Sláinte! Irish Tree Tales

Ireland’s Trees: Top Left: Rostrevor, Co. Down. Top Right: Connemara, Co. Galway.

By Edythe Preet, Contributor
August / September 2006

From space, Earth resembles a big beautiful marble with swirling patterns of blue (oceans), white (clouds), and green (trees).  As global warming makes weekly headlines, we are warned of the dire future we face should the delicate balance between the three become irreparably compromised. In a worst case scenario, plants would disappear.

In 1657AD, the English scholar William Coates wrote: “Trees are a subject as ancient as creation; yea more ancient than the Sunne or Moon or Stars, they being cre- ated on the fourth daie whereas Plantes were third.” Coates wasn’t far off the mark. The appearance of land plants was the third evolutionary stage of our lovely green planet.

Much of the scientific community theorizes that humans settled on grasslands to facilitate gathering wild grains, but Dr. Michael Rosenburg at the University of Delaware offers another possibility. Hunter-gatherers may have made their first homes among forests that provided predictable nut harvests. Discoveries at the world’ s oldest village, Hallan Cemi, in Turkey’ s eastern highlands, indicate that 10,000 years ago life there revolved around harvesting wild nuts.  The timing predates grain-based settlements by a few hundred years.  Skeptics scoff at such a minute blip on the evolutionary clock and question the need to determine whether it was nuts or grain that inspired humanity to settle down. Rosenburg holds that giving up tracking a migrating food supply was a bold decision that early humans would have made only if a sure food source lay at hand.

Nuts have always been important foods for folk the world over. Australian aborigines foraged for macadamias. Coconuts were a dietary mainstay for South Pacific islanders. Amazonians gathered cashews. Native Americans harvested butternuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts, and pecans. Europe’ s forests yielded white walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and chestnuts. In Ireland, the hazelnut reigned supreme.

As one of very few living things that can survive beyond a human lifespan, trees figure prominently in world folklore. Most cultures have some story concerning the Tree of Life, but with legends, lore, myths, and mysteries for every tree found on their small island, the Irish get the Tree Tales blue ribbon.  Druids prized the Oak for its ability  to withstand a lightening strike; mighty and majestic, it symbolized kingship.  While Ireland’s great oak forests were felled to build England’s armada, in Trees of Ireland (Dublin, 1993), botanist Charles Nelson wrote that more than 1,600 town names still contain the word doire (oakwood) with Derry (Doire Cholmcille – Colmcille’ s Oakwood) and Kildare (Cill Dara – Church of the Oak) being the most famous.

Holly, which grows well in the acidic soil found in oak forests, was also prized by Druids who constructed ritual circles from a ring of holly bushes with an oak anchoring the point of entrance and exit. Each tree bears what appears to be fruit in the dead of winter. Holly has red berries; oak supports a symbiotic relationship with white-berried mistletoe. The power embodied in both trees was evidenced by the fact that their fruits are poisonous.

The long-lived Yew grows upright and tall. For its longevity, it was revered as a guardian of the dead, a realm to which warriors were frequently dispatched with bows and arrows made from its strong straight limbs. Hawthorn, often found growing alongside holy streams and wells, was believed to be a reservoir of good for- tune. For that reason it is even now frequently used as a Wish Tree by people who tie their hopes and dreams onto branches with strips of gay-colored cloth. The bushy Rowan was prized as a tool for auguring the future. Symbol- inscribed rods made from its branches were tossed into the air and allowed to fall randomly, whereupon adepts could decipher the meaning.

One of Ireland’ s greatest sagas concerns the Hazel, which because it bore flowers and nuts simultaneously was known as the Tree of Knowledge. A grove of these trees grew beside a holy well in which lived a great salmon, and every time a nut fell into the water, the salmon gobbled it up. For each nut swallowed, he acquired a red spot on his back and absorbed another portion of the Tree’ s wisdom, ultimately becoming The Salmon of Knowledge.

That, however, is not the end of the tale. When Fionn MacCumhail was a lad, he studied with the famous bard Finnegas. One night, the poet returned home toting a reed basket containing a magnificent salmon. “I have waited seven years to catch this fish,” Finnegas told the boy. “Cook it for my supper, but do not taste it because prophesy tells that a poet will eat this fish and gain all the world’s wisdom.” Fionn broiled the fish watching carefully lest it burn, and when a blister appeared on the skin of the salmon he pressed it flat with his thumb. The hot fat burned his skin, and without thinking Fionn put his finger in his mouth, unwittingly getting the thirst taste. Instantly, he knew something magical had happened and was afraid to tell his mentor, but Fionn was honest and Finnegas was wise. The poet forgave his pupil knowing Fate had bestowed the Gift of Knowledge on the proper man. Ever after, when Fionn wanted to see the future or solve a problem, he only had to suck his thumb and all was revealed. He was the wisest of men, and for that reason the heroic Fianna chose him as their leader.

Some people avoid eating nuts believing they are full of unhealthy fats. Not true. The body requires some intake of fat every day to function properly just as an engine requires oil. It’s the kind of fat that makes the difference. Animal products contain high levels of saturated fats that clog the arteries, fostering circulatory and heart diseases. Nut fats (called oils), are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids that lubricate the body without depositing harmful residue, and they contain zero cholesterol.

In addition to nuts being an excellent source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper, potassium, phosphorous, biotin, riboflavin, niacin and iron, they are also a source of healthful phytochemicals, including flavonoids, cancer-fighting antioxidants, and sterols that help reduce one’ s cholesterol level.

A handful of nuts once or twice a week is all it takes to add a healthful element to a regular diet, and by promoting the value of nut-bearing trees you’ll also be supporting efforts to save Earth’s forests. Granted, eating nuts probably won’t make you as wise as Fionn, but you’d surely have to be nuts not to be nuts about nuts. Sláinte! ♦

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