rosemary have included a yellow-green dye, created from both the leaves and flowers, and as a natural insect repellent. 

  • Thrift (Armeria maritime)

    Also known as “Sea Pink”, this is one of the earliest, and most popular, spring flowers in Wales.  It is usually seen along the cliffs near the ocean where its gorgeous pink flowers wave in the salty breeze. 

    Thrift is a tough and tenacious plant, whose stems are often used in basketry.  Rather than drying them out as with other plants, traditional Celtic artisans used the thrift stems fresh when weaving.

    There is also an interesting malady known in the Scottish islands called Barr A’ Chinn (“through the head”). It is believed that if a young child suffers a shock, they may fall into a deep melancholy from which it is hard to revive them. A traditional cure known on Tiree calls for a special concoction made from the thrift plant.

  • White Water Lily (Nymphae alba)

    This handsome flower is known by a variety of names throughout the Celtic regions, such as Duilleagbhaite bhan (the white leaf of drowning),  Ruamalach (beacon or warning), and Bobbins. It is found in still or slow moving water, where its large petals float in the current.

    The roots of this lily contain tannins that have long been used to produce a black or dark grey ink. The roots have also been used extensively in a variety of folk medicines. A tea was often made from the plant that was used to combat kidney and bladder problems.

    There is also a small, torn note in the Argyll papers at Inverary Castle that tells how the roots of this lily were cut and then boiled in vinegar. This concoction was then applied to corns for three days in an effort to remove them.

  • Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

    The legends and tales surrounding this plant could easily fill several books, as could instructions for the wide variety of uses to which it has been put. The heather has yielded up highly resilient dyes; extremely strong rope commonly used for thatching; a bedding material that retains its shape and provides a lovely scent; and a variety of folk remedies. White heather is often worn as a symbol of good luck in many Celtic regions – although in some parts of Scotland the white flower is considered bad luck. Many feel that the white heather is lucky because it escaped a terrible battle, which stained the majority of the heather red with blood, although each tale tends to have a different idea on whose blood was spilled.

    Heather has also been long used as a prime ingredient in an amazing beer. The flowers were boiled, strained, and added to a mixture of golden syrup, hops, yeast, and other ingredients. In fact, recent evidence at a Neolithic site on the Hebridean island of Rum indicates heather beer may have been brewed back then, making heather beer one of the oldest drinks around!

  • Pansy (Viola spp)

    A wide variety of pansies abound in Celtic regions, but the Mountain Pansy is perhaps the most wide-spread, appearing along the hills and cliffs of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In many areas the pansy is also known as the “Heartsease”. The origin of this nickname is a bit clouded. Many believe it was started because the pansy was a popular flower of early herbalists, being used in potions to combat diseases associated with the heart. Others believe the name arose because the varied colors of pansies scattered across the field brought a special smile to the face of lonely lovers, thereby bringing them ease while they were separated from one another.  This flower was also used by the Celts to brew a love potion.

    Another old Celtic tale tells the story of how the pansy came to have very little scent. At one time it was the most fragrant of flowers.  People came from all over to pick it, churning up the fields and frightening the livestock. The pansy saw the people were beginning to grow hungry, so it voluntarily gave up its lovely aroma to save the land for planting and herding.

  • St. John’s Wort (Hypericum spp)

    There are actually many different types of this plant, which has recently become popular as an herbal treatment for mild depression. While the name implies a connection with Saint John the Baptist, this is a fairly recent development.

    The ancient Celts used this plant in their Summer Solstice festivals. One way in which they used it was in divination, or telling the future. As their traditions were slowly subsumed with the advent of Christianity, the plant was renamed and was used to celebrate Saint John’s birthday – which coincidently enough was said to be June 24. Pretty close to the Summer Solstice, wouldn’t you say?

    In addition to being a symbol of summer, various parts of this plant were used in ancient medicines as cures for ailments ranging from tremors to battle wounds. Its yellow flowers were also used as a charm to ward off evil spirits.

  • Iris (Iridaceae spp)

    The majestic Yellow Iris is found in great numbers on the Hebrides, where it is one of the favorite haunts for the elusive bird, the corncrake. Several other types of iris are found throughout all the Celtic regions.

