Lemon Balm (Melissa)

Melissa officinalis

The genus name melissa comes from the Greek meaning ‘bee’. Bees are particularly attracted to the lemon balm and Pliny wrote that “bees are delighted with this herb above all others”. [i] It was sacred to the moon goddess Artemis and used medicinally by the Greeks over two thousand years ago. Lemon balm has a happy reputation as a healing and refreshing plant. In Southern Europe it is called ‘heart’s delight’ and ‘the elixir of life’.


The lemon-scented leaves are used for flavouring food and drinks. Sprinkle in salads, make a lemon balm herb butter, or add to soups, vinegars and sauces, cakes and cookies.  Make a refreshing lemon balm leaf tea, add sprigs to iced tea and cocktails. Try flavouring gins and liqueurs with lemon balm leaves.


Lemon balm is antibacterial, astringent, anti-inflammatory and slightly drying, which helps reduce skin irritation, particularly when treating acne, blocked pores and blackheads. Add to homemade facial toners, use as a facial wash or add to a facial steam. Add to homemade sun and after sun lotions, to protect from UV damage.  Use an infusion as a rinse for greasy hair. It is also refreshing and reviving when added to the bath water.


The aerial parts are used. Lemon balm tea is calming to the central nervous system, used for anxiety, depression, tension, nervous palpitations and anxiety caused digestive problems. The infusion or tincture used to treat nervous headaches, anxiety and mild depression. It is antiviral and particularly good for cold sores – dab on the infusion. Apply the salve or fresh leaves to insect stings, insect bites, spots, boils and sores.


Lemon balm can cause side effects in some individuals, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and dizziness. Avoid large amounts during pregnancy and breast feeding, if you are taking sedative medications, two weeks before surgery or if you have an underactive thyroid.

[i] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Penguin Classics, Random House, London, 1991


Hawthorn Uses

Crataegus monogyna

Hawthorn is a renowned magical plant surrounded by taboos. It is unlucky to take the flowers indoors, except on May Day, and cutting down a hawthorn will result in the death of cattle.  When the oak, ash and thorn grow together it is a favourite haunt of the fairies. Hawthorn branches drive off evil spirits, witches, ghosts, vampires and lightning. In Greece and Rome, it was the marriage wood, providing the wedding garlands and torches.

The leaves are good in a salad. The berries can be made into jams and jellies, fruit leather, relishes, sauces and vinegars. The flowers or berries can be made into wine, or a liqueur can be made from hawthorn buds and brandy. In WW2 the berries were ground up and used to bulk out bread flour. Dry the fruits and mix them with your breakfast porridge or muesli.

A wash made from an infusion of hawthorn leavesis mildly astringent and can be used as a skin toner to treat oily skin or acne and inflammatory skin diseases, or as a final rinse for greasy hair.

Herbalists use hawthorn to increase the flow of the blood to the heart muscles and reduce the symptoms of angina, improve the heart rate and lower blood pressure.  This can help with circulatory problems such as Raynaud’s disease and may also help to improve poor memory by improving the circulation of the blood to the brain. In addition, it is used to treat nervous conditions like insomnia and nervous diarrhoea, aid digestion and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. 


It is considered safe for most adults when used at the recommended dose short-term (four months).  In some individuals it can cause nausea, stomach upset, headache, dizziness, palpitations and insomnia. It should not be used by women who are pregnant or breast feeding. It can interact with prescription drugs for heart problems. Use medicinally on the advice of a qualified herbalist only.

Eat Your Hawthorn

The leaves are good in a salad.

The berries can be made into jams and jellies, fruit leather, relishes, sauces and vinegars.

The flowers or berries can be made into wine, or a liqueur can be made from hawthorn buds and brandy.

In WW2 the berries were ground up and used to bulk out bread flour. Dry the fruits and mix them with your breakfast porridge or muesli.

A wash made from an infusion of hawthorn leavesis mildly astringent and can be used as a skin toner to treat oily skin or acne and inflammatory skin diseases, or as a final rinse for greasy hair.

Lilac Skin Care

The delicious scent of lilacs is often found in cosmetics, soaps and toiletries.  Sadly, it is usually a synthetic perfume that is used, since a true lilac flower essential oil is not available.   This is a great shame because lilac has wonderful benefits for the skin and hair.  It contains antimicrobial substances, antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory effects, stimulates cell regeneration, and helps repair oxidative damage.

To combat skin aging, slow the development of age spots and hyperpigmentation and stimulate cell renewal, add some Macerated Lilac Oil to your homemade moisturiser recipes or apply the oil directly to your skin. 

