Friday, August 17, 2007

My dad's allotment...

... is producing a lot more food than our field! The difference between the valley bottom and the hill top is phenomenal, from a plant-growing POV. This is what he brought for us this week:

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The rhododendron

My next-door neighbour has just taken delivery of 50 rhododendron bushes, which are going to become a part of our lives here because they're going in his field, through which we walk to get to ours. So today I'm researching this plant and blogging my results here.

From Wikipedia, "Rhododendron (from the Greek: rhodos, "rose", and dendron, "tree") is a genus of flowering plants in the family Ericaceae. It is a large genus with over 1000 species and most have showy flower displays. It includes the plants known to gardeners as azaleas."

Rhododendrons are acidic soil-loving plants, so they'll be quite comfortable here on our Millstone Grit.

Medicinally, they're used in the homoeopathic remedy Rhododendron, which is mainly used to treat rheumatism and gout. Constitutionally, the patients responding well to this remedy are hypersentitive to thunderstorms.

According to Richard Thomas's review of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare, in the Ancient World, by Adrienne Mayor:

...both Xenophon's and Pompey's soldiers .. encountered the naturally toxic honey native to the region of Pontus, the product of the concentrated toxins in the rhododendron plants of the region. While the idea of hallucinogenic honey sounds funny, even modest amounts of the honey could cause powerful hallucinations and painful death. Twice in ancient history, the local population remained silent about the deadly honeycombs, waiting for the hungry soldiers to forage to their own demise among the rhododendrons.

A flower essence remedy can be made from the plant, "For those who lack flexibility and keep trying to push through blind alleys."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Yew

My next-door neighbour has just taken delivery of 50 yew trees, which are going to become a part of our lives here because they're going in his field, through which we walk to get to ours. So today I'm researching this plant and blogging my results here.

yew n. 1 any dark-leaved evergreen coniferous tree of the genus Taxus, having seeds enclosed in a fleshy red aril, and often planted in churchyards. 2 its wood, used formerly as a material for bows and still in cabinet-making [OE iw, eow f. Gmc]

The leaves, seed and fruit are poisonous.

From my Modern Herbal, by Mrs M Grieve FRHS:

A tree 40 to 50 feet high, forming with age a very stout trunk covered with red-brown, peeling bark and topped with a rounded or wide-spreading head of branches; leaves spirally attached to twigs, but by twisting of the stalks brought more or less into two opposed ranks, dark, glossy, almost black-green above, grey, pale-green or yellowish beneath, 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches long, 1/16 to 1/12 inch wide. Flowers unisexual, with the sexes invariably on different trees, produced in spring from the leaf axils of the preceding summer's twigs. Male, a globose cluster of stamens; female, an ovule surrounded by small bracts, the so-called fruit bright red, sometimes yellow, juicy and encloses the seed.

No tree is more associated with the history and legends of Great Britain than the Yew. Before Christianity was introduced it was a sacred tree favoured by the Druids, who built their temples near these trees - a custom followed by the early Christians. The association of the tree with places of worship still prevails.

Many cases of poisoning amongst cattle have resulted from eating parts of the Yew.

---Constituents---The fruit and seeds seem to be the most poisonous parts of the tree. An alkaloid taxine has been obtained from the seeds; this is a poisonous, white, crystalline powder, only slightly soluble in water; another principle, Milossin, has also been found.

---Uses---The wood was formerly much valued in archery for the making of long bows. The wood is said to resist the action of water and is very hard, and, before the use of iron became general, was greatly valued.

And from The Druid Network's Notes on the Yew by Geoff Boswell:

The Yew : Taxus baccata
As honoured by The Druidic Order of The Yew

The yew tree played an important role in the formation of human culture and consciousness. It provided wood for shelter, tools and weapons, foliage and bark for every medicine bag. Its greatest influence on culture, however, was its myriad spiritual associations with the goddess, the grave, afterlife and immortality. Although the yew tree was revered in nearly every culture of the northern temperate zones, yew trees were destroyed for their utility. Gone from Greece and Rome by the time of Christ, gone from Europe by the 17th century. Today, the remnants are threatened throughout the world because yew bark and foliage provide taxol, the most promising new anti-cancer drug in 30 years. In yew's modern dilemma there is a lesson for all of us to consider as we contemplate our own earthly survival....

