A brief look at our native trees, their characteristics, uses and the folklore surrounding them. Having just celebrated Christmas it seems appropriate to look at a species that has been linked to Christmas as far back as Roman times.

Holly - Ilex aquifolium

Also known as helver, berry holm, Aunt Mary's tree, poisonberry, Christmas tree, Christ's thorn.
The name Ilex appears to be derived from the circular link with 'Quercus ilex', the holm oak, which looks like holly. Aquifolium is derived from 'Folium' the Latin for 'leaf' and 'aqui' which may come from 'aqua', 'water' perhaps because the shiny leaves appear to be always wet. The English name holly comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'holegn'.


Holly is a genus of about 500 species of flowering plants in the family Aquifoliaceae, and the only genus in that family. They are shrubs and trees from 2-25 m tall, with a wide distribution in Asia, Europe, North Africa, and North and South America. They are widespread and common throughout Britain. With bright red berries (found only on female plants) and shiny evergreen leaves, the native holly tree has been a symbol of midwinter festivals since pre-Christian times. It grows as a shrub or tree, and has a narrow, conical crown and smooth silver-greyish bark.

Holly is a hardy tree, capable of surviving in most conditions except where it is extremely wet. Holly is very shade-tolerant and is able to live as an understory species in woodlands where other trees cannot survive; it is especially associated with beech and oak woodlands. Pure holly woods are unique to Britain, and are ecologically equivalent to the evergreen cloud forests of South America and China. Large circular groves of holly trees tend to form in the wild and the New Forest in Hampshire is one such location where they can be found.

The dark green leaves are spiny, and have a waxy texture. The leaves are simple, evergreen, and with widely-spaced, spine-tipped leaves. The holly tree is one of our few native evergreen trees. Its leaves are thick and shiny, and if you compare the leaves on the lower branches with those on the upper branches, you'll notice that the leaves lower down are much more prickly. This is a defence mechanism to deter grazing animals such as cows, horses and rabbits from eating the foliage.

Most hollies are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants. The pink-white flowers appear in May and pollination is generally carried out by bees and other insects. The berries emerge around November but only on the female plant.
The fruit is a small globulose, red berry of 8 mm diameter, usually red when mature from August to October-December, with 4 seeds. Holly berries are mildly toxic and will cause vomiting and/or diarrhea when ingested by people. However they are extremely important food for numerous species of birds that assist in the dispersal of holly berries away from the parent tree, they are also eaten by other wild animals. In the autumn and early winter the berries are hard and apparently unpalatable, however after being frozen or frosted several times, the berries soften, and become edible.


In many Western cultures, holly is a traditional Christmas decoration, used especially in wreaths. Its dark green leaves and red berries make it a popular house decoration, and for centuries it has been used to decorate houses and churches at Christmas. The tradition of holly decoration predates Christianity and probably began with the early pagans of Europe, who brought holly inside in the winter to keep evil spirits away. The Romans sent holly branches with presents during the December festival of Saturnalia.

Many of the hollies are highly decorative, and are widely used as ornamental plants in gardens and parks; their dense, spiny foliage makes it an effective hedging plant. In many parts of Britain it was once considered bad luck to cut down a holly tree as its evergreen leaves were considered a sign of eternal life and supernatural powers.

The wood is heavy, hard and white; one traditional use is for chess pieces, with holly for the white pieces, and ebony for the black. Other uses include turnery, inlay work and as firewood. Looms in the 1800s used holly for the spinning rod. Because holly is dense and can be sanded very smooth, the rod was less likely than other woods to snag threads being used to make cloth. Other uses include veneers, walking sticks and butter pats and it has been stained black as a substitute for mahogany.