    As with many other plants that have three primary petals, the iris was viewed as a sacred plant by the early Celts, illustrating the trinity aspect of their primary goddess, Brigid. With the advent of Christianity, the early church changed this symbolism and the iris became a chief flower of Mary.

    An additional aspect of the flower which lent itself to symbolic treatment is the sword-shaped petals. Ancient designs have been found showing it was used as a heraldic device for thousands of years in different cultures, eventually becoming the famous symbol of France, the Fleur-de-lis.

  • Wild Basil (Calamintha Clinopodium)

    This straggling, leggy plant is quite common in Scotland and Wales, although somewhat more rare in Ireland. It has a rather thyme-like scent and has long been used in cooking to liven up an otherwise dull recipe.

    Aside from its many uses in culinary traditions, the spell-binding scent of Wild Basil has long made it a favorite aromatic herb. Spreading basil leaves about your house is an old technique for keeping out evil spirits, ghosts, goblins, and just plain bad feelings. It was often gathered into small bundles and hung in the kitchen, where it would protect the families’ food. (Not to mention, it would be pretty close at hand so you could cut off a few leaves for your soup.)

    Wild Basil has also played a role in many tinctures, including one that supposedly aided with digestion.  I imagine so…a little basil would help just about anything to go down well….

  • Chamomile (Anthemis Nobilis)

    In Scotland it is known as athair talamh, or “Father of the Ground”. It was considered a sort of “plant doctor” and it was believed that if you planted Chamomile near a plant that was unhealthy the sick plant would soon perk up. People also noticed that flies tend to stay away from Chamomile, so the flowers were considered a good deterrent for evil spirits.

    The idea of a calming cuppa of Chamomile tea also goes way, way back. This plant has long been revered for its relaxing qualities and was believed to ensure a restful night’s sleep devoid of nightmares. Tinctures of Chamomile were also used by the ancient Celts to heal wounds, relieve pain, and bring comfort to swollen joints.

    Due to its slightly apple-like scent, the Druids associated this plant with the sun and other life-giving forces. It therefore figured prominently in their traditions and festivals as a symbol of prosperity and life.

  • Clinquefoil (Peterntilla reptans)

    Regarded as a sign of spring, the Cinquefoil (or Five Fingered Grass as it is known in most Celtic regions) was used in Druidic ceremonies on the Vernal Equinox to welcome the new season.  Celtic people also used to cook and eat the roots of the plant, as well as use the leaves as a salad green.

    Five Fingered Grass is high in tannins, and therefore is quite astringent. It has long been mixed with honey and used as a reliever of sore throats and coughs. Some ancient recipes list it as a key ingredient in concoctions to battle infections and rash as well. Due to its “five fingered” arrangement, this plant also has a long association with witches, and is often mentioned in connection with various spells and magical potions – including one that will allow you to fly.

  • Irish Moss (Sagniga subulata) & Scotch Moss (Sagniga subulata “Aurea”)

    Neither Irish nor Scotch moss is a true moss. Rather, they are perennial plants, with roots and flowers. (True moss has neither.) Closely related, these “mosses” are popular ground covers and mulches in gardens.

    There is another plant out there called “Irish Moss”, though. It is a red seaweed and has the scientific name Chrondrus crispus. It is an excellent source of carrageen, which is a natural gelling agent. In Scotland, this seaweed has long been gathered and dried, then added to milk,  where it gels, creating a sort of thick pudding. This pudding could then be flavored with sugar, vinegar, lemon, cinnamon, or cocoa. In Ireland, a similar “pudding” saved the lives of thousands during the potato famine.

    Another, less desperate, recipe is to boil the dried seaweed, then freeze into ice cubes. You add these to your whiskey, slowing releasing the flavor.

  • Peat Moss (Sphagnum spp)

    What other plant has provided so much to the Celtic world? This simple plant has been used as bedding material for both humans and their livestock. It has protected valuables as a highly effective packing material. It has served as a major source of food for livestock, and even people in a pinch. Since dried peat moss can absorb 20 times its own weight in water (much more absorbent than cotton), it is an extremely efficient bandage. And of course, peat moss has a long history as a fuel source in several Celtic lands. In Ireland, the use of peat as fuel didn’t really take off until the island experienced massive deforestation in the 17th century. Until then, the use of native trees as a source of wood was far more common.

