Between the Rows: Trees offer benefits galore, plus interesting myths

  • Oaks line College Drive leading up to Greenfield Community College. The first trees that sprouted 390 million years ago bore little resemblance to modern trees, particularly in terms of height. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman


For the Recorder
Published: 1/11/2019 3:51:49 PM

The history of trees dates back to around 390 million years ago, starting in what is called the Middle-Late Devonian Period. But those ancestors to the trees in our woods bore little resemblance to what we’re familiar with today.

Back then, trees were small, but they did meet the definition allotted to trees by scientists, who describe them as plants with a single stem that can attain larger heights because they have specialized cells.

Nowadays, we know how big the family of trees has become, and how big the trees themselves have become. As recently as 2006, a coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, was discovered growing in Redwood National Park in California by two naturalists, Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. That newly discovered tree was measured at 379.7 feet. It was forest ecologist Steve Sillett who climbed to the top of the tree and dropped a very long tape measure to the ground.

In ancient times, when people depended on agriculture and the forests for sustenance and shelter, they knew the names of the different trees. They created relationships between trees. The Celts considered that the oak, ash and thorn made up a sacred trio with powers to heal.

The oak is a magnificent large tree that the ancients held in high regard, associating it with the most powerful sacred gods like Zeus and Jupiter. Thor, a Norse god, was related to lightning storms, strength and the oak.

People in those days believed the oak’s magic powers could bring them good luck, financial success and fertility. They certainly appreciated the practical ways that the oak could be used for construction and firewood. The acorns could be used to feed pigs, and different groups used oak bark medicinally to improve digestion and to treat colds, coughs, fever and arthritis. They also used oak to make compresses or add oak bark to water to soothe pain. Today, there are 58 species of oaks native to North America.

The ash tree is the second in the sacred trio. In Norse mythology, the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, which held the nine elements of the cosmos, is referred to as an ash. This tree supports all creatures and represents the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth — the forces that make up life’s journey.

The ancients used ash leaves to make a tea as a diuretic and as a laxative, as well as infusions to treat gout, jaundice and other ailments.

I also read that unicorns were fond of ash trees. I found instructions on how to catch sight of a unicorn. Just carrying ash wood or leaves might do the trick, or you might lie in a bed of ash leaves, cover yourself and wait for the unicorn. It’s clear to me that these instructions would require great patience.

Massachusetts has its share of ash trees. My husband and I had a row of ash trees on the road to our house in Heath. We saw lightning scars on their bark, proving their power to attract lightning. As a practical note, both ash and thorn make good, hot, burning firewood.

Finally, the third of the sacred circle: the thorn. We use the full name, hawthorn. This tree, Crataegus, is known for its large sharp thorns. However, Crataegus viridis, the green hawthorn, has few thorns. You can see these thornless trees locally at Energy Park in Greenfield.

The Greeks and Romans associated the hawthorn with weddings and babies. Brides and their attendants carried hawthorn blossoms. These trees were often planted by holy and healing wells in England. Homeopaths also consider the hawthorn to be a powerful medicine and use it for heart tonics.

There are many ancient stories about the trees that are familiar to us, like the oak, ash and thorn. However, when we talk about trees today, we talk about their beauty and value to the environment.

Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. In forests, tree roots help rain to seep into the ground where the water is taken up into the tree, then the trees release that filtered water as vapor and oxygen. Trees also cool our neighborhoods and cities because of the shade they throw, and because their transpiration of water cools the air.

We can also plan our gardens so that trees will throw their cooling shade on our houses, necessitating less air conditioning.

During our first winter in Heath, the heavy snows blew and fell onto our road, sometimes making it impassable, even for the town plows. So during our first spring, we began to plant our windbreak. We planted several varieties of conifers in three staggered rows alongside the road to catch the snow. The town crew appreciated it.

Since my husband and I moved to Greenfield, we have borrowed shade from the majestic oak, maple and sycamore that grow on our neighbors’ property. We even benefit from the fallen autumn leaves. Mulch! Compost! Trees give us many benefits.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website:


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