Unsurprisingly there is a rich wealth of folklore and custom surrounding this tree; the amount of berries produced is used as a means of divining whether there will be a harsh winter. A widespread and firmly held belief around Britain is that it is extremely bad luck to cut down a whole holly tree, although somewhat paradoxically, it is permitted to cut branches to bring into the house during winter. This belief has often led to hollies being retained even when the entire hedge to which they once belonged was destroyed. It was believed that holly planted around a house could protect the property against lightning strikes, sickness and witchcraft. In many farming areas, holly has been given to livestock as winter browse, and this practice continues today. Holly wood was used to make horsewhips for many years, as it was thought to have 'power over horses'. It was also believed to provide protection against fire. The most well-known holly custom, however, is bringing boughs into the house in winter. Originally, holly was a fertility symbol because of the retention of the berries and shiny foliage throughout winter. It was also thought to protect a house from witchcraft and goblins. The pagan tradition of bringing holly indoors was accepted by Christianity; the spines of the leaves symbolising the crown of thorns, and the red berries representing the blood of Christ. However today the tree is more associated with Christmas by featuring in cards and traditional carols, and being widely used as a Christmas decoration.

In the UK the use of Holly seems to have originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia in late December, later adopted by Christians. By the 15th century, holly boughs were being used to decorate churches at Christmas, often being bought in large quantities. It was also the evergreen of choice to decorate houses, and before the introduction of conifers, small hollies were used as indoor Christmas trees. This use persisted until the middle of the 20th century.

Many of the beliefs about holly, even comparatively modern ones, relate directly to Christianity: holly supposedly provided the timber for Jesus's cross; the red berries apparently appeared after a nativity lamb was caught in a holly bush; holly berries were thought to represent the drops of blood caused by Christ's crown of thorns and before this, the berries were yellow; the robin apparently obtained its red breast while eating the berries from the crown of thorns

In pagan ritual, holly symbolised the male god carrying life through the winter in its evergreen leaves. Ivy was the goddess. Some claims that its use at Christmas relates to the leaves looking like Christ's crown of thorns and the berries looking like blood but these, probably, are just to justify adoption of a pagan ritual. In pagan belief, the holly king rules from midsummer to midwinter when he is replaced by the oak king, until the next midsummer.

In England it is grown close to the house to keep witches away. In Ireland it is grown away from the house so as not to disturb the fairies who live in it. It was grown by druids close to the home to lift winter melancholy. Until recently, collecting wild holly for sale provided seasonal work for town dwellers who would spend a few weeks in the countryside cutting holly, in the same way that Londoners traditionally undertook hop-picking in Kent.

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Juniper - Juniperus communis

Juniper is also known as common juniper, hackmatack, horse savin, gorst and aiten. The names dwarf juniper, mountain common juniper, old field common juniper, prostrate juniper and fairy circle are usually applied to low growing varieties.


Common juniper has the largest geographic range of any woody plant in the world, occurring from western Alaska throughout Canada and northern parts of the USA, in coastal areas of Greenland, in Iceland, throughout Europe and in northern Asia and Japan. It is widespread in Europe, except for some low-lying areas around the Mediterranean, and it also occurs in North Africa. In North America it extends from beyond the northern limit of trees south to the Carolinas and the mountains of California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Juniper is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the cypress or Cupressaceae family. It is slow growing and displays several different growth forms, which vary from erect and columnar to bushy, spreading and shrub like. Juniper is unusual in being able to grow on both acid and alkaline soils.

The foliage consists of small blue-green needles which are up to 1cm long and have a broad white stripe on their inside surface. The needles grow in alternating whorls of three on the twigs, and are prickly to the touch. The bark is brown on young plants, but turns grey as it gets older, and is shed in thin strips

Juniper is dioecious, which means that individual plants are either male or female, unlike most tree species, where both male and female flowers occur on the same tree. Male flowers appear as yellow blossoms near the ends of the twigs in spring and release pollen, which is wind-dispersed. Female flowers are in the form of very small clusters of scales and, after pollination by the wind, these grow on to become berry-like cones. Shaped like irregularly-sided spheres, the berries are green at first, but ripen after 18 months to a dark, blue-purple colour and are 0.6cm in diameter. Each berry contains 3 to 6 seeds, which are triangular, hard and black, and are dispersed by birds which eat the berries.

The seeds are slow to germinate and normally require two winters of dormancy before they will sprout and begin growing. Juniper is a slow-growing species, and in Scotland it typically grows about 3 to 5cm per year. In good growing conditions, it can grow up to 28cm in a year, and flowering and seed production begins when the plants are 7 to 10 years old. Bushes live on average for about 100 to 120 years; the oldest recorded juniper in the UK was aged at 255 years.

