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National Hedgerow Week: Hedge Hags and History

 Over 100,000km of hedgerows weave through our Welsh landscape, established and maintained by farmers over generations. The story of hedgerows and the traditional skills required to manage them are an important part of our heritage and entwined in our history.

Land deeds and tythe maps indicate that many hedgerows are over 1000 years old, some dating back to the Bronze Age or even earlier. An archaeological dig in Cambridgeshire revealed a piece of blackthorn, believed to be from a hedge, dating from 2000 B.C.

Many were created during the Anglo-Saxon period, established by the ninth century and not altered too much until the divisive 'Inclosure Acts' of the 18th & 19th centuries (a law which removed ownership of common land from agricultural workers and put it into the hands of landowners).  This act led to foraging of the fruit tree as revenge on the landowners.

Hedgerow foraging must be done safely and responsibly alongside an awareness of the folklore surrounding our common hedgerow plants.

The Elder is a magical tree and all parts can be harvested for food or medicine, elderberry has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The spirit of the Elder, the Elder Mother is the wise woman of the hedgerows and it is considered bad luck to cut the elder without her permission. If you fell asleep under one, it was believed that you would have vivid dreams and even sitting underneath one could risk you being banished to the Underworld. On a positive note, many say wearing or carrying any part of the Elder, will protect you from harm.

Blackberries are a common hedgerow sight but make sure you don’t pick them after Michaelmas day (29th september in the modern calendar) because the devil is supposed to spit on them. This makes a bit of sense as there is scientific reasoning behind blackberries tasting off by October.

Hawthorn trees are not only beautiful but also carry deep mythological significance in our Celtic culture, bridging the gap between our world and the magical realms of fairies and spirits, being a protective meeting spot for fairies due to the spikes. The berries also make a delicious ketchup.

Celts and Druids believed that hazel trees were sacred and that eating hazelnuts gave people wisdom. Hazel is the favoured wood to make shepherd crooks or staffs, sometimes for ritual Druidic use. Also known as filberts, cultivated hazelnuts take their name from St Philibert’s Day on 20 August, the date by which hazelnuts were supposed to start ripening.

Witches' wands and staffs were made using blackthorn wood which has long been considered a magical tree and a blackthorn staff was thought to be effective for warding off evil spirits. I would also like to add (speaking of spirits), that sloe gin is delicious!

Rowan is said to protect against witches. One of its English names is witchwood and its old Celtic name means wizard's tree. Red was thought to be the best colour for fighting evil so the berries were the protective source. There was an ancient practice of hanging sprigs of rowan above doors to keep away evil spirits. Try some rowan jelly, it is lovely.

Witches and hedgerows are interlinked. The Old English word haga, meaning hedge, is found in legal documents pertaining to land ownership. Hag and hexe were names for women who lived near the hedge. They were a lifeline to villagers, probably due to their knowledge of the magical properties of plants and they had another function, making visible the boundary separating society from the wilderness. This was before the boundary was feared, Christianity gained prominence and pagan practices were condemned. So the term ‘witch’ comes from the same root as hedge.

All trees and plants should be treated with respect and the next time you walk alongside a hedgerow stop, admire the beauty and think of the echoes of the past. If foraging, please don’t forget to ask permission from Mother Elder and make sure you check your date before blackberry picking, devil spit really isn’t nice.

By Kate Beavan

Further suggested reading:

  • A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright
  • Hedgelands by Christopher Hart
  • The Foragers Calendar by John Wright
  • The Hedgerow Handbook by Adele Nozedar
  • Hedgerow: River Cottage Handbook
  • Buds and Blossoms by Liz Knight

Hedge witchery and eating are not to be taken lightly - ensure you are confident in both your identification and your sources of information before eating anything you find!

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