Lilac flowers and leaves are astringent, tightening and slightly drying the skin, which can be useful for oily, acne prone skin.  Make the Lilac Toner below, or just dab Lilac Infusion on your face, after cleansing. 

Lilac is a great tonic for your hair and scalp.  Massage Lilac Infusion into your scalp to strengthen your hair at the roots and help eliminate dandruff. 

Lilac Toner

Lilac blossoms

Witch hazel

Fill a glass jar with lilac blossoms, picked on a dry, sunny day.  Cover the flowers with witch hazel.   Allow to infuse for 2 weeks, shaking daily.  Strain into a clean jar and label.  Will keep at least six months.  Apply your lilac facial toner on a cotton pad, after cleansing your skin.  Follow with your usual moisturiser. 

Macerated Lilac Oil

Pack a glass jar with lilac flowers.  Cover with vegetable oil (sunflower, olive etc.).  Leave to infuse for 2-3 weeks, shaking daily.  Strain into a clean bottle.  You can make the scent stronger by infusing the oil a second, third and fourth time.  Use as a facial, body or hair oil or add to any of your home-made bath or skin recipes that call for a carrier oil. 

Lilac Infusion

2-3 lilac fresh flower heads

250 ml/ 1 cup boiling water

Put the boiling water over the flowers.  Infuse 15 minutes.  Strain.


Do not use internally if taking medicines that alters blood coagulation, during pregnancy or lactation.  Do not use the bark as it can be toxic.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023 (extract from lilac section)

Eat Your Lilacs!

Lilac flowers are edible, but they are astringent so eating too many will dry your mouth out, and taste slightly bitter.  If you want to use them, as with all perfumed flowers, they can be overwhelming, and a little is better than a lot.  Use as an edible garnish on cakes, ice cream and cocktails.  You can also add a small number of fresh flowers into the batter of cakes, scones and cookies, but too much may be unpleasant.  One of the best ways to use them is to make Lilac Sugar to add to your baking, a Lilac Syrup to pour over ice cream or use as a base for cocktails, or make Lilac Infused Honey to use in baking, teas and drinks.  You can crystallize the flowers for later use as a decoration on biscuits and cakes. 

Lilac Infused Honey

Half fill a clean jar with freshly picked flowers.  Warm your honey a little and pour over the flowers.  Fit the lid.  Infuse for a month.  You can strain this by warming the honey a little again and pouring through a sieve into a clean jar.

Lilac Sugar

To make lilac flavoured sugar, layer fresh lilac flowers and sugar in a jar and let it sit in a dark place for a day. Sift out the flowers.  Use the sugar for baking.

Lilac Wine

3.5 litres/ 6 pints lilac flowers

1100 gm/ 2 ½ lb granulated sugar

2 lemons

4 litres/ 7 pints water

1 tsp yeast nutrient

Champagne yeast

Put the flowers into a brewing bin.  Boil the water and pour over the flowers.  Cover and infuse for 48 hours.  Strain into a demijohn.  (Discard the flowers.) Add the sugar, yeast nutrient, and lemon juice, and stir until completely dissolved.  Sprinkle the yeast on top.   Fit an airlock and leave to ferment out, before racking into a clean demijohn.  Clear for at least 6 months and bottle. 

Lilac Gin

Fill a large jar with lilac flowers.  Cover with gin.  Infuse for 24 hours only, as your gin will take on an unpleasant taste if left for longer.  Strain into a clean bottle. 

Lilac Syrup

1 litre/ 4 cups water

250 ml/ 1 cup lilac flowers

50 gm sugar

Pour the water over the violets and stand overnight. Strain, discarding the flowers, add the sugar to the retained liquid. Heat gently for 20 minutes (do not boil), strain again. Keep refrigerated and pour over fruit salads, puddings, ice cream.


Do not use internally if taking medicines that alters blood coagulation, during pregnancy or lactation.  Do not use the bark as it can be toxic.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023 (extract from lilac section)


Syringa spp.

The sweet scent drifting across the evening air in the garden tells me that my lilacs are starting to bloom – a brief gift, as they only flower for two or three weeks.   To me there is something in it that stirs the blood, for the lilacs are a sign of renewal and the year opening up, and the perfume carries with it the promise of things to come – the drone of humming bees, lazy, balmy days and the taste of heady, lilac wine. 

Lilacs (Syringa spp.) are found in old gardens all across Britain, America and Europe, so we think they have always been with us, but both the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and the smaller Persian lilac (Syringa persica) were only introduced into northern European gardens in the sixteenth century from Ottoman gardens, and the name lilac comes from an Arabic word lilak, which means ‘dark blue’.  The plant was certainly not known by the Celts and Greeks, despite what I occasionally read on the internet, and even in sixteenth century Europe it was a rarity, though the English herbalist John Gerard was able to obtain some specimens and wrote about them in 1597.   Lilacs quickly became immensely popular and were carried by colonists to the Americas in the eighteenth century. 

