The Meaning Of Trees



Fiona Stafford explores the symbolism and importance of the ancient tree, the Yew. Some yews witnessed the Romans in Britain. Yet today these ancient trees have the most modern of uses - as part of the fight against cancer.

This is the first of five essays about Britain's tree varieties and their history as part of the landscape - a subject which has taken on a new urgency with the announcement that Ash Dieback disease has entered the country with a potentially devastating effect. Professor Stafford's other essays examine the story of the Ash itself, Oak, Willow and Sycamore.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Europe's oldest tree at over 3,000 years old, was already a veteran when the Romans arrived. Often ancient yews predate the churchyards where they stand, because they marked ancient, sacred sites on which the relatively new religion could be built. Though often planted in churchyards because their leaves might be toxic to grazing livestock, the tree itself has long associations with death and immortality. The astonishing longevity of the yew and its evergreen branches suggests comforting thoughts of everlasting life to mourners in churchyards, while the dark, dense boughs offer privacy and stillness. Although the fruit is sweet and relished by birds, the seed inside is highly poisonous to humans, yet there is great hope that taxol, a compound found in the yew's reddish bark, can be developed into a powerful cancer-fighting drug.

Producer: Turan Ali


Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, explores the symbolism, importance, topicality and surprises about five different trees and, across the series of essays, our ambiguous relationship with trees.

In this Essay she tackles the tree which has suddenly hit the headliness. The Ash has been threatened by the arrival in Britain of dieback disease. But the Ash has survived since the birth of humanity and met mortal threats before.

Despite many different near fatal epidemics over the centuries, delicate ash trees have survived for millennia.

Our history with the ash is long. The ash exudes a sugary substance that was fermented to create the Norse Mead of Inspiration. In Norse mythology, the World Tree Yggdrasil is commonly held to be an ash tree, and the first man, Ask, was formed from an ash tree. Elsewhere in Europe, snakes were said to be repelled by ash leaves, shadows from an ash tree would damage crops, ash was thought to cure warts or rickets and in Sussex the ash was known as the Widow Maker because the large boughs would often drop without warning.

Ash is musical, often used as material for guitar bodies and drum shells.Charmingly, ash is still used for suspension in Morgan cars. But how will we start to replace this flexible, delicate yet persistent wood and protect the timber from which humanity was formed, while it fights off yet another threat to its own existence?


Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, explores the symbolism, importance, topicality and surprises about five different trees and, across a series of essays, our ambiguous relationship with trees.

In this edition, the Oak. Sturdy, stalwart, stubborn, the oak is a symbol of enduring strength, inspiring poets, composers and writers for millennia. Civilisations have been built from oak, as its hard wood has been felled for houses, halls and cities, its timber turned into trading ships and navies. Other woods are as strong, but few are as long-lasting as oak.

Sacred to the Celts and the Ancient Greeks, the Oak tree is a mainstay of British culture, present in place-names and national songs - Heart of Oak, Rule Britannia; yet it is in fact the national tree of dozens of countries. The resistant, native oak also figures largely in the distinctive cultures of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, embodying ideas of natural connection and growth. Ancient oaks, vast enough to hide a secret room within, have been religious meeting places, rallying points, refuges for kings and outlaws, party venues for friends and families. Although by no means the longest lived of ours trees, its slow growth is the ever-present home to ecosystems of insects, fungi, birds and animals and was once the most common European tree.

The huge demand for oak wood in the furniture and food industries threatens oak trees worldwide through poaching, according to some. However, quicker growing oak plantations are now being developed with claims that there is no loss in strength or quality of the wood.


Fiona Stafford explores the symbolism, importance and topicality of five different trees, and charts our ambiguous relationship with trees, across a series of essays.

In this edition, she explores the Willow.

A wood of the wetlands, willows seem almost as fluid as the rivers they fringe. They are trees of mobility, change, displacement. Shakespeare gave their sad music to his tragic heroines, with Ophelia sinking into the brook by the willow and Desdemona singing her willow song on the last night of her life. For many, the willow conjures up dreams of childhood, coloured by Kenneth Grahame's famous book Wind in the Willows and later children's writers. In Harry Potter, the Whomping Willow is a tree with attitude that lives on the Hogwarts grounds; we share J K Rowling's thinking of its modernity. But the willow also has traditional associations with dreams and divination, and wands made from willow are linked to the moon. Their power has also been harnessed very differently by sportsmen wielding cricket bats or by doctors prescribing pain relief derived from the willow's salicylic acid, which gave the world aspirin. The quick-growing, ever-generous willow has always offered pliable twigs for basket-weaving, wicker-work, cradle-making, thatching or fencing, and once cut, the branches will turn into new trees. The willow is the ultimate entrepreneur embracing change.

Willows now have the potential to be green heroes, a saviour of the wood biofuels movement - as they are so fast growing, they can be harvested very frequently, and so are a tree of choice for wood fuels. There are willow-fuelled power stations being planned.

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Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford, explores the symbolism, importance, topicality and surprises about five different trees and, across the series of essays, our ambiguous relationship with trees.

This edition is dedicated to the sycamore.

Sycamore seeds have their own propellers, sending them far and wide on the wind; hence, they take root all over Britain and Ireland. Being hardy trees, resistant to salt, they even grow easily in the coastal areas of the north.

A familiar feature of almost every rural area, their thick foliage offers shade to sheep and cattle, shelter to solitary farmhouses, and inspiration to poets as varied as John Clare and W. B. Yeats. For the Compleat Angler, the sycamore's shade was the perfect place for quiet meditation, and in "Tintern Abbey", Wordsworth expressed his profound delight in the Wye valley from under a "dark sycamore". The oldest sycamore is probably the Tolpuddle tree, where the Dorset labourers gathered to stand up for their rights and numerous visitors have come to pay homage since. The hated, yet common and useful - a theme humanity understands well.

Sycamore leaves are "the wrong kind of leaves on the line" that so disrupt British railways each year. Loved by urban councils, the sycamore is the most common tree in cities as it tolerates pollution and harsh city streets so well, yet some countryside organisations see it as a "weed" which needs to be removed. Seen as an ordinary tree, the sycamore has never been valued for its rich timber, even though its wood is as strong as oak, and more easily dyed; the sycamore stands for extraordinary possibilities latent in the commonplace.