A wish tree is an individual tree, usually distinguished by species, position or appearance, which is used as an object of wishes and offerings. Such trees are identified as possessing a special religious or spiritual value. Postulants make votive offerings in hopes of having a wish granted, or a prayer answered, from a nature spirit, saint or goddess, depending on the local tradition.
One form of votive offering is the token offering of a coin. The remains of one such tree can be found near Ardmaddy House in Argyll, Scotland, a hawthorn, which is a species traditionally linked with fertility. The trunk and branches are covered with hundreds of coins which have been driven through the bark and into the wood. The local tradition is that a wish will be granted for each of the coins so treated.
On Isle Maree in Loch Maree, Gairloch, in the Highlands is an oak wish tree made famous by a visit in 1877 by Queen Victoria mentioned in her published diaries. The tree, and others surrounding it, are festooned with hammered-in coins. It is near the healing well of St. Maree, to which votive offerings were made, including the sacrifice of bulls, which continued up to the 18th century, according to records.
Near Mountrath, County Laois, is a shapeless old wish tree in the form of a sycamore tree called St. Fintan’s Well. The original well was filled in, but the water re-appeared in the centre of the tree. Hundreds of Irish pennies have been beaten into the bark as good luck offerings.
The High Force Waterfall has a coin wish tree in the grounds of the waterfall.
A coin wish tree can be found in Colby Woodland Garden.
A coin tree can be found in the ground of Bolton Abbey.
Many public houses, such as the Punch Bowl in Askham, near Penrith in Cumbria, have old beams with splits in them into which coins are forced for luck.
Folklorist Ceri Houlbrook observed actions at a coin tree in Aira Force, Cumbria, noting that a succession of at least twelve families passed by the site and decided to hammer coins into it using a piece of limestone lying around; she commented that this custom appeared to offer “little variation: it is imitative, formulaic, homogeneous”.
The practice of tying pieces of cloth to a wish tree is often directly associated with nearby clootie wells, as they are known in Scotland and Ireland, or “cloutie” or “cloughtie” in Cornwall.
There are parallels here with wassailing where the Wassail Queen is lifted up into the boughs of the apple tree, where she places toast that has been soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits to ensure good luck for the coming season’s crop and to show them the fruits of what they created the previous year.
In a related cultural tradition found in many locations, including the United States, supplicant will toss or hurl shoes into trees that are locally designated as wellsprings of good fortune. See Shoe tossing.
The Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are located in Hong Kong near the Tin Hau Temple in Lam Tsu. Two banyan trees are frequented by tourists and the locals during the Lunar New Year. Previously, they burnt joss sticks, wrote their wishes on joss paper tied to an orange, and then threw them up to hang in these trees, believing that if the paper successfully hung onto one of the tree branches, their wishes would come true.
In Glasgow’s Hidden Garden at Pollockshields and at the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland, a number of trees have been planted onto which people can tie white labels, on which they have written their wishes.
Eglinton Castle estate, now Eglinton Country Park, has had a wish tree for many years, a yew on an island in the Lugton Water, now left high and dry due to the weir giving way.
The Christmas tree is often quoted as being a pagan symbol connected with tree worship, clearly linked with good luck achieved through offerings (decoration) to and veneration of special trees.
A number of wish trees have been set up to make a wish for the environment, such as at the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Centre at Balloch in Scotland. People make their wish for and pledge to help the environment and tie the wish label to the tree.
The sacred well of Saint Tanew – or St Enoch – in Glasgow was much visited for cures and the old tree beside it was covered in small bits of tin-iron nailed to it by pilgrims. The offerings were shaped as eyes, feet, hands, ears, etc. depending on the cure hoped for. The saint was mother to Saint Mungo.
Other cultural traditions
In Hindu mythology, the banyan tree is also called kalpavriksha, meaning “wish- fulfilling tree”, as it represents eternal life because of its seemingly ever-expanding branches.
Ashen tree, ashen tree, / Pray buy these warts of me was a rhyme one had to sing whilst sticking a pin first into one’s warts and then into the tree.
The Wishing Tree or Kissing Tree was made at Christmas or Yuletide before pine trees were introduced by Prince Albert in 1840. An evergreen bough was hung with apples, sweetmeats, and candles and decked with ribbons representing wishes.
At the summit of the Fereneze Braes in Neilston, Renfrewshire, Scotland, there was an old hawthorn, well known locally as “The Kissing Tree”. The story goes that if a young man could drive a nail fully into the thorn tree with a single blow, then he would be entitled to “ae fond kiss” on the spot from his sweetheart. Success in the task was considered proof of his suitability as a good suitor for the young lady. The original tree fell in around 1860, but in 1910, a replacement was said to exist. Driving a nail into the tree may link the custom with that of driving coins into trees as noted above.
In parts of Yorkshire, a tree with two spreading branches which also formed a bower over the point of branching, was known as a Wish Tree by children who would climb onto the junction and make a wish.
Charles Darwin encountered a tree in Argentina called Walleechu, which was regarded by the local inhabitants as a god. The tree was festooned with offerings such as cigars, food, water, cloth, etc., hung from the branches by bright strips of coloured thread.
In Thai folklore there are certain spirits or fairies related to trees that are known generically as Nang Mai (นางไม้; “Lady of the Tree”), the most well-known being Nang Ta-khian. Legends in the Thai oral tradition say the spirit inhabits a Ta-khian tree and sometimes appears as a beautiful young woman wearing traditional Thai attire, usually in reddish or brownish colours, contrasting with Nang Tani who haunts a type of banana trees and is mostly represented in a green dress. Trees, logs, beams or keels of wooden boats where the spirit is deemed to reside are an object of pilgrimage and have lengths of colored silk tied as an offering. In present times Nang Ta-Khian is usually propitiated in order to be lucky in the lottery.