The genus name, Syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, which means a ‘pipe,’ referring to the pith-filled stems – pipes and flutes used to be made by hollowing out the stems of wood or reeds, and our word ‘syringe’ (another hollow tube) comes from the same root.  The botanist Carl Linnaeus bestowed the genus name on the plant, based on this attribute of pith-filled stems, in 1753.  Sadly, it doesn’t come from an ancient association of lilac and the Greek nymph called Syrinx, transformed into reeds to save her from the amorous attentions of the god Pan, from which he created his famous Pan pipes, the syrinx[1]  This story refers to reeds, and there is no ancient association of Pan, Syrinx and the lilac.   It turns out that the lilac is not good for making flutes either as the limited size of the shrub makes it only suitable for making very small woodwork projects, and even then, the wood has a tendency to twist and crack as it dries. 

The lilac has heart shaped leaves, and this, along with the sweet scent, associated it in Victorian flower lore with love.   In the Language of Flowers, by which sweethearts could pass coded messages to each other, the giving of a lilac was meant to be a reminder of an old love; widows often wore lilacs.   In modern lore, each lilac colour has its associations.   According to the International Lilac Society: white is purity, innocence and childhood, violet is spirituality, blue is happiness and tranquillity, a pale purple is first love, magenta is love and passion, pink is love and friendship, and a dark purple is for mourning. 

However, the older folklore is somewhat different.  In Britain, taking lilac flowers indoors was considered unlucky, and to ‘take death into the house,’ from its association as a funeral flower; [2] since strong scented flowers and herbs were often used to cover up the scent of death.  The colour purple associates it with mourning.

It was used for apotropaic (evil repelling) purposes in many places.  In Bulgaria it was included in wedding bouquets to protect the bride and hung above Russian cradles to safeguard infants.  [3] In New England, lilacs were planted to keep evil away from properties, or used to drive out ghosts.  


Actions: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiperiodic, antipyretic, antiviral, astringent, diaphoretic, febrifuge, vermifuge

Lilac is rarely used in modern herbalism, though in the past it was used for digestive problems such as dyspepsia, flatulence (excess gas), and diarrhoea, parasitic worms and malaria, and by folk herbalists for headaches, cough, colds and skin diseases. 

Lilac Tea makes a good after dinner digestive.

A lilac compress (soak a cloth in lilac infusion) can be applied to sprains and bruises. 

Lilac flowers are very soothing – to de-stress and unwind, just add a few flowers to your bath (pop them into a muslin bag to save mess), inhale the released perfume and relax.

Lilac Tea

2 tsp fresh lilac flowers

250 ml/ 1 cup boiling water

Pour the boiling water over the flowers.  Infuse 15 minutes, strain and drink, with a little honey if desired.  This makes a good after dinner digestive.

Lilac Infusion

2-3 lilac fresh flower heads

250 ml/ 1 cup boiling water

Put the boiling water over the flowers.  Infuse 15 minutes.  Strain.


Do not use internally if taking medicines that alters blood coagulation, during pregnancy or lactation.  Do not use the bark as it can be toxic.

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023 (extract from lilac section)

[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses 

[2] Jaqueline Simpson & Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000

[3] Zoja Karanović and Jasmina Jokić, Plants and Herbs In Traditional Serbian Culture, Handbook of folk botany, University of Novi Sad, Faculty of Philosophy, online at https://www.scribd.com/document/353639787/Zoja-Karanovic-Jasmina-Jokic-Plants-And-Herbs-In-Traditional-Serbian-Folk-Culture-I-pdf, accessed 10.9.21

Primrose Mead Recipe

4.5 litres/ 1 gallon water

85 gm 3 oz primrose flowers

900 gm 2 lb honey

250 ml/ 1 cup cold, black tea

Spices to taste – cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger etc.

Make an infusion of the water and primrose flowers. Strain. Add primrose water to the honey and bring to the boil, skimming off any scum. Add some cold, black tea, and when cool enough (20°C/ 68 F) the yeast and nutrient, plus spices to taste. Pour into a demijohn and fit an airlock and leave in a warm place until the mead has finished fermenting. When it has cleared, syphon into sterilised bottles and cork.

Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Garden, Llewellyn, 2023


Primula vulgaris

The name primrose comes from the Latin word prime, meaning ‘first’, as it is the first flower of the year. Every spring, women and children sold bunches of primroses on the streets of London to celebrate springtime.  In the Language of Flowers, it signifies the joys of youth, in line with the youthful year.

