My Druid studies included the Ogham (or Ogam), an ancient Irish alphabet using sacred ‘trees’. Today, the Ogham has traditional and new symbolic associations; and while often used for divination, it is a wonderful tool for finding the sacred in the plants where you live. (The Ogham includes what we would call both plants and trees- I will use the traditional ‘trees’ here.)
The teachers in one of my Druid orders advised that I go out and physically find the Ogham trees, and with direct observation and communion learn their lessons directly before any study of established spiritual associations. Which is fine direction when you live in the traditional area for these trees- Ireland, the United Kingdom (UK) and thereabouts. Given the vast variation of plants across the world, this is difficult for most of us. (For example, the UK has 4 eco-regions, while Australia has 40, and the United States has over 104.)
I found myself in this quandary; not only did I not live in Europe but I moved from California to Florida, states in the United States (US) with widely varying ecosystems. The 17 acres of Florida forested land we moved to had been unmanaged for nearly 50 years; we decided to restore it to a more healthy and natural state for wildlife and related uses. That process required consultations with foresters, study, formal training, and regular field work. Luckily, learning about local plants and forest health was a good preparation for finding my own Ogham trees. Starting out, I did not know how far I would eventually go with my Ogham studies. As my studies progressed, I received inner urging from my guides to develop a local Ogham that could be shared. Even with all of the hard work, I found the study of the Ogham to be very worthwhile, and highly recommend finding your own trees.
Since I came up with my Florida Ogam, I have seen people ask about Oghams for their areas. While I know of a few local versions, not many are available (see my list at the end of the article). I have also been to a Druid gathering where we were discussing the Yew in the Ogham (Ioho), and people said there are ‘no yew trees here’. When I asked what local equivalent tree they did have, I got blank stares. I would like to help change that.
So, in an effort to help others find an Ogham for their areas, here is the process I used to develop mine. I found I needed many steps just to find my local trees before I could start my ‘formal’ Ogham studies. There are 25 or more Ogham trees, and I studied 2 to 3 times that many local trees; so working on a local Ogham can be quite involved. You may find other ways work for you, or decide to break up your study into small Ogham letter (few) groups (aicme), but this should give ideas on how to proceed in developing your own area Ogham.
Start by defining your geographical area.
Use elevation, plant communities, distance, climate zones (USDA zones in the US), eco-regions, and the like to choose your area. Remember that the ancients did not have all of the Ogham trees in their literal backyard. Many of the Ogham trees are significant for the physical place they occupy (for instance willow/Saille at the boundary of earth and water) and we need to travel to find them. This process may help you know your geographic area better, and you may find yourself changing how you define it for your Ogham.
For example, my part of Florida has only one eco-region and forested areas have been relatively undisturbed, so I was able to find plenty of trees to study in my local area. Conversely, where I used to live in California was at the boundary of 3 eco-regions, in a landscape that had been drastically disturbed by historic gold mining, and with plant communities that differed with elevation. If I had continued my Ogham studies there I likely would have defined a larger area along a swatch of northern California to the coast (in part to include the coast redwoods).
Decide if you are going to start-off including existing natives only, or existing and historical natives, or natives and introduced (exotic) plants.
The geographical area you have chosen may have a multitude of native trees suitable for your Ogham. Or your wildlands may have few suitable native trees, but have many non-native (or ‘exotic’) ones. Exotic plants are sometimes purposefully introduced, and may now safely fill a niche from an extinct or depleted native tree. However, other exotics are un-intended or invasive plants that cause widespread plant species depletion and damage to the local ecosystem. (It’s easy to learn about invasive plants in your area – the local agricultural extension service will have a list and information on them.)
You may find historical native trees that are extinct or rare, and you may want to acknowledge them in your Ogham. The Ogham is an integrated system, so finding trees that are in balance with your forest would be best, in my opinion. I had plenty of native trees to study in Florida, and chose not to include some plentiful and beautiful invasive exotic plants in my Ogham. With fewer types of related native trees in my area of northern California, I would have expanded my geographical region to find more prospects. Just realize that after you have gone through the later process of finding specific trees you might end up revising the types of trees to include.
Get a general understanding of the traditional Northwest European (UK and Ireland) Ogham trees.
