Myths, Magic and Folklore of the Forest

It was a cool day in mid-November when a dozen members of Saugeen Nature and several from the Owen Sound Field Naturalists met in the small parking lot at Kinghurst Forest. Clarke Birchard, who was leader for the outing, began by telling us about how ancient peoples believed that forests were peopled by spirits or fairies, some of whom were good and some evil. He then directed us to follow the road to the forest entrance further to the south.

Along the way he pointed out some white birch growing at the roadside, and proceeded to tell us that we must be careful of the ‘evil eye’ that could steal our souls. Apparently, certain ancient peoples thought that evil spirits lived in white birch because the markings where branches had fallen off reminded them of an eye. Others believed that, because of their beauty and whiteness, birch trees had power over evil. Birch brooms, made of birch twigs tied to sticks, were used to sweep evil spirits out of the dark scary corners of the cottage.

When we arrived at the gate into the forest, Birchard knocked on a tree beside the path and then told us that the saying “Knock on wood” originates from the belief that good spirits who dwelled in the trees would be awakened by the knock, so that they could protect the walker.

Alongside our path grew several different conifers, including Eastern White Cedar. Pausing beside a stand of these, Clarke explained that at one time Hallowe’en, when evil spirits are abroad, used to fall at the end of the year. Then the calendar was changed and Christmas eventually fell at this time. Over time, with changes in culture, customs from the one festival began to be applied to the other. Apparently the original tradition of the Christmas wreath was that it is used to protect a house from evil spirits. The same is true of the tradition of laying greenery along a mantel, or on a windowsill (to keep the spirits from entering through the chimney or windows.)

Another tradition, among the Cherokee people, was that the cedar tree had reddish tones be- cause it was stained with the blood of spirits, and therefore cedar groves are sacred.

Changing the topic to traditional uses of forest plants, Clarke told us that Red-Osier dogwood and willow twigs contain salicylic acid, related to aspirin, which can be used to ease a toothache. So twigs of these plants were used as chewing sticks. Members of the group were invited to pick some buds from small Balsam poplars and smell them. They are very aromatic, and simmered in water, have been used to soothe bronchial irritation. Further on, the group came to a small patch of club moss, which was in fruit. The fine yellow powder from this plant has several uses, among them tinder for the original version of the flash bulb when taking pictures, and as an edible coating for pills.

By the end of the outing, people were still eager to hear more. But the group had been out for more than 2 hours and it was time to go. Saugeen Nature holds outings like this one every month from January to November. Indoor meetings take place at the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority offices in Formosa. For details see

Submitted by Nikki May, Saugeen Nature

Myths, Magic and Folklore of the Forest – Clarke and group at Kinghurst

Scroll to Top
I the undersigned, wish to have my child
participate in the following activity
sponsored by the Saugeen Naturalists. As part of registering my child, I hereby agree as follows:
1. That I acknowledge that there are inherent risks associated with this activity and that my child could sustain personal injury through participation in this activity and I am hereby accepting to take that risk on behalf of myself or my child.

2. To save harmless and keep indemnified the Saugeen Naturalists and the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority and their respective agents, official servants and representatives against all claims and actions, costs and expenses and demands, in respect of injury, loss or damage or death to myself or my child’s person.

3. That I acknowledge that in this situation volunteers are involved in supervising this activity and that I shall accept the responsibility of observing my child’s participation in this activity and should I have any objection to the manner in which my child or myself are being supervised or instructed, I accept the responsibility to remove myself or my child from this activity.

This agreement shall be binding upon myself, my heirs, executors and assigns.