... And this essay contains a lot more fascinating information about the yew's name and distribution, longevity, its connection with Druids...

The yew tree is held sacred by the Druids because of its symbolism of death and rebirth. The yew tree's branches grow into the ground. Thus when the central trunk dies, the tree lives on, as the branches become trees. It symbolizes transformation, great age, and reincarnation. Yew wood is good in any rituals that use the preceding symbolism. Yew holds and conducts energy very well, and yew is a good shield for magical energies that directly hit the wood is reflected...

... its long history and uses:

Because it is a slow-growing tree, it has a tight-grained wood, tough and resilient, used in the past for spears, spikes, dagger handles, staves, and its elasticity made it excellent for small hunting bows and eventually the famous longbows of the Middle Ages. The arrows were tipped with poison made from the Yew...

Its association with churchyards:

The Yew is sacred to the goddess Hecate, and the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess; both are guardians of the Underworld, death and the afterlife. A lot of our ancient Yews are found in churchyards but there is no doubt that they were there before the churches were built. Many churches and churchyards once stood in a circle of Yews, which were probably a legacy of the Druids' sacred groves.

... and its connections with shamanism, magic, the Celtic Ogham, death and rebirth, remedies and dowsing and propogation, amongst other things:

Shamanism and Magic

The Yew is considered to be the most potent tree for protection against evil, a means of connecting to your ancestors, a bringer of dreams and Otherworld journeys and a symbol of the old magic. In hot weather it gives off a resinous vapour, which shamans inhaled to gain visions. Yew wood was regarded as especially magical to the Celts, due to its connection with the dead and the ancestors, which were deeply respected. Archaeologists have recently found well-preserved Yew woodcarvings at ancient sites of springs and wells that were probably votive offerings. Yew would have been idea for this purpose, as it was already magically associated with the Goddess and the Gods. It was the most durable wood of the European forest, and more practically it is said to sink, as it is a dense and heavy wood. It is fairly easy to carve and the most beautiful of our native woods, a deep golden orange, with a deep red core which polishes up well. It was used in the past for making wheels and cogs, spoons, handles, bowls and any turned items, and the body of the lute, but it is a perfect wood to use for sacred carvings. It should be noted, though, that even the dust produced from sanding Yew wood is poisonous, and great care should be taken where you work and how you work.

The Yew and Tree Ogham

The Yew tree is the last of the 20 trees in the Tree Ogham, a Celtic system in which the Druids encoded their wisdom. Each spiritual insight is represented by a tree, the first letter of which creates an alphabet system. Each letter is written as a line on, or crossing, a central stem line. These symbols can be found on the edges of some standing stones in Ireland and Wales, but they were probably, for magical and communication purposes, carved on staves of Yew. It was used as a silent communication system by the Druids, and is recorded in some medieval manuscripts. The place of Yew, or Ioho, I, was at the base of the Mercury finger (the little finger) at the line which separates it from the palm. The connection of the Mercury finger with the Yew is made by Mercury's conducting of souls to the place presided over by the death Goddess, Hecate, alias Maia, this mother, to who the Yew was sacred. The Ogham symbol could also be communicated silently by using the shinbone as the central stem line and laying five fingers horizontally across it.

The Yew tree, or Yew wood, the Tree ogham Ioho, is the link to spiritual guidance through your ancestors, guides and guardians in the Otherworld. The Yew is here to remind us that there are other levels of existence beyond this material plane. By understanding the illusionary nature of the life we have created for ourselves, we can live our lives more consciously. Often death is fraught with a sense of loss, but the Yew can teach us to see death as a form of transformation and that it is never final.

The Yew, Death and Rebirth

The knowledge we gain from the Yew makes it an extremely important tree for healing. It can help us overcome our fear of our own death and, by freeing us from this fear, bring us a greater stillness in our lives. Death heralds the ending of something. It may be a physical death, or the death of our old selves, an old way of life or an old way of looking at things. Each end, each death, is a new beginning, hope, future and transformation. Sometimes things need to end or die before the new can begin, and understanding rebirth always requires seeing beyond our limitations.

The Yew can be used to assist Otherworld journeys and to increase openness of communication with the Otherworld, through an increased ability to understand and receive the messages, which are being given to us by our guides and helpers. By opening ourselves to intuitively interpreting these messages, and trusting our intuitions to act on what we receive, we can make some real progress as the wheel turns and the death of one situation heralds the birth of another.

