This is an article that originally appeared on my About site, but with the migration to the super-cool new ThoughtCo vertical, some under-performing articles got done away with. However, I was traveling recently and saw a ribbon tree, and it made me want to share this once again.
The history behind the use of ribbon trees is a long and complex one. It’s a practice found in a number of different cultures, so I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging and see how they compare in various places around the world. Although it’s difficult to tell, at least initially, where this practice may have originated, it looks like it’s safe to say that it’s something that happens pretty much globally.
Sometimes called wishing trees, other times called rag bushes, these plants are often decorated by strips of cloth by visitors who want to see their wishes fulfilled. In some areas, these trees are located near sacred springs or holy wells, although that doesn’t appear to always be the case.
At the Hill of Tara, which was the home of the High Kings of Ireland, there is a pair of trees growing side by side. It’s not uncommon to see these trees tied with brightly colored pieces of cloth around the Beltane season. The trees – which are hawthorns – are decorated by visitors in early May, and the strips of cloth are known as clotties.
Interestingly, in recent years people have been tying seemingly random bits of detritus – plastic and metal, in particular – to the trees at Tara and the area around the holy well of Kildare. This is a deviation from traditional practice, in which the cloths from a sickbed were tied and hung along with appropriate prayers. As the sickcloths decomposed and biodegraded in the elements, the illness itself was carried away.
There are some belief systems that refer to Ireland’s clottie trees as “Fairy Trees,” but again, this is not part of traditional Irish legend, and appears to be more of a new age type thing.
Chinese Wishing Trees
In Hong Kong, the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are a popular destination for tourists, as well as the locals. These large banyan trees are part of a shrine where visitors can burn joss sticks and ask for their prayers to be answered. In the past, there was a practice of writing one’s wish on a piece of paper, tying it to an orange, and tossing it up in the tree. For years, papers hung in the trees, but apparently this became dangerous, because in 2005 a branch fell and caused injuries to several guests.
After that, authorities set up a series of racks on which people can tie their wish papers, in the hopes of allowing the trees a few years of recovery time.
The Hindu Kalpavriksha
In the Hindu religion, the Kalpavriksha is a divine tree that fulfills wishes. This tree of life, or world tree, appears in the Vedic scriptures, and is said to have originated during the churning of the primal waters of the ocean, and was found by Indra, the king of the gods. Indra took the tree home with him and planted it there so he could have it with him at all times. In some Indian villages, individual trees – often fig, coconut or the baobab – are considered Kalpavriksha trees, and are often decorated by residents as a way of asking the gods to grant wishes.
The Walleechu of Argentina
High in the mountains of South America, some indigenous peoples still honor a tree that has been a source of wish fulfillment for many generations. A British missionary wrote the following account:
“Being winter the tree had no leaves, but in their place, numberless threads, by which the various offerings, such as cigars, bread, meat, pieces of cloth, etc., had been suspended. Poor Indians, not having anything better, pull only a thread from their ponchos, and fasten it to the tree. Richer Indians are accustomed to pour spirits and mato into a certain hole, and likewise to smoke upwards, thinking thus to afford all possible gratification to Walleechu.”
If you’re lucky enough to see a wishing tree or a rag bush somewhere and want to add to it, make sure that anything you hang on it is in fact biodegradable. Blogger and travel writer Rich Rennicks, over at A Trip To Ireland, points out that many people put in a lot of hours trying to save the rag trees at Tara from the damage done by so many years of inappropriate offerings.
Rich says, “Traditionally, people tied strips of linen or cloth to a rag tree as a symbol of their prayer (long before synthetic substances were invented). Over time, these offerings have been replaced by inappropriate modern items (mass cards, glass jars containing candles, coins embedded into the bark, rosaries, dummies/soothers, etc.) and some complete rubbish added by careless people who either didn’t think about their actions or added the first thing they had to hand (nylon string, plastic ribbons, rings, beads, love locks, loom bands, or — strangest of all — socks and underwear–why?). Things that don’t naturally and quickly biodegrade or rot away harm the trees by killing limbs, preventing buds forming and leaves opening, or breaking branches. Over time, others add more bad stuff under the mistaken impression that the items already on the tree are acceptable, and the trees start to weaken and die.”
He suggest small strips of non-synthetic cloth – draped over branches, and not tied – as an acceptable offering that will eventually biodegrade without causing long term damage. Also, colored paper ribbon like crepe, or origami papers are a great option as well.
Ideally, you’ll want to leave the tree intact and healthy for future generations, so if you have a chance to leave anything, consider something non-tangible, like a simple prayer or song describing your wish, cast upon the wind and into the skies.
Image by Jennifer Pickens, licensed through Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)