During the course of researching the physic nut or Jatropha curcas, I came across a couple of other trees associated with Christ’s crucifixion. Firstly, there is the European Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). The blog, God as a Gardener, says of this plant that:
” Many individuals believe that the cross on which Christ was crucified was from a dogwood tree. They associate the dark spot on each petal of the dogwood flower with the wounds on his hands and feet.”
The second tree is the elder (Sambucus nigra). There is a belief in Britain that Christ’s cross was made from elder wood. Possibly because of this connection elders were also used for protection. In Discovering The Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker writes how an elder tree planted by the door of a house shielded “the household from witchcraft, evil and lightning and promoted fertility”. She also mentions that an elder tree growing sturdily on a grave was regarded as good sign as it meant that the grave’s occupant was happy and “would not walk.”
Conversely, in some parts of Britain, the elder has more negative associations. Particularly the West Country, there is a legend that the elder was the tree from which Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus to the authorities. Baker notes how in Dorset, the elder was called “God’s stinking tree” and was actually banned from domestic use. However, she doesn’t mention exactly when such a ban took place.
In my home county of Warwickshire, the elder is linked with the Devil himself. J. Harvey Bloom, writing on local plant lore in the 1920s noted a belief that if the elder tree were used for firewood not only would the fire not burn but the Devil would sit on the chimney pot. Fifty years later, C.S. Wharton who also collected Warwickshire folklore was told by an informant that “The elder tree is generally thought to be the tree of evil and is associated with the powers of darkness.”
There is also a belief in Warwickshire that the elder tree can bleed. Just as the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday, the elder tree bleeds on a specific day: June 23th – Midsummer’s Eve. However, unlike the lore surrounding the physic nut, these elder beliefs are linked to one specific tree and are far from Christian.
The elder tree in question is the one growing (or believed to have grown) at the prehistoric Rollrights Stone circle which lies on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Here a witch was supposed to have turned herself into an elder. In a 19th-century article on the Rollright Stones, its author, Arthur Evans was told by one local informant that the fact that the tree bled when its bark was pierced was proof that it once had been a witch. However, exactly which tree is the witch is hard to say as Evans mentioned there was some dispute about its exact location and elder trees grow in abundance in the area.
Next time…. a brief look at the legend of the Rollrights’ witch and then back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree.
Sources (in order of first appearance in text)
God as a Gardener blog edited by Carolyn Roth – https://godasgardener.com/2014/04/18/dogwood-cross/
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 52-54
J. Harvey Bloom, Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare’s Land (London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929), p. 148
C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 34.
Arthur J. Evans, ”The Rollright Stones and Their Folk-lore” in the journal Folklore, vol. 6, no. 1 (Mar., 1895), pp. 6-53, p. 20.
Image credits: Picture of dogwood by Colin Smith – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dogwood,_Wisley_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1089858.jpg
Image credits: Elder tree and the Rollright Stones courtesy of Simon Noel