ASPEN (Populus tremula)

‘Tremula’ describes it well. It is a shivering, quaking tree, the symbol of fear, and of scandal, the latter the result of comparing the constant motion of the leaves to the wagging of women’s tongues. “… it is the matter where of women’s tongues were made… which seldome cease wagging”. It was actually called Women’s Tongues in some places, or Old Wives’ Tongues. That constant quivering of the leaves accounts for one of its medicinal uses. The doctrine of signatures claims its use for the ague — a shivering tree, to make a medicine for the shivering disease. In one region of France, such a fever could be transferred to the tree, simply by tying a ribbon to it.

In the Scottish Isles, aspen was a cursed tree, since it held up its head when other trees bowed down during the procession to Calvary, and also since the Cross was made of it. Curses and stones used to be flung at aspens, and crofters and fishermen would avoid using its wood for their gear. In Somerset, too, they would say that the Cross was made from aspen wood, and that is why the tree shivers incessantly, and Welsh folklore has the same belief. The belief spread to America, too. There it is the American Aspen (Populus tremuloides) that is at fault. The legend in Brittany was that not only did it refuse to bow, but declared that it was free of sin, and had no cause to tremble and weep, whereupon it immediately began to tremble, and will go on doing so until the last day. All sorts of reason are given for this incessant quaking. In the Forez district of France, they confirm that it was the aspen’s pride that causes it to shake now, but it was St Pardoux before whom it refused to bow. German legend has it that it was cursed by Jesus on the flight into Egypt, because it refused to help him, while in Russia the cause is stated to be that it was the tree of Judas. By a kind of inverted reasoning, teething rings used to be made of aspen wood in the Highlands. The argument was that since the Cross was made of it, far from being a cursed tree, it was a blessed one, and no harm could possibly come to the child. Perhaps, too, this accounts for a traditional Russian use of the wood to pierce the buried body of a witch through the heart, or to lay on her grave, to prevent it rising to the surface again.