Things I’ve been in love with – Lilacs and Ivor Novello.

Way back in a part of the sixties that wasn’t the Beatles or Flower Power, I fell in love with the Lilacs.

At the time I was living and working in a large country house in the South East of England.

Everything was new and fresh for me – the girl from the West Midlands who was just beginning to explore what might be out there! Of yes we had Lilacs in Walsall. But nothing like these great luxuriant trees.

I can remember standing by an open window in the early evening with a glass of wine in my hand. There had been a shower of rain. The deep scent of the earth and the smell of Lilacs filled the air. Somewhere in the back ground someone was playing an Ivor Novello song on a piano.

I’ve loved Ivor Novello ever since and I’ve always loved Lilacs.

And here is a rather lovely version of that famous song from Alexander Duliba, a classically trained baritone trying to make his mark in the world of Opera.

Beautiful Trees – The Gingko

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Buddhist monks in the mountains of south-east China have long cultivated gingko trees in the courtyards of their monasteries. Some trees planted at temples are believed to be over 1,500 years old. The gingko trees were valued for their medicinal uses, edible seeds, and perhaps their beauty.  In about 800 AD, the monks brought the gingko with them to Japan where many years later the tree was first seen by a European, the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer.

Also known as maidenhair tree, the Gingko is the oldest species of tree on earth today; it’s been around since the days of the dinosaur. The Gingko is immune to the effects of most diseases and parasites

For thousands of years the Chinese have used ginkgo leaves to treat disorders associated with aging. Today numerous scientific studies appear to have shown that Ginkgo does indeed help to slow memory loss in those suffering from Alzheimer’s, multi-infarct dementia (MID), and age-associated memory impairment (AAMI). Some studies suggest that ginkgo may even help reverse the effects of these illnesses to some extent.

Beautiful Trees – The Wonderful Willow

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There around 400 forms of Salix – deciduous trees and shrubs found on  moist soils in cold and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.  The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fever, and the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about its medicinal properties in the 5th century BC.  Native Americans across the American continent relied on it as a staple of their medical treatments. This is because Willows contain salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin.  Willows all have abundant watery sap; bark which is heavily charged with the salicylic acid; soft, usually pliant, tough wood; slender branches; and large, fibrous roots.

Willow wood is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of things – boxes, brooms and particularly cricket bats!  But, it is also used for wands – Willow is one of the nine sacred trees mentioned in Wicca and witchcraft, with several magical uses. In the Wiccan Rede, it is described as growing by water and guiding the dead into the “Summerland”, a commonly used term in Wicca to refer to the afterlife.

Willow has many uses in agriculture and has an emerging role in ecology.  But its the Willow’s role in religion, in  folklore and in fiction, including Shakespeare, that is fascinating! It is one of the “Four Species” used in a ceremony on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.    Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called Under the Willow Tree (1853) in which children ask questions of a tree they call willow-father, paired with another entity called elder-mother. Green Willow is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. And as we all know from Harry Potter, there is an old tree on the school grounds of Hogwarts called the “Whomping Willow”. It was planted in order to conceal a secret passageway that Professor Remus Lupin roamed through every full moon when he began his transformation into a werewolf.

Here’s to the wonderful Willow!

Beautiful Trees – The Rowan Tree

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The European rowan (S. aucuparia) has a long tradition in European mythology and folklore. It was thought to be a magical tree and protection against malevolent beings.

The name “rowan” is derived from the Old Norse name for the tree, raun. Linguists believe that the Norse name is ultimately derived from a proto-Germanic word *raudnian meaning “getting red” and which referred to the red foliage and red berries in the autumn. Rowan is one of the most familiar wild trees in the British Isles, and has acquired numerous English folk names, for example, Mountain ash, Quickbane, Whispering tree, Witch wood and Witchbane,   Many of these can be easily linked to the mythology and folklore surrounding the tree. In Gaelic, it is caoran, or Rudha-an (red one, pronounced quite similarly to English “rowan”).

The density of the rowan wood makes it very usable for walking sticks and magician’s staves. This is why druid staffs are said, for example, traditionally, to have  been made out of rowan wood, and its branches were often used in dowsing rods and magic wands.  Rowan was carried on vessels to avoid storms, kept in houses to guard against lightning, and even planted on graves to keep the deceased from haunting. It was also used to protect one from witches.

Often birds’ droppings contain rowan seeds, and if such droppings land in a fork or hole where old leaves have accumulated on a larger tree, such as an oak or a maple, they may result in a rowan growing as an epiphyte on the larger tree. Such a rowan is called a “flying rowan” and was thought of as especially potent against witches and their magic, and as a counter-charm.

In Finland and Sweden, the number of berries on the trees was used as a predictor of the snow cover during winter.

This tree carries a heavy load of folklore but above all it is a truly beautiful tree.

Beautiful Trees – the English Oak

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Quercus robur –  the English oak – is synonymous with strength, size and longevity. Despite its apparently random method of reproduction, oaks can grow to well over 30m and can live in excess of 1,000 years.

This deciduous broadleaf tree grows in Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and the Caucasus. Of the species of tree native to Britain, the English or pedunculate oak is probably the most well-known and best-loved. This king of the forest can live for more than a millennium according to some sources, and grow up to 40m (125ft). Mature specimens are usually home to many species of wildlife.  Quercus robur is named for its robust or sturdy nature and since iron tools were first made, people have been cutting down this mighty tree for its strong and durable timber. It can take as long as 150 years before an oak is ready to be used for construction purposes but it is well worth the wait.

Until the middle of the 19th century when iron became the material of choice for building ships, thousands upon thousands of oaks were felled every year. It was estimated that it took 2,000 trees to make a single ship, and eventually laws were passed to protect the oak.

For such a huge, long-living and widespread tree, the oak is surprisingly bad at reproducing naturally. Firstly, it can take a full 50 years before the tree has its first crop of acorns, the seed of the oak. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of acorns it drops are eaten by animals or simply rot. And so it is left to forgetful squirrels or jays to bury them for future consumption for the lifecycle of this giant of the countryside to continue.