This was the time of year when old versions of chickens started laying, and the yellow flowers and yellow chicks were associated in sympathetic magic.  If you take a bunch of indoors, count the flowers, and each of your hens will hatch as many fluffy chicks. 

As a spring flower it had magical powers and brought good luck into the house in Germany. If one bloomed at Christmas night, it would help find treasure.

In Ireland they are called ‘fairy flowers’. It is said that eating them is a sure way to see fairies or if you touch a fairy rock with the right number of primroses in a posy, it will open to fairyland and fairy gifts, but the wrong number opens the door to doom.

In the UK and much of Europe, primrose was used as a protection for the house and cows on May Day. In the Quantocks, a primrose ball was hung over the threshold. In Ireland, they were tied to cow’s tails. [1] In Buckinghamshire on May Eve, primrose balls were hung over the house and cowshed door for protection from fairies and witches.  In Somerset, thirteen primroses were laid under baby’s cradle to stop it from being kidnapped by fairies.

It was traditionally a herb of immortality, supposedly holding within it the secret of eternal bliss. When its lore was Christianised, the primrose was said to grant access to heaven.

The primrose was a plant much prized by the Druids. The poem The Chair of Taliesin describes the initiation of a bard with a drink made from primrose and vervain.

The primrose has associations with lust, “the primrose path of dalliance”, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and “the primrose of her wantonness”, from Braithwait’s Golden Fleece. If you presented a woman with a bunch of primroses, you were commenting on her morals! The primrose path of dalliance (Hamlet) an illusory path of pleasure.

Primroses were carried by women to attract love or added to bathing water to increase beauty. In Britain, till the nineteenth century, it was used for love divination. [2]

In old herbals primrose is recommended as a cure for rheumatism, paralysis and insomnia. Gerard recommended that primrose tea should be taken in May to cure ‘the phrensie’ and as a wound salve.


  • The young leaves and flowers may be added to salads.
  • The leaves can be added to soups and stews.
  • The flowers may be crystallised for cake decorations. 
  • The flowers make one of the best country wines.
  • Both the flowers and the leaves can be made into a syrup
  • Both the flowers and the leaves can be made into a tea.
  • The flowers can be used as decoration for fruit drinks
  • The leaves of the primrose can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable.

The leaves and flowers should be picked as they open. The leaves and roots can be dried and stored for future use and the flowers can be crystallised.


  • An infusion of the flowers may be used as a wash or cream for acne, spots, wrinkles and other skin complaints.
  • A primrose cream or lotion will help fade age spots and freckles and treat sunburn.
  • Add primrose petals to a luxurious beauty bath.


Actions: anodyne, diuretic, astringent, expectorant, sedative, antispasmodic, emetic, vermifuge

The flowers, roots and leaves are all used medicinally.

  • The whole plant can be infused and used for the treatment of nervous headaches, insomnia and as a cough medicine.
  • An infusion or decoction of the roots is slightly sedative and good for nervous headaches, as well as bronchial problems and coughs.
  • An infusion of the leaves and flowers is a mild painkiller, useful for headaches and rheumatism.
  • A salve made from the flowers may be used on skin wounds.


Avoid medicinal use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, sensitive to aspirin or taking anti-coagulant drugs.

Macerated Primrose Oil

Pack a jar with fresh flowers and fill with sweet almond oil. Place in the airing cupboard for 14 days, shaking the jar daily. Strain into a clean, dark bottle and add a few drops of vitamin E oil. Keep tightly stoppered in a dark place.

Primrose Tea

2 tsp. primrose flowers and young leaves

250 ml/ 1 cup boiling water

Pour the boiling water over the herb and infuse for 15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Primrose Infusion

25 gm primrose flowers and leaves, dried

500 ml water, boiling

Infuse together for 15 minutes.

[1] Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune, Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, Man & Culture Publishers, Ghent, Belgium, 2003

[2] Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune, Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, Man & Culture Publishers, Ghent, Belgium, 2003

The Enchanted Forest

In the time of early man, most of Britain was covered with trees, whether dense canopied forest, or broadleaf open woodlands, but by as early as 1000 BCE during the Neolithic period, when humans started pursuing an agricultural way of life, much of England had been cleared. 90% of the UK’s forest has been lost over the past 5000 years with. Since the 1930s almost half of ancient broadleaved woodland in England and Wales has been lost, and England is now only 7% forest.