Juniper can also reproduce vegetatively. Old bushes sometimes collapse, and where their branches touch the ground, they will form roots and produce new growth, so that a circular pattern of plants forms around the original bush. As a shade-intolerant species, juniper is found in more open types of woodland, typically birch woods or pine woods in the Highlands. In Wiltshire there are areas of native Juniper on the downland at Porton Down and Pepperbox Hill south of Salisbury and these have been the subject of both national and local protection and enhancement through the Biodiversity action Plan process.


It is too small to have any general timber usage. In Scandinavia, however, juniper wood is used for making containers for storing small quantities of dairy products such as butter and cheese, and also for making wooden butter knives. In Estonia juniper wood is valued for its long lasting and pleasant aroma, very decorative natural structure of wood as well as good physical properties due to slow growth rate of juniper resulting in dense and strong wood. Various decorative items (often eating utensils) are common in most Estonian handicraft shops and households.

According to the old tradition, on Easter Monday Kashubian (Northern Poland) boys chase girls whipping gently their legs with juniper twigs. This is to bring good fortune in love to the chased girls.

Its astringent blue-black seed cones, commonly known as "Juniper berries", are too bitter to eat raw and are usually sold dried and used to flavour meats, sauces, and stuffings. They are generally crushed before use to release their flavour. The cones are used to flavour gin. In fact, the word 'gin' is derived from the French word for juniper berry, genièvre, which is the name for gin in France. The Slovak national alcoholic beverage Borovi?ka is also flavoured with juniper berry extract. In Finland, juniper is used as a key ingredient in making sahti, a traditional Finnish ale.

Juniper berries have long been used as medicine by many cultures. Juniper berries act as a strong urinary tract disinfectant if consumed and were used by Native Americans as a herbal remedy for urinary tract infections. Western American tribes combined the berries of juniperus communis with Berberis root bark in a herbal tea to treat diabetes. Native Americans also used juniper berries as a female contraceptive


Though the more practical uses of juniper have been known to people for several millennia, it features only sporadically in ancient mythology. Juniper was a symbol of the Canaanites' fertility goddess Ashera or Astarte in Syria. In the Bible's Old Testament, a juniper with an angelic presence sheltered the prophet Elijah from Queen Jezebel's pursuit. Similarly a later apocryphal biblical tale tells of how the infant Jesus and his parents were hidden from King Herod's soldiers by a juniper during their flight into Egypt.

In mediaeval times the berries were also used to flavour whisky in Scotland, though the whisky may just have been used as a pleasant way to administer the medicinal benefits of juniper. Similarly juniper berries may also have been added to food for their medicinal properties, as they were said to aid digestion and to be a cure for various stomach ailments. The earliest recorded medicinal use of juniper berries occurs in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC, in a recipe to cure tapeworm infestations. The Romans too used the berries for purification and stomach ailments, while the famous mediaeval herbalist Culpepper recommended them for a wide variety of conditions including the treatment of flatulence, for which juniper oil is still used today. Chemicals in the berries also stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles and could be administered during labour. However the same properties were also used to abort an unwanted pregnancy, and the phrase used in Lothian in the Middle Ages of giving birth "under the savin (an older name for juniper) tree" was a euphemism for juniper-induced miscarriage. Hence, gin, which is flavoured with juniper is known as 'Mother's Ruin'.

Burning juniper wood gives off only minimal visible smoke, this smoke is highly aromatic, and in ancient times it was used for the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld at the autumn Samhain fire festival at the beginning of the Celtic year. In central Europe juniper smoke played a part in the spring-time cleansing and casting out of witchcraft. Juniper was also burned during outbreaks of the Plague, and in Scotland the disease could be dispelled by fumigating the house with juniper smoke while its occupants were inside, after which the house was aired and the occupants revived with whisky!