    An often overlooked value of plants is their role as habitat. Peat moss, along with the other plants usually found in bogs and fens, has provided food and shelter to a wide variety of animals that in turn provided food and clothing to our ancestors…as well as ourselves. It may not be as flashy as other plants, but we owe quite a bit to this simple moss.

  • Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

    Like the foxglove, the flowers of the Hollyhock were said to be a favorite of the Little People, used as body adornments and clothing.  Therefore, it was considered to be an invitation to trouble bringing the fresh flowers into your home.

    Because this plant tends to bloom later in the summer, the flowers were often used in Celtic harvest festivals, both fresh and dried. When the flowers are dried they turn to a deep black-purple hue.

    The Hollyhock is a member of the large mallow family of plants, and was used for the same purposes as many other mallows. The leaves can be boiled and used in stew, although the flavor is said to be less than palatable. It is also possible to extract a mucous-like substance from the stems which was used in many folk remedies to clear up congestion in the chest.

  • Ivy (Hedera helix)

    Thousands of years ago the ancient Greeks viewed Ivy as the principle plant of their god of wine, Dionysus. The Romans, as usual, liked the idea and decided the Ivy was also the symbol of their wine god, Bacchus. It was believed that a concoction of Ivy could make a person frenzied. Perhaps this is what led people to develop an alcoholic drink brewed from the plant.

    Throughout the Celtic lands, the idea that Ivy was connected to drinking and revelry was picked up and incorporated into local stories and decorations. It was a common sight to see tavern signs decorated with Ivy and many drinking vessels were carved from Ivy wood. Oddly enough it was also believed that drinking wine from an Ivy cup would slow down the effects of the alcohol and keep the drinker, at least somewhat, sober.

    Due to the fact that Ivy remains green throughout the winter, and its flowers have practically no scent, it was viewed by many Druidic traditions as a plant from the Otherworld.

  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)

    The oil from this plant has long been valued for its calming properties. The ancient Romans were particularly devoted to using it in their bath water, which explains how this plant from the Mediterranean area found its way to Celtic lands.

    In addition to its use as a fragrance, lavender was also used by ancient herbalists as a general sedative. In the Middle Ages the dried flowers were used to deter a variety of household pests, especially moths.

    In some areas Lavender was served at the table, as a condiment. It was especially popular at large feasts and festivals, as it tended to calm the stomach of people who may have over-indulged a bit on rich food.

  • Ferns

    Found throughout the Celtic lands, growing along the ground of cool and shady forests, ferns propagate by spreading very tiny spores upon the air. It is these nearly invisible seed-like specks to which most legends are attached, rather than the plants themselves.

    Because of their small size, the spores were rarely collected in large quantities and were therefore considered quite rare.  It was considered a real find if a person were able to collect a small handful of these precious seeds.

    It was thought that the spores captured the power of the winter sun, which led to their use in a variety of Winter Solstice rituals. As the days darkened and crops ceased to grow, the idea of bringing a bit of extra warmth into the home would be most welcome. In the summer time, their golden hue gave rise to the idea that they could be used to find hidden fairy treasure on Midsummer’s Eve.

  • Delphinium (delphinium ajacis)

    Also known as Larkspur, this plant is a native of the Mediterranean region and has a long history in Greek mythology. It derives its name from the Greek hero, Ajax, who fought in the battles before the gates of Troy. Following the death of his comrade, Achilles, Ajax lost his bid for the armor of that famous warrior. Instead, Achilles’ things went to Ulysses. Ajax was so overcome with rage that he went a bit mad, slaughtering an entire herd of sheep that he mistook for Trojan soldiers. Needless to say he was pretty embarrassed when he calmed down and decided that the only thing he could do know was take his own life. Where his blood spilled, the first Larkspur bloomed.

    Delphinium does have more prosaic properties than marking the death of crazy old heroes. It has been a popular, and very effective, delousing agent for several centuries. In fact, several units of Wellington’s army were provided with larkspur for just this purpose prior to the Battle of Waterloo.

  • Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

    The Marsh Marigold is actually not a true marigold (Calendula) and bears only a superficial resemblance to the popular garden flowers. However, it has a rich history in Celtic lore and is usually associated with spring-time festivals. In fact, on the Isle of Man it is known as “Lud y Voaldyn”, or “the herb of Beltane”.