Despite this, trees and forests haunt our imaginations. We talk about the family tree, the tree of knowledge, the tree of life and still bring in trees at Christmas. Literature and fairy tales treat the forest as a place of mystery and magic, where we might meet magical beings, unicorns, wise hermits, princes under enchantment, Robin Hood, where the magical maiden comes to the aid of the knight on a quest, or a place of threat where we might encounter ogres, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf and Hansel and Gretel meet the cannibalistic witch, where the overgrown path might take us to the fountain of youth, the witch’s cottage or as in Dante’s Inferno, the path to hell.

The edge of the forest marks the symbolic edge of civilization and the boundary of man’s authority; within it is raw nature, teeming with untamed plant and animal life, hidden from plain view by the shadowed canopy of trees. To enter it is to leave the familiar and cross the threshold into the unknown, a place of challenge and unpredictability. In myth and literature, it is a place where we project our deepest anxieties and fears, where the hero of the tale undergoes tests and initiations before becoming transformed.  The forest can be seen as a metaphor for the untamed inner landscape and the unconscious mind, with its labyrinth of tangled and hidden paths.


Here in Europe, we’ve always lived with trees and had a close relationship with them, and in mythology they have been viewed with a mixture of kinship and awe. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: “If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted their crowns up above and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lonely the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade.”

In some mythologies humans were thought to have been created from trees. In Greek myth, Zeus created mankind from ash trees, while in Scandinavian mythology Ask, the first man, originated in the ash tree, and the first woman Embla, from the elm. In India, Buddha was incarnated as a tree spirit forty-three times before receiving enlightenment under a bo tree.

Many people instinctively feel that a tree has a spirit or consciousness. They were widely believed to embody the spirit of a god or goddess, or that of a vegetation or nature spirit. While the lifespan of a man is short, trees can live for many centuries. Deciduous trees are renewed each spring (a symbol of rebirth and renewal), while evergreens remained unchanging, even in the death-time of winter.  As symbols of the god, or a god in actuality, trees were associated with fertility. At the festival of Dionysus anyone with a tree in the garden would dress it up to represent the god. At various other harvest and fecundity festivals trees would be decorated with wreaths and otherwise honoured. From this connection of the tree with virility comes our own customs of carrying tree sprigs in a wedding bouquet and such May Day observances such as the leaf-clad Jack in the Green dancer.

The tree itself was a cosmic axis with the roots extending into the underworld of the dead, tapping the ancestral wisdom there, and the branches extending into the realms of the sky gods, with the trunk connecting it to Middle Earth, our realm.

Different trees were considered to be the most sacred in different cultures. The ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians venerated the pomegranate and the cypress. In Persian mythology, the cypress was the sacred symbol of the god Ahura Mazda. In ancient Greece the goddess Artemis was associated with the cedar, the hazel and the willow, while the laurel was sacred to Apollo while Zeus was associated with the kingly oak. Forests were the home of the tree dwelling dryads and hammadryads. Various nymphs were associated with particular trees such as Rhoea with the pomegranate, Daphne with the laurel and Helike with the willow. In ancient Egypt several deities inhabited the sacred sycamore [Ficus sycomorus] which marked the boundary between this world and the Otherworld.

Sticks or wands were [and still are] carried by elders, kings, heralds, and military leaders as a symbol of god given authority, derived from the sacredness of the tree.

The use of sacred groves was widespread in many cultures; they were the places that the Gods could be contacted. They were important features of the religious practices of Celtic, Baltic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic Paganism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa.  In the Old Testament, altars were set up in groves or beneath particular oak trees.

Both Pliny and Lucan wrote that druids did not meet in stone temples or other constructions, but in sacred groves of trees. Evidence of Celtic groves, or nemeton, has been found in Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as well as France, England and Northern Ireland.

One of the most famous of the many sacred groves in ancient Greece was the oak grove at Dodona, sacred to Zeus, where the god communicated through the whispering of the leaves.

In Italy was the grove of the goddess Diana by the shores of Lake Nemi. According to legend, a tree that stood in the centre of the grove and no one was to break off its limbs, with the exception of a runaway slave, who was allowed, if he could, to break off one of the boughs. Upon breaking off a limb, the slave was then in turn granted the privilege to engage the Rex Nemorensis, the current king and priest of the grove, in mortal combat. If the slave prevailed, he became the next king for as long as he could defeat challengers.

Because of the late coming of Christianity to the Baltic states, sacred groves survived longer there than in other parts of Europe. The last extermination of sacred groves was carried out in the lands of present-day Lithuania after its Christianization in 1387 and Samogitia in 1413.

The most famous sacred grove of Northern Europe was at the Temple at Uppsala in Old Uppsala, where every tree was considered sacred. The practice of blót – the sacrificial ritual in Norse paganism – was usually held in sacred groves.