Magically the Yew is used for summoning spirits and any Otherworld communication. It is linked to Samhain, when entry to the Otherworld is easiest, dreams are most potent and access to the ancestors is most possible. The Yew is linked to the runes yr and eolh, both ruled by Jupiter and the positive benefits of transformation. According to a modern encyclopaedia of magical herbs, the Yew is feminine, its element is water and its planet is Saturn. However it seems to me that Pluto would be a much more appropriate planet as it is the planet of death and change, transformation and rebirth. The Yew also connects through Samhain and the water element, to Scorpio, ruled by Pluto.

Remedies and Dowsing

Because the Yew is poisonous, there are no herbal remedies, although it was sometimes called the forbidden tree as it was used to stimulate abortions. In the north, the Yew was used for dowsing to find lost property (enlisting the help of the ancestors?). The seeker held a Yew branch in front of him or her, which led them to the goods, and turned his hand when he was near them. A strange belief in the north of Scotland concerning the Yew was that a person, when grasping a branch of Yew in the left hand, may speak to anyone he pleases without that person being able to hear, even though everyone else present can. This may have been useful if someone wished to prejudice the clan against a chief without receiving punishment for his insults.


A friend of mine's personal "crusade" is Yew trees, and planting as many as possible along the great Michael and Mary leylines which run from St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, up through Glastonbury, Avebury, Bury St Edmunds and ending at Hopton on the Norfolk coast. Yew trees can be propagated through cuttings, seed, graftings or layering. It is also possible to find small trees growing near bigger trees, which transplant well. They prefer a moist, fertile, sandy loam soil, but will grow well in most soils except waterlogged ground or sticky wet clay. They also grow well on chalk. They resist pollution and can flourish in the shade of taller trees, but little will grow in the shade they themselves cast.

Yew has been found to be beneficial in propagating other species. Cuttings soaked in an infusion of crushed Yew and water produce quicker and healthier root growth, though I have not tried it myself. Cuttings of Yew taken from lateral branches generally produce shrub-like plants, while those from erect topward branches are more likely to produce a tree...

According to the Plants for A Future database:

All parts of the plant, except the fleshy fruit, are antispasmodic, cardiotonic, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, narcotic and purgative. The leaves have been used internally in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, hiccup, indigestion, rheumatism and epilepsy. Externally, the leaves have been used in a steam bath as a treatment for rheumatism. A homeopathic remedy is made from the young shoots and the berries. It is used in the treatment of many diseases including cystitis, eruptions, headaches, heart and kidney problems, rheumatism etc.

Very tolerant of trimming, this plant makes an excellent hedge. The plants are often used in topiary and even when fairly old, the trees can be cut back into old wood and will resprout. One report says that trees up to 1000 years old respond well to trimming. A decoction of the leaves is used as an insecticide. Some cultivars can be grown as a ground cover when planted about 1 metre or more apart each way. Wood - heavy, hard, durable, elastic, takes a good polish but requires long seasoning. Highly esteemed by cabinet makers, it is also used for bows, tool handles etc. It makes a good firewood. The wood is burnt as an incense.

According to Wikipedia:

a passage by Caesar narrates that Catuvolcus, chief of the Eburones, literally "farmers of the yew", poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome (Gallic Wars 6: 31). Similarly, Florus notes that when the Cantabrians were under siege by the legate Gaius Furnius in 22 BC, most of them took their lives either by the sword or by fire or by a poison extracted ex arboribus taxeis, that is, from the yew tree (2: 33, 50-51). In a similar way, Orosius notes that when the Astures were besieged at Mons Medullius, they preferred to die by their own swords or by the yew tree poison rather than surrender (6, 21, 1.).


In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Beleg Strongbow uses a bow made of yew.

In Tolkien's The Hobbit, the eagle king complains of the men of Wilderland using bows made of yew to shoot at his people.

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Voldemort uses a wand made of yew.

In Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, both the wizard Ged and the Master Summoner carry staves of yew.

The murderer in Agatha Christie's mystery A Pocket Full of Rye uses taxine (taxol), a poison derived from yew, to kill the victim. The victim lives at Yewtree Lodge.

These 50 trees will be very interesting for us to live with then, I'm sure.