    In Ireland it was combined with Rowan blossoms to garland hoops. From these hoops two balls were hung – one gold and one silver – to represent the sun and moon. These were then kept in the house during the month of May to protect the home from lightning, curses, and other assorted ills.

    An old herbalist remedy made of this plant’s juice was commonly applied to warts. Its use as a folk medicine was a bit risky though, as the leaves contain helleborin, which is toxic to humans.

  • Mints (Menthe spp)

    Most mints that we find today in Celtic lands are originally from the Mediterranean area – a more benign foreign import than the Legions that came with them. (Although you have to admit those Romans sure could build good roads.)

    It didn’t take the Celtic people long to realize these amazing herbs could be used to flavor their food, add a bit of zing to their drinks, sweeten the breath, dispel stuffy air after a long winter, and even perk up stale water.

    Mint was also quickly added to early medicine kits, as several varieties have antispasmodic properties, making them useful in calming many bowel and intestinal complaints. Other varieties have long been used in relieving pain and nausea.

  • Rose (Rosa spp)

    The contrast of its beautiful petals and lovely fragrance with a stem full of thorns has led the rose to become a symbol of love in adversity for many different cultures. This flower’s image has adorned graves, shields, and banners throughout Celtic lands since time immemorial.

    The rose was taken as a symbol of both the House of York (a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (which picked red) during the English War of the Roses. The white rose was later chosen as a standard by the Stuarts. In what became known as the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Highland troops adorned themselves and their banners with the white rose, showing their support for the Stuarts and “Bonnie Prince Charles”. This Scottish army was defeated at the bloody battle of Culloden, and their banners with the “white cockade” were torn and burned.

    For more information about the Jacobite Rebellion of ’45, be sure to visit the Jacobite tent here at the Arizona Highland Celtic Festival.

  • Sage (Salvia spp)

    Sage has long been used in the kitchen and as a medicine in its native Mediterranean area and was probably introduced into Celtic lands by the Roman Legions. As a culinary herb it has been added to a variety of recipes and is quite popular raw in many traditions.

    A popular way to use this herb as a medicine was to infuse it in boiling water, making a tea. This was used to calm the nerves, bring relief from headaches, end congestion, and just generally improve a person’s sense of well-being. The leaves were also often burned and the smoke was thought to rid an area of illness and evil.

    Along with holly and bayberries, sage was an important herb used in many Celtic festivals that occurred around the Winter Solstice.
  • Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

    This flower has an extremely strong scent and can be quite long-lasting. Some herbalists believe that its name is actually a corruption of the Greek word for “immortality”.

    While it doesn’t seem the tansy holds the secret to eternal youth, it has been put to good use for quite some time. Early on, people recognized that the tansy’s scent tended to keep household pests at bay and it has been strewn on the floors, hung in the rafters, stuffed into bedding, and even rubbed onto meat (before the advent of the glorious refrigerator) to discourage various vermin. It has also been used as a seasoning agent, especially in Ireland.

    With the advent of Christianity in Eire, folk began using the leaves to flavor Lent cakes, as the slightly bitter taste would remind the person eating it of Christ’s suffering.

  • Sweet Woodruff (Asperula odorata)

    Growing in the woods and along streams throughout Europe, this plant is different from most herbs in one important way: its scent can actually last for years if the plant is dried properly. It has long been used as a fragrance on its own, and today it figures prominently in many perfumes and colognes. Its long-lasting aroma is due to a chemical called coumarin.

    Many herders have favored sweet woodruff as forage for their beasts as its flavor is imparted to the animals’ milk. However, it has a tendency to develop a particular mold if it is too wet, and this mold produces an anticoagulant that can lead some animals to hemorrhage.

    In some Celtic regions the dried leaves of this plant was also used to bind wounds.  While the plant can cause excessive bleeding when it develops a mold, when it is dried properly it is said to have quickened the healing of cuts and scrapes.

  • Woodworm (Artemisia absinthium)

    Wormwood has long been used as an important medical herb throughout Europe and the Middle East. It was considered an essential part of any ancient “medicine cabinet” and was used to stimulate appetite, treat kidney stones, eliminate intestinal worms, and clean up infected wounds. Additionally, it was widely used as a compress for swollen joints and as an antidote to many poisons and even drunkenness.