In preparation for finding your area Ogham, I found it useful to know what plant family and growth characteristics the traditional Ogham trees have. This means learning about the fun world of scientific plant and plant family names in Latin, but there is a good reason to do this. Common names can be shared among many trees, so they can’t be used when you are trying to be specific. There can be huge variation across a single group- like oaks (Family Beech or Fagaceae, Genera Quercus) which has about 900 species worldwide. You need to start by knowing what oaks the traditional Ogham uses before you go looking for a local tree. The botanical names of the traditional UK Ogham trees are available in my Florida Ogam (which are the ones used by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids based in the UK), and John Michael Greer’s The Druidry Handbook, among other sources.
Using the scientific names, UK tree guides and online sources can help you gain a general understanding of the traditional Ogham trees themselves. Basic tree characteristics include – seasonal lifecycles of the trees (when they leaf out, when they fruit, how long they keep leaves, etc.); being evergreen (looking alive in the winter); color of bark, fruits, flowers, and sap (white and red colors are often significant in Celtic lore); the place they occupy in the landscape (in wet or dry conditions, single or in groves, height, etc.); growth habit; and general nature and use of the wood or other parts. (Note: finding direct equivalence between UK and other trees based on medicinal uses is difficult – and certainly only a small part of the aspects that make up an Ogham tree.)
For example, the traditional Ogham oak is often noted as being the Quercus rober or Quercus petraea trees- both large, spreading, long-lived, deciduous (losing leaves in winter), acorn bearing oaks supporting a high diversity of other life forms. They are usually the dominant tree in their area (unlike many oaks elsewhere).
Use local plant guides to find similar local trees.
I found local plant guides that were organized into plant families to be very useful, as plants in the same family and genera will share many growth, form, flowering, habitat, and other features. Looking up local trees before going out into the field will help; it will let you know if you have several candidates from the same plant family and genera as the Ogham tree you are looking for, or if you will have to look harder for an unrelated plant that you find has similar characteristics.
Using the example of oaks, you might find many oaks in your area but only one or two that are large, long-lived, deciduous, and home to lots of other plants and animals. If you don’t have local oaks you can look up other trees in the same family, and/or look for trees that share characteristics with the traditional trees. Researching your local plant guides will help you know where to start and how many local trees you want to investigate for each Ogham tree. [Note: it is useful to run your alternate trees through the following steps in this article – you may find them useful to fill a gap in your Ogham later.]
Go out into the field to survey local trees.
This is where it gets fun! You take your guides and lists of candidate trees and go into your neighborhood, parks, nature areas, and botanical gardens (a great resource if you have one) and locate your trees. Some may be easy to find, along with many candidates of the same genera. Other trees might be absent, and you may have to find new alternatives in related genera, or in other plant families. I found taking notes and photos to be useful. I also started putting some of the information into spreadsheets after it came to me that I would be sharing what I found – keep what records works for you.
During my survey I had to cross off some candidate trees that are endangered and not found in the wild anymore, or that are too dissimilar to the traditional Ogham tree. When this happened I went out to survey alternate trees, some of which later became my main candidate trees.
Observe and get to know your Ogham trees.
This is where living in an area for some time would be helpful. If you are born and raised in your area you may already know when trees leaf out, what fruits they have, how they sound in the wind, and the like. Observe all of these things for your candidate and alternate trees. And how they ‘feel’ to you.
This is when the nexus between the science of finding an Ogham tree candidate and the art of finding the tree’s spirit will kick in. Spend time with your tree, meditate with it, remember any associations you have for it. For example- what tree did you sit under as a child? How did it make you feel? In this culture and as adults we tend to lose this connection with our plants- you are now building these connections.
You may also find that trees will give differing impressions based on the area they are in, or their age. For example, one of my Florida trees – Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) – which started out as an alternative tree, came through more clearly after I found a large mature specimen to start visiting with. There are various ways to connect, but opening yourself and being with the trees is the way to start. Give this phase the time it needs. (When my UK teachers said to know the Ogham trees first – to directly observe and commune with them – it is this step. With finding local trees, this ends up as my sixth step.)
Develop Ogham associations for your candidate trees.
Knowing your trees some now, do you get any impressions from them? Try asking them if they have any messages for you. Write down any feelings, impressions, poems, or the like that come to you. Keep on visiting your trees. Even though I have steps after this one, it is this connection and relationship with your trees that is central to any Ogham. You may find that this stage will help you decide which tree to choose from several candidates, or make you broaden your search.
I had two oak candidates in Florida by this step. It was the larger, more long-lived oak (Laurel Oak, Quercus hemisphaerica) that resonated most strongly with me, having an aura of strength and protection. These impressions only strengthened for me over time.
