Witch Thoughts: relict plants, the ghosts of a vanished age
So, as a woods wandering, botany loving witch, I have often thought about the magical and otherworldly significance of certain species of native plants that one finds here in the woods and hedges of the Midwestern U.S.
Paw Paw. Osage Orange. Honey Locust, to name a few.
The honey locust is a tree absolutely covered in branching, vicious thorns. The ones that cluster on the trunk can be over a foot long. What on earth does a North American forest tree need thorns that big for? Is it just a pointless quirk of evolution without purpose?
The thorns are there for the same reason that many other Acacia species (the family of which honey locust is a part) are thick with them: to keep elephants from breaking the branches or pushing the trees over when they are eating the leaves and fruit.
But that’s stupid, you say. There aren’t any elephants in North America!!!
Not now, no. But there were. Great tusked shaggy ones, so the locust trees would need gigantic thorns to prick through all that hair.
(They are ten thousand years dead of course, their race long vanished from the earth.
But the Honey Locust is still here).
What pollinates a Paw Paw, the northernmost member of the otherwise tropical Custard Apple family? Almost nothing. The flowers are black and smell faintly foul (so there is one witchly association to be put to good use) and bloom very, very early in the spring. Sexual reproduction by these trees is low. They have been mostly spread for the past several millenia by people, because the fruit is tasty and worthy of eating.
But I bet in the before-time, some now extinct carrion beetle would hibernate beneath the leaves of lowland woods through the long winters, emerging at first spring to feast on winter’s thawing victims, and perhaps sip from the rot-black flowers of the Paw Paw.
Nothing eats osage orange fruits either, though sometimes squirrels will pick at them. Before Europeans brought them east from their original Oklahoman range to be planted as hedge-trees (at which they are excellent, more witchly symbolism), the big alien-pod looking seed clusters were mostly carried to new sites by water.
Perhaps the ground sloths liked to eat them, or the camels did.
These trees remain in our natural and cultivated landscapes although they have long since been irrevocably cut from the web of their original ecology.
They remain - shades, curios, signposts, ghosts - half in this world, half in the next - perhaps emblematic of the strength of survival, or a reminder that trees move at a different pace in time from that of us, even in the evolving and the extinguishing of their kinds.
Are we seeing an afterimage on the verge of fading out forever? Or a survival across the gulf of aeons?
How could we know? We are only here for such a little while.