    Stewing the herb was a popular method of ridding a house of foul odors and pests. This would explain why it is partly named after the Greek goddess of the moon and magic, Artemis, who was also the sister of the Greek god of medicine.

    This herb ended up developing a more sinister reputation in the 1800s. The reason is that it is one of the main ingredients in the liquor absinthe. So many cases of blindness and insanity were linked to this drink that it was eventually banned in the United States. 

  • European Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

    This tree is more commonly known as the Rowan tree, and has long held a special place in the hearts of Celtic people.  The wood is considered to offer the most powerful protection against enchantments. Wreaths of it were hung in the home to guard against evil, and sprigs were attached to the tops of pens to protect livestock. It was also a popular wood for making staffs as well as dowsing rods. In many Celtic societies there was a belief in a very dark spell called the “Cauldron of Rebirth” which brought dead soldiers back to a sort of half-life. The only way to kill these zombies was to run them through with a stake of Rowan.

    The Rowan’s berries ripen in winter, and while they are poisonous to people, they are a principal food source for birds. Celtic hunters could be pretty sure of bringing home some meat for their clans by visiting these trees during the darkest, hungriest months of the year.

    The Rowan is the second letter (Luis) of the Ogham Alphabet.
  • Juniper (Juniperus communis)

    While the Common Juniper is not represented in the Ogham Alphabet, it did play a substantial role in the daily life of Celtic people. The oil produced from the tree’s berries was highly prized as a medicine and for flavoring. It was also used by the Druids in a special potion to induce visions.

    Juniper oil has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. In very small doses it once served to combat a variety of kidney and urinary complaints.  This is a rather risky medicine though, as too much of this oil can cause serious damage to the kidneys. It was also widely used to clean cuts and wounds.

    This will not come as a surprise to many in Northern Arizona, but the Celts also used Juniper as a favored wood for fires and cured their meat with its smoke. In addition to imparting a wonderful flavor to their food, the smoke was believed to repel evil spirits.

  • Apple (Malus sylvestris)

    The dizzying array of apples you see at the grocery store are all descended from the wild apple. Anthropological evidence shows that this wonderful fruit has been cultivated in the British Isles since as far back as 3000BC, and it has played a large role in Celtic legend and everyday life. To the ancient Druids, the fruit was considered to be the ultimate food and filled with life-giving energy. The Celts of Wales actually referred to it as “the noblest of all trees.” Many scholars also believe that “Avalon” actually means “The Place of Apples”.

    The technique of making hard cider stretches back millennia, and some believe apple cider may be one of the earliest alcoholic drinks.    But in Brittany, Galicia, Cornwall, and Asturias the art of fermenting the apple reached its glorious apex. Don’t take my word for it: here at the Northern Arizona Celtic Festival you can try some for yourself!

    The Apple tree is represented by the tenth letter (Ceirt) in the Ogham Alphabet.

  • Birch (Betula spp)

    At one time Birch and Scots Pine forests covered most of the British Isles. The Birch tree is an early colonizer of disturbed land, and was probably one of the first trees to become re-established as the ice sheets retreated.

    Because the Birch is one of the first trees to put on new leaves in the spring, it took on a special significance to the early Celts. It was considered a “maiden tree” which heralded the return of life after the long, dark winter. Birch twigs were commonly used to light the traditional fires of Beltane celebrations, welcoming the arrival of summer.

    The bark and wood of this tree have long provided us with an excellent raw material for roofs, baskets, boats, and tools to name a few. The sawdust was very effective in smoking fish.

    The Birch is the first tree (Beith) represented in the Ogham Alphabet.

  • Willow (Salix spp)

    In Celtic mythology the Willow was closely associated with Brigit, the young maiden aspect of their triple-goddess. In the spring, Cailleach (the crone aspect of the triple-goddess) would come forth from her winter abode and drink from a magical well by the Willow. She would transform once again to a maiden and life would return to the land.

    This tree has a long association with magic, dreams, and enchantment. It was said that witches preferred binding birch twigs to an ash handle with willow to make their brooms.