Stories of the gods and spirits of the wood come down to us as folk tales of forest fairies, and there are vast numbers of forest fairies and spirits all over the world.  In Croatia, for example, Woodland Maidens are fairy girls, covered in hair. When humans leave food out for them, they will return the favour by cleaning their houses.  In Greece, the Sylvans are beautiful but dangerous, sometimes luring travellers to their deaths in the forests. In Hungarian fairy lore, the Forest Girl appears as a naked woman with hair so long that it sweeps the ground. When the forest rustles, it tells of her presence. The Arabian Djinn sometimes live in trees, while In Scandinavia and Germany the forest spirits are often wild people covered in moss, or Moss Maidens.

Among the southern and western Slavs, the Vile [‘Whirlwind’] dwell in woodlands, and ride about them on horses or on stags, hunting deer with their arrows and herding chamois. Some of the forest Vily are connected with particular trees in the manner of dryads and cannot venture far from them. In Dalmatia, they are described as the troop of Herodias, the witch queen. In Serbia they are called divna ‘the divine’.

Some fairies are associated with particular types of trees. The Albanian Aerico and the Lithuanian Kirnis guard cherry trees. The English Oakmen, the Italian Salvanelli, and the German Wood-Wives protect the oak. The ash falls under the safekeeping of the Scandinavian Askafroa, and the Polish Vile. In Ireland the Lunantishee guard the blackthorn, in England and Denmark the Elder Mother safeguards the elder and the Russian Leshie is associated with the birch.  In Africa the Huntin lives in the silk cotton tree, while Kakua Kambuzi inhabits incense trees. According to popular lore in Britain, it is bad luck to cut down a associated with fairies such as hawthorn, elder, oak, birch and rowan.

At Christmas, we still honour the vegetation spirit or evergreen tree fairy by decking the Christmas tree with lights and placing the fairy’s winged image on the top.

To this day in Britain and Ireland, some special trees, especially those near holy wells and springs, are hung with gifts or rags to solicit blessings or healing from their spirits.


In Britain some of the ancient nature spirits and gods passed into lore as woodland fairies, often given the name of Hob or Robin.

Robin Goodfellow is a mischievous English fairy who loves to play tricks on mortals, perhaps rushing between their feet as a hare, transforming himself into a horse and carrying them away, or appearing as a will o’the wisp. He sometimes leads people astray and a term for being lost is ‘Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight’. People so bewitched would only find their way when they turned their caps or cloaks inside out. He seems to have possessed the ability to be in several places at once. However, he can also be kind and helpful and only expects a bowl of cream as a reward.

Faith in Robin Goodfellow amongst the ordinary people was once absolute, though Reginald Scot wrote in 1584 that belief in him was less strong than it had been. However, he was to become to be a popular figure in ballads and mummers plays for many years afterwards, appearing wearing calfskin and carrying a broom or flail, with ruddy hands and face. He has the head of a handsome youth and like many other fairies, the body or legs of a goat, reminding us of the Greek god of wild places, Pan. Like Pan he has a lusty nature, small horns on his head, and carries musical pipes. It may be that he is the fairy remnant of an ancient horned god. He is never seen between Halloween and the vernal equinox and is usually accompanied by a variety of animals.

Some later tales make him synonymous with Puck, including Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though he is generally more benevolent. However, the puritans called him a devil and condemned him along with all the other fairies asa emanating from hell. The term ‘goodfellow’ was applied to a rogue, a petty thief or a glutton.

He was commonly seen with a bow and arrows, and these are associated with many fairies such as Puck, Spriggans, the Vile, the American Baykok, the Cambodian Präy and the German Pilwiz, to name but a few.

When Stone Age flint arrowheads were found they were often called fairy arrows or elf bolts and attributed to fairy manufacture. Welsh legends tell of people being found dead in the forest shot with numerous tiny arrows. Fairy archers were much feared in Scotland and according to an old poem “We dare not go a-hunting/ For fear of little men! ” Anyone who went near the fairy mounds was likely to be struck with a fairy arrow. Attack by an evil spirit must have seemed the only explanation for the sudden one-sided paralysis of a stroke. 

This association of arrows and the spirit world is very ancient. Supernatural or divine bowmen appear in many mythologies. In Indian legend there is the god Rama, while in classical myth the arrows of Eros are tipped with gold to cause love and lead to extinguish passion. They never miss their mark. In the Bible we read of the mighty hunter Nimrod. The Persian god Mithras was a divine archer who shot an arrow into a rock from which water then sprang. Apollo is the Greek god of the sun with attributes of bow and lyre. The only straight thing in nature is the shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds – these shafts are spoken of as the ‘fiery arrows of the sun’ or ‘darts of the sun’.

