Monday, 20 February 2012

How Becoming an Apprentice Herbalist Changed the Way I Relate To Trees in Winter

This post is part of the UK Herbarium February blog party hosted by Sarah at Tales of a Kitchen Herb Wife .

We’ve been asked to describe how we relate to trees in winter, my first instinct here was my usual one – I don’t know anything, but actually I have been learning throughout my apprenticeship.

 I must confess that before my herb apprenticeship I just thought winter trees were asleep and looked stunning with a bit of frost on. I was panic struck when my first task came, in December 09/January 2010, to map all hawthorns and elders in my locality, take bark rubbings and make an elder bark salve. I had never imagined myself working with bark in my herb work, the only one I had heard of being used was willow bark and I thought only experts worked with it.
Hawthorn in November, Anglesey

Hunting hawthorn and elder trees made me more familiar with my locality, I found paths and tracks that I never knew existed and could make out where there was once a hawthorn hedge spanning the hillside behind my home.
A path lined with hawthorn and elder

Hawthorn bark behind thorns and brambles
Taking rubbings can involve getting very close up and personal with your tree; you share their space and learn new things about them. I had to meander through many thorny branches to get to my hawthorn bark and my elder was in a holly hedge with brambles in front of it.
Elder amongst holly and brambles

Elder bark rubbing
Hawthorn bark rubbing

Then there’s the social side of being with your trees! I tried to make myself look as if I were going about normal everyday tasks as dog walkers came past whilst my head was stuck in a shrub with paper & crayons in my hands, a camera dangling from my neck and elder branches sticking out from my shopping bag full of essentials.

On snowy and icy days I can go up the hills and hardly see a soul enabling me to feel the spirit of the place that these trees inhabit.

I also drew pictures of twigs of my trees; it made me look with care at what was in front of me. I befriended one particular hawthorn and one elder and feel especially close to these; I go to these first for herb use as I like their energies.
Elder twig sketch
Hawthorn twig sketch

Throughout 2010 I kept up my observation, taking pictures every few weeks so as I was familiar with how they developed and at what time of the year. This has given me a useful reference tool.

January 2011 saw my fellow apprentice Maria and I embark on our infamous wild cherry tree hunt, as we blindly searched through woodland we came across some tree surgeons. They led us to a large area of the trees, showed us how to identify them and shared other interesting information about managing woodland. They were practical men and didn’t see a spiritual side to the trees they work with and although polite and helpful they obviously thought we were a bit crazy. I have meant to return to that area in spring; to sit under the blossom must be amazing.
We found wild cherry!

Before I could find any wild cherry wood I had experimented with some of my friend’s Morello cherry in a tincture. When I compared the tinctures of both types of cherry wood I found a faint cherry odour to the wild cherry that was not in the Morello. I made a cherry cough medicine with the wild cherry but did not feel confident enough to try the Morello in a cough mixture, reflecting back now; I think I’m ready to give it a go.

Another friend used to have Horse Chestnut trees at the bottom of her garden and I remember how concerned she was one year that the sticky buds were late, it wasn’t right. Trees can tell us things. Sarah asked us to find some Horse Chestnut sticky buds and make a flower essence, as usual finding a tree was difficult but Sarah directed me to large proud tree near to her house. I learnt a new method of making a flower essence, the heat method. Chestnut bud essence is used to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes over again. I also made a salve from the bark to strengthen veins, there is much more to this tree than being a “conker” tree.
Horse Chestnut
Sticky buds

Books don’t tend to have pictures or descriptions of winter trees so having tasks that make me look at them has taught me a skill in tree identification. I have been able to spend time with the trees to get to know them on different levels. I have learnt about the medicinal uses of the trees and that harvesting of herbs takes place throughout the seasons, I feel I am working closer with the wheel of the year.

 I have chosen Guelder rose or cramp bark as an apprenticeship herb this year and would love to learn which willow to use and how. I also have a little witch hazel which I would like to use when it’s grown.

 As an apprentice I have also been taught to look at the energetic properties of trees, for example Jim McDonald on Hawthorn says “The Hawthorne shows itself as a medicine that can bear a great abundance of healing, and yet be protected in this offering by its abundance of thorns. It allows us to live with an open heart and feel protected in doing so.”

 My first wood workshop was amazing; we were given an introduction to energetics and tree lore and found some wood to make what we wanted. I made a hawthorn wand; I sanded off the bark and rubbed in an infused herb oil that we had made on a previous workshop. At home I carried on with my wand making; hazel, elder, oak, birch and whatever I found, I sanded away all or some of the bark, spending time with the wood as I did it, noticing the differences in each wood. I used appropriate infused herb oils to rub into the wood. Some wands were left looking natural, some highly embellished. Children at the workshop were attracted to the elder as soon as they heard stories of faeries and made pan-pipes and beads after hollowing out the pithy stems; they were a joy to watch.
Hawthorn wand

 I now have the confidence to work with winter trees in so many ways, I take notice of their beauty and energies more than ever and I am happy to just spend time with them.


  1. Lovely post, Jackie. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us!

    1. It's great looking back on what we've done. I never thought a herbwife could be so busy all the year round when I started my apprenticeship but it's fantastic that we follow the seasons and make the most of everything around us.

  2. I love your drawings of elder and hawthorn. I have found a couple of hawthorns near me and have sat by them for a while I find great peace in this experience. The more you look at winter trees the more you notice the tiny differences in each. The oaks that around the corner from me have very few buds showing but the ones 20 minutes away are covered in buds. I really enjoyed reading your post. x

    1. Thank you Jo-Ann, I find drawing plants gives me time with them and helps me to notice details I wouldn't usually see. I do agree that the trees are so individual and it's so useful to know the ones in the area where you live or usually gather your herbs from. The difference in your oaks is wonderful. x

  3. Nice drawings Jackie!
    Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

  4. Very interesting. I love trees!
    How are the wands used?

    1. I have felt so much closer to trees the last few years.
      You can use the wands however you like really, you can use them as a focus maybe if you meditate, wands tend to be used to symbolise air. Using your own chosen oil on your wand can make it more energetic or symbolic. If you wanted a ritual wand I think something with your own love and energy would be the best you could have.
      I found the time I have spent whilst making my wands to be very therapeutic & has taught me about the different trees x

  5. I love your drawings, Jackie! Very, very good! I agree that drawing is such a beautiful way to connect to the trees:) I am giggling out loud with your bit about being loaded down, making cartoon rubbings, and folks walking by! I soooo relate to that! :) Love your wand and the cherry story tree. This has been a fabulous post following your developing journey with the apprenticeship and your deeping relationship with the plants. Thank you for sharing it! Big hugs!! xxx

  6. Thank you Rita & Leslie,
    I find drawing makes me spend time with the trees & look closer than I usually would. You soon learn to just smile when people are looking! xxx