    The bark of the White Willow (Salix alba) has long been used as a pain reliever and fever reducer, as it contains salicin. This chemical is synthesized into salicylic acid in the body, which is closely related to aspirin.

    The Willow is represented by the fourth letter (Sail) of the Ogham Alphabet.

  • Pine (Pinus spp)

    One of the most prevalent trees in the sprawling forest that covered the British Isles after the last Ice Age was the Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris). This towering tree produced a wood that was both strong and easily worked and provided early artisans with their principle source of wood. It is also the source of turpentine and its resin has long been used as a preservative.  From the bark a very strong rope was made. After all the other parts of the tree had been used, its final gift was a long-burning charcoal.

    These forests have disappeared, especially from Scotland, for a variety of reasons. But one of them was large scale clear-cutting following the defeat of the Jacobin forces at Culloden. Sympathizers of the Jacobin cause, even in England, would often plant a small Scots Pine near their farms as a symbol of their support.

    For some unknown reason, no pines were represented in the Ogham Alphabet.

  • Dogwood (Cornus spp)

    Two Dogwood species native to the Celtic lands are the Bloodtwig (C. sanguinea) and Cornelian Cherry (C. mas). The Bloodtwig’s name refers to dark red stems. The Cornelian Cherry does produce a small fruit which has long been used in jams, preserves, and even wine.

    The wood of these trees is incredibly hard, which is illustrated by their Latin name, Cornus, which means “horn”. This fact has led to Dogwood’s being used to make a wide variety of tools, from pegs and wheel spokes to hoes and ax handles. In fact the name “dogwood” actually derives from the old Gaelic daga, which means “a pointed tool”.  Additionally, Celtic people used the flowers of this tree to create a yellow dye.

    Dogwood tends to be an aggressive colonizer and will quickly move into disturbed areas. The sprawling, dense thickets it creates make a difficult barrier to people (which is why it is still a popular hedge plant) but is terrific shelter for a variety of game animals.

  • Brambles (Rubus spp)

    Many are the legends of a Celtic hero being trapped by a magical bramble patch, the gnarled vines grasping his arms and legs like talons. As any farmer or gardener who has tried to remove these wild plants can attest, no magic is really needed to make them a real pain. But once the fruit ripens – what bliss!

    In Celtic regions the most common brambles are the Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus), Raspberry (Rubus idaeus), and Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). The fruits of all three have long been used to make an amazing variety of wines, jams, and preserves. They have also served as medicines: their roots are very astringent and have served to alleviate diarrhea and dysentery; chewing of Blackberry leaves was thought to heal bleeding gums; and boiled Raspberries were mixed with mint and served to people recovering from jaundice.

    Brambles represent the eleventh letter (Muin) of the Ogham Alphabet.

  • The OGHAM or Celtic Tree Alphabet

    The Ogham (OH-yam) alphabet is an interesting study, but sometimes it is hard to tell where scientific knowledge ends and mythology (both ancient and modern) begins. What we do know is that a system of writing was developed in Celtic areas and recorded on a series of stones. Many of these stones are grave and boundary markings. There have been nearly 400 discovered so far, most in Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, and Wales, although a few have been found in Italy and Spain as well. The “consonant letters” in this alphabet may be one to five vertical or angled lines, while “vowel letters” are usually a combination of dots.

    Each letter in this alphabet is named after a tree, so that the first letter is Beith/Beth (Birch), the second Luis (Rowan), the third Fern (Alder), and so on. Many times you will see this alphabet referred to as the “Beth-Luis-Fern” alphabet, just like we call ours the “ABCs”.  The term “Ogham Alphabet” was coined because in Celtic legends it was their god of eloquence, Ogma, who gave his people the gift of this writing.

    The majority of examples we have today of this writing date back to the early Christian era, although many Celtic scholars believe it was in use long before then. There is some evidence to suggest that Celtic Bards inscribed their tales on Poet’s Staffs using this script, and several ancient Celtic myths tell of Bards hiding or destroying their staffs so the tales would not fall into the wrong hands.

    An interesting puzzle is that not all of the twenty trees used in the Ogham are to be found in the Celtic lands of the British Isles. Curtis Clark ( has done some interesting studies on this, and believes that the alphabet actually originated in the Rhine River valley, which is considered to be the Celt’s ancestral home.