Apollo’s sister is the moon goddess Artemis. She too has a bow and arrows. Her bow is the crescent of the moon and her arrows the shafts of moonbeams. Like many moon goddesses she is the patroness of the hunt, sudden death, and the wild goddess of the woods who brings prosperity to those who honour her. Her name is found as a component of many fairy names.

Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers prowling through the dark forests in search of game. To them, the bow was important, and the sound of the bowstring is often considered magical, attracting game. It is the precursor of such musical instruments such as the harp or lyre. The bowshot was a unit of length used to define boundaries and limits. It is also straight and straight lines were considered sacred.

It is possible that in the stories of forest spirits such as Robin Goodfellow we have the origins of the tales of Robin Hood.  Consider the fact that he is an outsider, his name, his green clothing, his forest home, and his deadly arrows – perhaps he was the nature god of the ordinary people who could seek him in the forest. A depiction of Robin and his men at the fourteenth century chapter house at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire shows them as twelve green men merging with various sacred plants such as hawthorn, and ivy.

There are several hooded fairies, including Carl Hood, Grim and the Romano-Celtic Genii Cucullati [‘Hooded Spirits’]. Images of triads of hooded and cloaked dwarfs or giants appear all over Celtic Europe during the Roman period carrying eggs or displaying phalluses, obviously marking them as fertility spirits. An obvious association is the ‘hood’ of the phallus, the foreskin. This is further compounded by the fact that ‘Robin’ [as in Robin Hood] was once a nickname for the phallus. Another explanation might be that the hood conceals the identity of the supernatural being so that it might go amongst mankind undetected. Odin was called Grim meaning ‘hooded’ or ‘disguised’ as the god was often known to go among mortals in this aspect. For humans wearing a hood, mask or disguise may have a sacred or ritual purpose, relinquishing the old identity with the old clothes.


The colour green is very much associated with fairies. They are often described as wearing green clothes, coats and caps – some even have green skin. In Ireland green is so much the fairy colour that it is unlucky for humans to wear it, while in Scotland any woman dressed in green is sure to be a fairy. The fairies most associated with green are the nature spirits, woodland fairies, and those solitary fairies dwelling in the wild. Green of course, is the colour of growing things. After the cold, death-time of winter the spring returns with a flurry of fresh green growth. It is therefore a symbol of regeneration, the spirit of vegetation, hope, beauty, harmony and eternal life.

Ancient religion was largely concerned with agriculture and fertility, with entreating the gods and nature spirits to provide the corn. In Britain this spirit of vegetation is still portrayed on May Day by the Green Man, Jack in the Bush, or Jack in the Green, in the guise of a mummer clad in green leaves and fresh boughs. He also occurs on numerous pub signs and church carvings. May Day is also connected with Robin Hood; in fact, in England it was once called ‘Robin Hood’s Day’. In Germany the May King is concealed in a frame and covered with birch boughs and flowers.

In parts of Russia and Balkans, the Green Man is called Green George, who masquerades as a tree. He was ducked in a pond to make sure enough rain would fall in the summer. Green is also connected with water as the bringer of life. In Mohammed lore, the Green Man is Khidr who drank from the fountain of life and turned green. He now lives alone, travelling the world and protecting sailors. 

Evergreens like holly and ivy preserve the green vegetation spirit though the winter. The druids kept some evergreens as a home for the nature fairies in winter.

The Green Man has foliage for hair and either a leafy beard or with leaves growing out of his mouth and nose; sometimes he has horns on his head. The French called him tete de feuilles (head of leaves) and the Germans called him blattmaske (leaf mask). No one really knows the purpose of the Green Man in churches, and theories have extended from Pagans smuggling their old deities onto church premises (green men certainly appear in Classical Pagan iconography) to illustrations of the threatening character of the natural world which could only be redeemed by Christianity.

There are many legends of the forest fairies called wood woses, green men or wild men.  Those who saw them described them as green people, powerful fairies who could sometimes be appealed to for help or had to be placated if they were angered, as their elf bolts or flint arrows were deadly.


A huge number of nature spirits across the world are described as or partly or completely covered in hair and they are often horned with something of the animal about them.

Wild men are often carved into church buildings, much like the foliate heads known as Green Men to which they are certainly related.

We find the wildman in the Arthurian Yuletide tale of the Green Knight, a mixture of Pagan ritual and the teachings of medieval Christianity. The Green Knight has long green hair which covers his back, a green beard, and carries a holly club in one hand. He is beheaded but comes back to life, and through his sacrifice demonstrates that life still goes on.

