Magical Hedges

Many common hedge species are the subject of magical or mythical beliefs.

Hawthorn is the subject of endless superstitions – for instance the proverb “cleave to the crown though it hangs in a bush” is said to derive from hawthorn’s connection with the House of Tudor. After Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth his crown was said to have been rescued from a hawthorn bush by the Henry Tudor’s men and used to crown him. Meanwhile an Irish tradition involves leaving out a hawthorn wreath for either the angels or the fairies to find.

Elder often grows in hedgerows, though farmers regard it as a nuisance and tend to grub it out. Elder flowers are a traditional remedy, but the wood was said to be unlucky – if used for a cradle, the child would become sick, while burning elder wood could summon the devil. On the other hand hazel taken from hedges was often used for both divining rods and as a magical wand or stave.

Yew trees and hedges were frequently present in medieval churchyards, partly because of their supposed magical qualities in protecting the sanctuary of the church. The magical quality ascribed to hedges themselves is indicated by the fact that “hag”, referring to a witch-like figure, is probably derived from “haga”, meaning hedge. It is speculated that a hag was able to “hedge-ride”, or cross the boundary of the civilised settlements into the wild forest and return unscathed, which some took to mean that they were in league with dark forces beyond (although they may simply have been wise old women). The rural superstition still survives that one can foil witches by leaving holly trees growing in one’s hedges – because they are supposed to be repelled by holly.

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