Once a month some friends and I go for a druid tree walk. The idea is to try and get to know a particular type of tree more closely, using our own experiences rather than what we have read in books. For the first year we followed the Ogham tree calendar month by month but now we are branching out a little. This month the tree we chose was heather. Although small, heather is still a woody plant, and it features in the Celtic tree calendar (it is linked to midsummer’s day and the ogham letter U).
We went to Chobham Common, a local heath which has a rich variety of plant and animal life. Earlier in the year we had visited it to get to know gorse, and now the heather was in bloom, so it seemed like a good time to re-visit.
As usual we started off with a walk around the area to get ourselves into a bit more of a quiet and observant state. The heather certainly plays with the senses! Visually there is an intense contrast between the heather’s shades of amethyst purple, the green vegetation and the yellow gorse.
There is also a very strong scent of honey in the air from the heather, and the bees buzz around carrying the nectar back to their hives. The connection between bees and heather goes back a long time! There is a prehistoric earthwork on the common called the Bee Garden, but according to a history of the common, it had nothing to do with bees. It was probably made in the bronze age by the farmers who lived there, perhaps as part of buildings or animal enclosures.
There are different types of heather on the heath – there is ling or common heather, with tiny pale purple open flowers with a four-fold symmetry.
Then there is bell heather (and its wet-ground cousin cross-leaved heather), which has darker bell shaped flowers. Sometimes you can find lucky white heather – we came across just the one patch of white heather hidden away as we roamed. One story is that the colored heather is stained with the blood of pagans, whereas the white is rather more angelic!
After our walk, we went up a slope covered in quite large heather plants and just sat among them for a while, opening up as much as we could our external and internal senses in an attempt to pick up something of the nature and the temperament of the heather. My impression was that the heather was a very comfortable, relaxing place to be – I felt I could sleep well on a bed of heather! Also I had a sense of a feminine presence – the Lady of the Heath? We exchanged notes on our impressions, and it seemed that a picture or at least a feeling emerged between us.
We also talked about what we had heard or read about heather. For example, it had been used in flavouring ale before hops were used (nowadays, the heather is carefully washed to remove hallucinogenic ergot… or not!) Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a poem about the Pictish recipe for Heather Ale:
“From the bonny bells of heather,
They brewed a drink long syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in blessed swound,
For days and days together,
In their dwellings underground…”
You can read more about heather and it’s uses here.
We finished our walk with a little bit of magic to vitalize the heath, and then shared some food. The signal for us to go was a crash of thunder and we raced back to the cars through a downpour of epic proportions!
Thank you, Lady of the Heath.