The Seven Chieftain Trees of Ireland

You can plant trees grown in pots at any time of year but winter is the time to put in bare-rooted trees.

For instance, if you plant an apple tree now you need to cut a four-foot by four-foot hole. Put in plenty of well-rotted manure. Then add compost and heel in the tree.

You want to keep the area around it as weed free as possible. You can put geotex (a breathable liner that is a weed suppressant) down. Then in spring cut holes and plant in some chives and wallflowers. The chives will deter scab and the wallflowers will attract bees to pollinate the tree.

Irish has two words to indicate a tree, crann, and to indicate sacred trees, bile. Here’s a list of the seven sacred trees of Ireland that might help you choose a tree.

By planting a tree you help mop up that CO2!

Out of those sacred trees there are seven that are considered the chieftain trees, totems for clans. The tradition grew out of each local settlement surrounding a single tree. The forests were revered because they gave so much sustenance. The trees gave nuts and berries for gathering. They also were the habitat for game that was hunted. They provided medicine when they were ill. Trees also became the first alphabet, the ogham, used in Ireland. Lastly, they could be cut to provide fuel to light both the hearth and the sacred fires at festivals.

Trees supported the Old Irish in body, mind and spirit. It is little wonder that trees are so rooted in the Irish psyche.

1. Oak – from the Irish duir, which can be translated at door. The oak is associated with County Derry and the oak is also associated with one of Ireland’s three premier saints – St. Columcille of Donegal. Oak’s strength is manifest not just in its use as a building material but also spirituality. Oak leaves crown depictions of The Green Man or Man of the Wildwood. Along with Hawthorn and Ash it is alleged to be the favoured habitation for fairies.

2. Hazel – Hazel is rather magical. Hazel nuts fed the salmon of wisdom. When the salmon had has his fill of these nine hazel nuts, he was also full of knowledge. Hazel rods are also used for water divining. The Irish superhero Fionn MacColl is the “fair son of Hazel” so areas associated with his adventures will also resonate with the spiritual energy of the Hazel.

3. Apple – County Armagh is Ireland’s Orchard County. Of course, as the spiritual and ecclesiastical centre of Ireland it also is associated with St. Patrick. The classic Irish dessert is apple tart, flaky shortcrust pastry enveloping sweet local apples grown in the Loughall district. Apples, as well as turnips, are used in divination games at Halloween.

4. Yew – This tree can live for millennia or more and is frequently found in graveyards. There is a tradition that the cemetery yew grew a root around every corpse. Because it is evergreen and so hardy it symbolises eternal life. Along with holly, it was the wood favoured by Celtic warriors.

5. Ash – Both the Norse and the Celts viewed the tall ash as Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. When cut it bleeds red sap. Because of its wide-spreading roots this species, along with the Yew, is associated with the Underworld. Because of this and the magical associations with fairies the ash was known as the ‘door opener’. While very strong, it is also flexible. Along with willow it is a popular material for basket making.

6. Holly – This winter evergreen is associated with the battle between the Holly and Oak Kings at Winter Solstice. Because of its warrior attributes it signifies courage. Yet, because it is sacred to the waning year it has a more meditative side as well. This is the tree of the Spiritual Warrior rather than the soldier.

7. Pine – This species was one of the first to wood the isle of Erin. This is the other evergreen tree that comes into own at Winter Solstice. Pine oil is a great cleansing agent. The aroma of pine needles freshen the air and clear the lungs. While Holly battles oak for supremacy, pine is the peaceful, contemplative and deeply spiritual presence of winter.

Take a walk in the woods and get to know these trees. In a fairly short space of time you will find yourself admiring the beauty of one particular species. This may well be you own family’s chieftain tree. Take a walk and see if a tree decides to share its totemic power.

Tree planting is a good way to offset one’s carbon debt. If you don’t have a garden consider giving a tree as a gift. One Christmas we presented friends with oak and birch trees for the daughters, a beech to mum and a maple to dad, who has family in Canada. Or you can help plant a forest. Ireland is one of the most deforested countries in Europe.