Juniper's use in alcoholic drinks and the use of its wood smoke are drawn together neatly in the tales of illicit Highland whisky stills hidden away in the glens, which used juniper wood for fuel so that the near absence of smoke would not attract the suspicions of the local excise man.

The wood was burned in the fire on New Year's Day in the Scottish Highlands to purify the house and its occupants and also burnt before summer and close to a sick person to drive out the malady. Juniper and rowan, Sorbus aucuparia, are associated in folklore. It should not be grown close to or brought into the house with rowan as the two combine to generate enough heat to cause combustion. In Iceland, however, you must use both woods or neither when building a boat; using only one will make the boat sink.

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Rowan - Sorbusaucuparia

Also commonly known as Mountain Ash or Quickbeam


The Rowan is a fast-growing, short-lived pioneer tree from the Rosacea family. It is a small tree, generally reaching a height of 10-15 metres. It is slender in form, although mature trees can be quite substantial. Multi-stemmed forms are quite common, as a result of browsing by animals. The greyish-brown bark is smooth and shiny when wet, with dark raised dots or lenticels scattered across it. The branches are typically upward-pointing and terminate in ovoid, purplish buds, which are often covered in grey hairs.

Rowan leaves are compound and pinnate in form, meaning that each leaf is made up of matched pairs of leaflets on either side of a stem, with a terminal leaflet at the end. Leaves are up to 20 cm. long and are comprised of 9-15 leaflets, which are serrated with small teeth. Rowan is a deciduous tree, the leaves appearing in April and turning a bright orange-red colour in autumn before falling.

The flowers blossom after the leaves have appeared, usually in May or early June, and are creamy-white in colour. Individual flowers are about 1 cm. in diameter and they grow in dense clusters each containing up to 250 flowers, and measuring 8-15 cm. across. The strong, sweet scent attracts pollinating insects, including many species of flies, bees and beetles. The flowers grow into berries which are 8 mm. in diameter and these ripen to a bright red colour in August or early September. The berries are rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and contain up to 8 small seeds, although 2 seeds per fruit is most common.


Rowan is a strong dense hard timber and is used for turning and carving. It was used for bowls and platters in the middle ages, its strengths made it good for spade handles, spindles, spinning wheels and walking sticks and more recently for tool handles and mallet heads.


Druids used the bark and berries to dye the garments worn during lunar ceremonies black, and the bark was also used in the tanning process. Rowan twigs were used for divining, particularly for metals.The berries can be made into or added to a variety of alcoholic drinks, and different Celtic peoples each seem to have had their favourites. As well as the popular wine still made in the Highlands, the Scots made a strong spirit from the berries, the Welsh brewed an ale, the Irish used them to flavour Mead, and even a cider can be made from them. Today rowan berry jelly is still made in Scotland and is traditionally eaten with game.

Rowan comes from Danish Ron, and was the prescribed wood on which runes were inscribed to make rune staves, the word Rune suggesting that the name could be a translation of 'magic tree'. This link to magic goes back to classical times. Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle's feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood.

In British folklore the Rowan was the tree which protects against witchcraft and enchantment. The tiny five pointed star on each berry being a pentagram an ancient protective symbol. The colour red was deemed to be the best protection against enchantment, and so the rowan's vibrant display of berries in autumn may have further contributed to its protective abilities. The tree itself was said to afford protection to the dwelling by which it grew and pieces of the tree were carried by people for personal protection from witchcraft. In Celtic mythology the rowan is called the Traveller's Tree because it prevents those on a journey from getting lost. Sprigs of Rowan were placed over doorways and fixed to cattle sheds to protect the animals from harm. Similarly, farmers would drive their sheep through hoops of Rowan branches and people working with horses often kept a Rowan switch, as this was believed to be the ultimate means to control horses suffering from evil enchantment.

The Druids used Rowan extensively in their magic to ensure good fortune for their clans, its strengths lead to its use for magician's staves and Druid staffs were traditionally made out of Rowan wood. The branches were used as dowsing rods and magic wand sand it was common practice for Rowans to be planted near the ancient Stone Circles.