Study the traditional Ogham associations, and then compare them to your tree associations.
Now that you have found your local candidate trees, this is when you start to study the traditional and modern Ogham symbolism and associations. While each Ogham few (letter) is tied to a tree, many other ancient and modern associations have also been applied. You will also find variations across authors or individuals- which is fine. Because when you compare other associations you will likely find they differ from yours. What others have done may clarify your impressions, or yours may just arrive at a different tangent than theirs. I found my tree associations to be pretty close to those found by others, but it will vary by Ogham few. (Studying the traditional Ogham was the second step my UK teachers said to do after I personally ‘knew’ the Ogham trees. With finding local trees, this ends up as my eighth step.)
I also found studying UK Ogham tree lore helpful in explaining or expanding on published Ogham associations. Additional associations (like colors, birds, and animals) have been used with the Ogham, making it a rich tool for divination or other practice. Given our many varied ecosystems and lands, you may well find valid new associations of your own to add to your Ogham.
Review and finalize your Ogham.
Using the traditional associations as a check, you may find you need to re-evaluate and find another local tree that more closely matches the traditional interpretation and growth characteristics for that Ogham tree. When this happened, I used alternate trees from my list, other trees that I put through the process (for fun), and/or did more research and put new trees through the above steps.
You can take time to just go over your notes, check in with the trees themselves, and adjust to see how everything fits. This can include – revising your geographic area; your native and/or exotic trees decision; finding new research resources; new field reviews; more observation of your trees through the seasons; and additional study of the traditional Ogham associations. (This sounds hard, but I do not think you will find it so by the time you’re at this stage.) Realize that as your area knowledge and connection grows you can re-visit your Ogham and refine it in the future.
By the time I developed my list I was surprised that I was able to find similar plants for about half of the UK Ogham trees in Florida! But, that means that the other half of my Ogham are from other plant families. In those cases, I was able to find native trees that had a similar form, growth habit, and impression as the traditional Ogham trees. I did run one exotic plant through the process – the Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) – but found it didn’t align with any Ogham tree (or even with a definable niche – which is probably why it is an invasive plant in north and central Florida). Of course, there are plenty of other plants that are worthy of study apart from use in an Ogham system. In the last year I have added more lore to some of my Ogham fews, and perceive that my Ogham studies will certainly continue.
If you decide to go through all of this work, you may discover that this is just an entry into the many marvels and lessons of nature. I found that the study of the Ogham yields rare rewards. There are some available local versions of the Ogham; I have listed a few here to inspire others to develop their own:
Here are some online and print resources to use in developing a local Ogham. Many of these are specific to North America, but they may point the way to resources for other regions.
Plants of the World Online. Kew Royal Botanical Gardens
Explore Plants- Native Plant Exploration Network. University of Texas at Austin. Native wildflowers, plants and landscapes throughout North America.
US Department of Agriculture Plants Database. Standardized information about the vascular plants, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens of the U.S. and its territories.
US Department of Agriculture Fire Effects Plant Species Information webpage. (Also look up your local agricultural extension and state or territory forestry programs.)
North American Native Plant Societies – local chapters will have members who can help with plant identification during meetings and field trips.
United States Land Cover Viewer- US Geological Survey & University of Idaho.
National Vegetation Classification – US Department of Agriculture & USGeological Survey.
Canadian Plants by Family– Wikipedia. You can also search at Wikipedia by plant family.
Category: Lists of ecoregions by Country– Wikipedia.
Native American Ethnobotany– University of Michigan- Dearborn. A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.
Ogham & Tree Lore
Ogham (2014) in Wikipedia.
Trees– Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Some individual tree lore and ogham information.
Greer, J. (2006). The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Boston: Red Wheel/Weisner, LLC.
Paterson, J. (1996). Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees.
Dana Wiyninger received a B.S. in Conservation of Natural Resources from the University of California, Berkeley in 1979. Following a career in local environmental regulation, she and her husband are restoring their forested land, and traveling throughout North America. She is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (Druid grade), the Reformed Druids of Gaia, and the Ancient Order of Druids in America (Druid Apprentice). For the last decade her blog, “Danaan- Sacred Nature,” has explored nature and spiritual practice. She was a volunteer administrator of the unofficial “AODA Facebook Friends” webpage from 2009 to 2014.
Revision: This article was revised to more closely match that published in Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America Volume 1 (revised June 24, 2014)