I’d like to tell you about my new book, ‘Britain’s Trees: A Treasury of Traditions, Superstitions, Remedies and Literature‘. It was published by The National Trust on 5th March 2020.
Focusing on 40 or so of our most familiar tree species, I explain a little bit about their natural history and distribution, and then go on to describe some of the traditional beliefs and customs associated with them.
Some of the uses of our native trees stretch right back to the first human occupation of our islands; and some, amazingly, are still practised today. One of the trees that lent itself first to human hands was, to my delight, the hazel. Over the millennia, as cultures changed and evolved, trees were woven into the tapestry of our daily life. Wassailers and ‘rough bands’, maypoles and mazers… through our age-old ceremonies and artefacts we have a connection with trees that is so deep it runs through our veins, and it deserves to be upheld and celebrated.
“This book is a brilliant record of old remedies, folklore and history of wooded places in the UK.”
— Zakiya Mckenzie, BBC Wildlife magazine
The healing properties of trees were recognised and honoured by our ancestors, whose wisdom was passed down by word of mouth and later in the manuscripts of herbalists. Some of the instructions bear some relation to modern science, while others veer towards superstition and sorcery. Flowers, nuts and fruit have long been gathered and preserved for all kinds of culinary purposes, or distilled into delicious drinks that would bring warmth and cheer in the winter months.
There’s a literary element as well: I’ve looked at the works of a wide range of poets, novelists, playwrights and natural history writers to see how they were inspired to craft their words and their stories around our much-loved trees. They were keen and eloquent observers, often drawing on an intimate knowledge that came from living and working in the countryside.
Trees have been seen as portals to the underworld; as the abode of witches and fairies; as places for celebration and sorrowing; as diviners of the future and guardians of the past. If you were looking to drive out malevolent spirits, repel serpents, or make absolutely sure that a murderer didn’t rise again from the grave, it was helpful to know which wood to use, either as a broom, a rod, or a stake. And which branches could be brought inside at seasonal festivals, and which should never be brought inside at all? Which woods could be burned, and which avoided? Knowing the properties of trees assured the prosperity and wellbeing of a household, and even the fortune of warriors in battle.
Quite often, I’ve seen the character of a tree emerging from an apparently diverse and random collection of remedies, literary references and old country traditions. It’s convinced me that trees really do have their own identity, and I think this is what, in former times, people instinctively knew and understood. I’ve learned so much, and it has opened my eyes to trees in a wonderful new way.
Dotted throughout the book are vignettes of individual ancient trees with an extraordinary tale to tell. Many of them have witnessed key moments in Britain’s history, and most have survived to an astonishing age, standing as a tangible, living connection with generations past.
Info and ordering
‘Britain’s Trees’ is illustrated by Louise Morgan, who captures the character and habit of each tree in her lively paintings. It is hardback, with 240 pages and 80 colour illustrations.
It’s available from The National Trust, both online and in their shops. You can also find it at Amazon, Waterstones, and most other bookshops. Customers in the US can purchase a copy via Amazon and Rizzoli.
Thank you for your support and interest!