In Wales Rowan trees were planted in churchyards to watch over and protect the spirits of the dead. In the Scottish Highlands there were many more taboos about using Rowan and there was a rule against using knives to cut the wood, this came from the practice of carrying crosses made from rowan twigs without the use of a knife which were worn by people and fastened to cattle, or hung inside over the lintel on May Eve each year for its personal protection properties. Even today there are many that believe that Rowan has magical powers, it is said that more than any other tree Rowan has the ability to increase psychic abilities, increasing the ability to receive visions and insights.

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Ash - Fraxinus excelsior

Known as European ash or common ash to distinguish it from other types of ash but also as Uisinn (Gaelic), Ask (Norse) and Esh.

Easily identified by large black buds, the Ash is probably the tree of Wiltshire, growing well on both the chalk and the clay. The timber is strong and elastic so much so that a joist of it will bear more before it breaks than the timber of any other tree. Common in woods, and in any lowland ground where trees are allowed to get a foothold, it prefers less acid soils. In limestone woods is often the dominant tree. Often absent from the more acid and upland wooded areas, but sometimes the odd isolated specimen is found, occasionally even in open moorland.


Ash is the fourth commonest tree species in Britain and is sometimes the dominant tree in a wood. It is found across Europe from the Arctic Circle to Turkey. Ash is a deciduous tree with a single trunk up to 40 m in height, with a greenish-grey bark, deeply fissured with age. It is found very commonly in woods and hedgerows.

The leaves are opposite and made up of 9-13 hairless leaflets including a single one at the end. Each leaflet is 5-11 cm long, narrowed at the tip, with a toothed margin. Ash is also easily recognised at any time of year by the large black buds. In spring the black buds open to reveal petal less flowers with purple stamens, followed by the leaves. The winged fruits are called "keys" having a characteristic spin as they fall to the ground. Some trees have male or female flowers only, others have both. A tree without keys is either a male-only tree or one too young to have reached fruiting age.

Leaf burst usually occurs in May and the Ash is one of the last native trees to come into leaf. It can be dominant on heavy or calcareous soils but also survives on poor soils where few other trees can grow. Abundant in most conditions except light sandy soils.


The wood is both strong and flexible. In ancient civilizations Ash wood was used to make furniture and boats, the Anglo-Saxons used it for their spears and shield-handles and in the early 19th Century it was commonly used to construct carriages. In more recent times uses include tool handles, from small hand tools such as hammers to heavy tools such as axes and maul. Furniture including picnic tables, benches, panelling, flooring and pallets are also made from ash trees. The white ash is easily bent and will not break under a great deal of strain, so it is useful for playground equipment. White ash trees are also used for church pews, bowling alleys, furniture and flooring. Ash timber also takes polish very well. A great deal of sports equipment is made of Ash including hockey sticks, billiard cues, cricket stumps, polo sticks and bowls. It is also used in many outdoor pursuits such as walking sticks, tent pegs, oars paddles and rudders. Its practical uses in agriculture include gates, wheel rims, hop-poles and ladders.

Other less obvious uses include Snowshoes, Guitar bodies, aircraft wings on the De Havilland Mosquito and it was the chosen wood for the traditional policeman's truncheon. The Morgan Motor Company still manufactures sports cars with frames made from Ash timber. The wood can also be used in the home for smoking meat. The White Ash and European Ash are top picks for smoking wood.
Most people don't realise that the Ash tree is part of the olive family. As such, the tree produces oil that is chemically similar to olive oil. This oil can be heated and used to alleviate stomach ailments. Ash tree bark can be used as an astringent and a bitter tonic. It has been used to treat fevers and is said to removes liver and spleen obstructions. Ash tree bark tonic is also said to relieve rheumatoid arthritis. The leaves of the ash tree can be turned into a tonic and taken as a diuretic and is a good for obesity and dropsy. The leaves are used to cure jaundice and dissolve stones. Ash fruit can be used in salads and sauces as a substitute for capers.

The tree coppices well, giving strong straight poles, coppice stools seem to be able to go on producing poles almost indefinitely and an eighteen-foot-diameter stool in Suffolk has been estimated to be over a thousand years old. The density of the wood also makes it an ideal fuel, as is reflected in its Latin species name Fraxinus meaning firelight. One of the traditional woods used as the yule log was ash. In some areas the 'log' was actually a faggot that is a tightly bound bundle of coppiced ash rods. To this day ash is the most highly valued firewood, burning for a long time with an intense heat, whether seasoned or green.


Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Viking mythology, grew on an island surrounded by the ocean, in the depths of which the World Serpent lay. This ash tree's trunk reached up to the heavens, and its boughs spread out over all the countries of the Earth. Its roots reached down into the Underworld. A squirrel ran up and down the tree carrying messages from the serpent gnawing at the roots to the eagle in the canopy, and back. A deer fed on the ash leaves and from its antlers flowed the great rivers of the world. A magical goat grazed by the tree, and its udders dispensed not milk but mead for the warriors in Odin's Great Hall. The gods held their councils under the canopy of their guardian tree.

Odin, the foremost god of the Vikings, hung himself on Yggdrasil as a sacrificial ordeal, during which he lost an eye to ravens. Ultimately though, he was rewarded with insights and wisdom, notably knowledge of the system of the Runes. Both he and Thor, the god of thunder, were said to possess magical spears made of ash wood. Mortals' spear shafts were also typically made of ash (as were bows, in the absence of yew, and arrow shafts). The words for ash and spear seem to be related in that a poetic Anglo-Saxon word for spear was aesc and the Norse word for ash was ask (influencing Highland place names such as Port Askaig). The Vikings were also referred to as the Aescling meaning 'Men of Ash'.

Like the Vikings, the Gaels also thought of the ash tree (which they called uinsinn, pronounced ooshin) as protective. Of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland, three were ash. Ash is also the second most popular tree growing beside Irish holy wells, and on the Isle of Man ash trees were said to protect the purity of springs. In England the ash is the commonest tree as a place name element after the thorn.

In British folklore the ash was credited with a range of protective and healing properties, most frequently related to child health. Newborn babies were popularly given a teaspoon of ash sap. Ailing children, especially those suffering with rupture or weak limbs would be passed naked through a cleft in an ash tree or ash sapling, to cure them. The cleft was often specifically made for the purpose and bound together again after the ceremony to heal over as the child also healed. Some folklore then suggested an intimate bond between the welfare and fate of the now related tree and person, with harm to the tree being reflected in the healed person's life, leading people to become understandably protective of 'their' ash tree.

Though there does not appear to be any religious reason why this tree should be associated with Ash Wednesday, the mere association of the words is obvious, and in parts of England children used to bring a twig of black-budded ash to school on this day. Any child who failed to remember this risked having his or her feet stomped on by other ash-twig-bearing children!
Some traditional magic suggests that the leaf of an Ash tree will bring you good fortune and that you should carry one in your pocket, those with an even number of leaflets on it are especially lucky. In some European folklore, the Ash tree is seen as protective but at the same time malevolent. Anyone who does harm to an Ash can find themselves the victim of unpleasant supernatural circumstances. In northern England, it was believed that if a maiden placed ash leaves under her pillow, she would have prophetic dreams of her future lover. In some Druidic traditions, it is customary to use a branch of Ash to make a magical staff. The staff becomes, in essence, a portable version of a World Tree, connecting the user to the realms of earth and sky. It is part of the triad of fairy trees. In folklore it is believed that fairies could be seen by mortals wherever oak, ash and hawthorn trees grew together. Sailors believe that if they carve a piece of ash wood into the shape of a solar cross and carry it with them then they will be protected from drowning. The Celtic tree month of Ash, or Nion, falls from February 18 to March 17. It's a good time for magical workings related to the inner self.

Ash along with the Oak is one of the last trees to come into leaf and according to folklore, the one that comes into leaf first, gives us an indication as to what the weather will be like for the summer. "Ash before the Oak, you can expect a soak, but Oak before the Ash, expect a little splash". However, given duality in all things not all the ash tree merits are good. The ash tree is also believed to have a particular affinity with lightning. So according to legend, standing under an ash tree during an electrical storm is even more dangerous.

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Ilex aquifoila
Ash drawing
Coppiced ash
Magical ash spear