The wildman or woodwose was a common character at various festivities in mediaeval England from May Day to Yule. At Midsummer pageants and parades the frightening and comical woodwoses were commonly dressed in ivy and carried oak clubs. At the Scottish court at Yuletide, the Abbot of Unreason was attended by men dressed in “branches of pine, yew, oak, fern, boxwood, or flowering heath”. [1] Henry VIII held Yuletide festivities in 1515 with a play in which eight wild men, in green moss and with ugly weapons, fought eight knights.

An old folk play in Thuringia involved a wildman, covered in ivy and moss, who hid in the woods but was hunted and captured by men. He collapsed in a mock death before being revived by a doctor. [2] This was is a common theme of seasonal mumming plays in Britain.  In some Plough Monday plays (the Monday after Twelfth Night), the fool mates with a woman, a fight breaks out over her between the fool and the hero, the fool is killed and then resurrected by a doctor.

Today, the Saami still await a Yuletide visit from a giant horned and hairy wildman called Stallo (‘metal man’). He rides in a sleigh seeking mischief, and if drink is not left out for him, he might suck the brains and blood from a child’s skull to quench his thirst. On Christmas Eve he searches for children to stuff into his sack and take away.

In Sweden, the Jultomten is akin to the forest wildman. He is stout, bearded and dressed in furs. He cares for animals and has powers over the elements. According to legend, Jultomten lived deep in the forest long before he showed himself to humans.  

For Christians, the Wildman was a dangerous and despised figure, a rebellious force that threatened the values of orderly society; he represented the anarchy of untamed Nature as opposed to rationalised Christian civilisation. He dwelt in the dark forests and wild woods, hidden by the trees from the light of heaven, which were still haunted by the ancient spirits of the Old Gods. He was raw nature, the shamanistic feral god of beasts and vegetation whose annual death and resurrection had to be acknowledged.


The Church attempted to subdue the power of the old spirits by making Christ the king of the woods, identifying him with the holly tree. As the old carol tells us: “…of all the trees that are in the woods, the holly bears the crown” The holly stays alive in the death time of winter, the white flowers were emblematic of Christ’s purity, the prickles of his crown of thorns, and the red berries the drops of his shed blood. In many areas it was given the alternative name ‘holy tree’ or the Christ thorn.

In the Middle Ages, Christian mythographers decided that St John the Baptist was born at the summer solstice at the time of the weakening sun, announcing his own power would wane with the birth of Christ at the winter solstice, the time of the strengthening sun. [3] John the Baptist is reported to have said of Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease.” [4] John is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on the day of his birth, rather than his death. Christian scholars incorporated Pagan symbolism into their iconography to associate Christ with the waxing year and John with the waning, represented by the holly and oak respectively. It is this Christian myth that gave rise to the modern Pagan ritual of the battle of the Oak King and Holly King at the solstices. This bi-annual fight is reflected in the Arthurian tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, which may well draw on earlier Pagan traditions.


The forest has always been considered a spirit-haunted place of mystery and magic. It is a place of trial, danger, initiation and transformation, a place where outcasts have found refuge, where knights have quested for adventure, poets found inspiration and mystics have received enlightenment and encountered their gods.  Myths tell us that those who stayed at home in civilised and ordered safety experienced none of these things – never challenged themselves, never followed the labyrinthine forests paths to its enchanted heart or discovered the Grail. To achieve anything new or worthwhile we have to leave the safe and well trodden path.

We have always had a relationship with trees, both a practical one where we utilise the wood for fires, for fences, for dwellings and one where we appreciate them for their beauty which has inspired great art, music and poetry.

Moreover, we have a relationship with forests as sacred places.  Forest and tree mythology has embodied out concepts of safety and adventure, wildness and civilisation, salvation and damnation, of birth and death, of decay and regeneration..

Nearly everyone feels the need to be in contact with the natural world, to see, hear, touch and exist within it. Each of us feels a sense of quiet awe when we enter a forest. In its dappled shade, our overburdened minds relax and we become more simply ourselves. For each of us the forest can be a temple where we can renew ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually.

As the Buddha said “(the forest is) a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axe man who destroys it.”

© Anna Franklin

[1] Thomas K. Hervey, The Book of Christmas, The Folklore Society, 1888

[2] Robert Hillis Goldsmith, “The Wild Man on the English Stage”, The Modern Language Review, 1958

[3] Phillipe Walter, Christianity, the Origins of a Pagan Religion, Inner Traditions, Rochester, 2003

[4] John, 3:30