Catkins at Candlemas
Despite the cold and the rain, the Alder and Hazel catkins along the lanes are full of promise and hope: Spring is on its way! At the half way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox is Imbolc; the Celtic festival that celebrated new beginnings and the re-awakening of the earth. Now celebrated as the Christian festival of Candlemas, when candles are lit for the Virgin Mary; imbolc was linked to the goddess Brigid, who represented fire, the return of light and the sun, healing waters and motherhood.
Traditionally Alder was a mysterious tree because it grew along the margins of the land and the water, in the areas where, it was thought, the fairies lived. Believed to be protected by the Adler or Elf King, in Celtic mythology its trunk was the entrance to the realm of the fairies, which may be why it was unlucky to cut the tree down. As the days start to lengthen, Alder trees are flourishing in the wetlands where they can be easily spotted by their distinctive reddy-brown male, and green oval female catkins.
Male Alder Catkin (WTML) Female Alder Catkin (WTML)
Traditionally people have made sense of the world, by grouping plants and animals into categories based on the way they grow or behave. Any that didn’t ‘conform’ to the pattern were classified as ‘mysterious’ and approached or used in ritual and respectful ways; perhaps it’s because Alder wood doesn’t follow the pattern that has led to its linkage with spirits and fairies. Alder wood turns from white to red when it is cut as if it were bleeding, and its oily-resistant wood rots when it is taken away from water. So, this mysterious tree which is unsuitable for fences, has been used to make dairy vessels, clogs, canal gates and water embankments
Continuing with the sense of mystery that surrounds the tree, a range of dyes can be made from Alder that symbolise Earth, Fire and Water: brown from its twigs, red from its bark and green from its flowers. Legend states that the fairies used the green dye to colour their clothes, and that outlaws including Robin Hood, used it to help them blend into the woodlands. Regarded as sacred and protective by the Druids; it is so easy to carve new growth in the Spring that the wood was used to make whistles to summon up air spirits, which lingers in our expression ‘whistling up the wind’
Once pollinated the female catkin gradually become woody and distribute seeds (WTML) Alder has racquet-shaped leaves with serrated edges (WTML)
Medicinally, Alder acts as an astringent and the bark, cones, leaves and berries have all been used in traditional cures. Its uses range from lotions that kill head lice, ointments that sooth inflammations, mouth gargles that treat tonsillitis and clean teeth as well as, a liquid that cleans wounds and stops heavy bleeding. According to folklore, carrying a piece of Alder wood in your pocket will help prevent rheumatic pain; putting some leaves in your shoes will prevent your feet from swelling; and placing small branches in your cupboards will deter woodworm from laying eggs in your furniture.
Hazel is often one of the earliest native trees to come into leaf and one of the last to drop its leaves in Autumn and perhaps the length of its growing season is one of the reasons why in Celtic mythology, Hazel was the Tree of Immortal Wisdom and in Ireland, the Tree of Knowledge. A British legend tells how the wisdom of the tree was absorbed by a magical Salmon when it ate nine Hazel nuts that had fallen into a river and how that wisdom can still be seen in the markings on the Salmon’s body. It’s a theme that reoccurs across the British Isles, sometimes replaced with a person, but always focussing on the transfer of wisdom.
At this time of the year it is easy to spot the male hazel catkins, but the red female flowers can be easily overlooked and mistaken for small buds. Primarily wind pollinated, Bees can only gather the pollen in small amounts because it isn’t sticky, and the grains repel against each other
Female hazel flowers are tiny and bud-like with red styles (WTML) The pendulous, yellow, male catkins are also know as ‘lamb’s tails’ (WTML)
Hazels are sometimes classified as bushes, because they are often multi-stemmed, with several shoots branching out just above soil level giving them a dense spreading habit. This also makes them ideal for coppicing and the resulting large base or stool can reach 2 metres in diameter. In early Spring, the new growth is so pliant that it can be easily shaped and bent whilst it is still growing, which makes it ideal for making staffs, shepherds’ crooks, walking sticks and weaving
Coppiced Hazel (WTML)
With a reputation as a magical and wise tree, Hazel rods and wands were believed to provide protection against evil spirits and enable people to contact the spirit world. The wisdom from these contacts could help to heal people; forked twigs could be used to divine for water or buried treasure, and it was believed they could also help to increase a cow’s milk yield. By the Medieval period, Hazel had become a symbol of fertility and a Scottish Halloween custom involved placing two Hazelnuts on hot embers; if they stayed together, the couple they represented were well matched
Hazel was grown in the UK for large-scale nut production until the early 1900s (WTML)
The names Hazel and Hazel nut come from the Anglo-Saxon words haesel knut. A haesel is a hat or a cap, so the name mirrors the way the leaves curl around the nut like an old-fashioned headdress or hood. Hazel nuts are high in protein and can be stored in their shells for long periods, so they made an excellent winter food source and were ground up with flour to make bread. A variety of cultivated Hazelnuts called Cob nuts or Filberts take their name from St Philibert’s Day on 20 August, when they were supposed to start ripening and up until the First World War, Holy Cross Day on 14 September, was traditionally given as a school holiday for children to pick nuts.
Eating Hazelnuts has health benefits because the nuts contain high levels of vitamin B Complex (B1, B6, B9) and vitamin E. The B complex is good for people with anaemia and during pregnancy because they help in the production of red blood cells and the vitamin E acts as an antioxidant. It’s not just people who like eating Hazelnuts, mice, squirrels, jays, pheasants and pigeons all enjoy eating them and five different varieties of moth are all specialist Hazelnut feeders including the narrow-winged leaf miner whose larvae live under a folded down leaf edge. Click here to watch ‘A year in the life of a Hazel Tree’.
Whatever the weather, take some time out to enjoy the Alder and Hazel catkins as they send us a clear signal that Spring is on the way, and every day there will be another bud or flower to enjoy.
By Jane Halliday, all images Woodland Trust media library (WTML).
You can find out more about the mystical beliefs surrounding Alder and Hazel and their medicinal properties from the following publication and websites:
G Kindred: The Sacred Tree 2003 ISBN: 978-0-9532227-5-9
Taken from https://finglewoods.org.uk/