Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY
Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snowfall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)
Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.
Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think it’s not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typical, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks it’s a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn
Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of its leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–which also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” with which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY
Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA), and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as in the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, which is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.


Moss at the winter solstice!
Moss at the winter solstice!

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teach me much about trees in my bioregion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons is simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. When I was a kid, a saw an animated short film (folk tale) about a tree that didn’t want to loose his leaves when fall arrived…it fought really hard to keep them. Mother Nature tried to dissuade it but it wouldn’t listen. Finally it had to let go of all its leave…I do not remember the end.

    I was wondering if you know about this tale from a foreign country? I would really want to find it…

    Thanks for reading me♡

    1. Alain, thanks for your comment. I don’t know if this story–but it does sound similar to some of the stories I’ve listed in this blog post. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if I see anything 🙂

      1. Thanks Dana and please do let me know if you find anything ♡

  2. Fascinating! When I was exploring Biodynamics, particularly the work of Maria Thun, it was explained in the books, articles and websites that the Earth does indeed breathe. When She exhales, we have spring and summer and abundant growth. When She inhales, all that verdant growth is drawn back into Her body. And it repeats, year in and year out. There are other types of this Earthly breath cycle, from what I understand, but this is the most obvious one. To my thinking, it’s another clue about the oneness of everything, just on different levels and dimensions. 🙂

    1. I love this view, thank you so much for sharing it. I have used biodynamics primarily for planting and harvesting, but haven’t dug into it as deeply as I would like.

    1. Thank you for the reblog!

  3. A joy to read as always. I am just a bit confused. Would not the tree cycle in the northern hemisphere be the opposite of that in the southern hemisphere? Is this graph then a combination of it all?
    By the way, with the exception of the Live oaks, our oak forests here loose their leaves by December and yet they can still be responsive.

    1. This is a great question. The northern hemisphere has a lot more trees (think about all of them in Russia and northern Canada) so the world’s oxygen/carbon cycle is based on Northern hemisphere patterns. With that said, different local conditions can change pretty drastically. One of the reasons that they measure things out in Hawaii is that there isn’t much plant life out there, so they can get a good sense of the overall patterns–this graph is from Hawaii. This isn’t the only place they measure it, of course.

      What do the live oaks do in the winter? Are they just awake all the time?

  4. […] via Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth — The Druid’s Garden […]

  5. Do you have any advice for mesquite trees? That’s what grows in abundance in my region. The trees I have in my yard are mesquite, a baby cypress, a baby pine and a banana tree.

    1. Hi Crimsonigarashi, I am in a very different bioregion than you are, so I haven’t worked extensively with Mesquite. However, I would suggest doing any of the techniques I have mentioned in my Druid Tree Workings series (see the links in the start of the post). That is, you can sit with the tree, study the tree and its role in the ecosystem, develop outer and inner listening, study the tree’s mythology and history, learn how to work with its wood, and so on. This will allow you to develop an awareness of the tree on a deep level :). I wish you luck in your work with Mesquite!

  6. I have a young maple with a VERY pronounced face who watches my front door 24/7. Since we moved in here, I’ve made it an occasional habit to leave the tree a small offering — a little milk, some filtered water, a splash of maple syrup — and more frequently to simply tell the tree I appreciate its company and that I am happy to have it watching over my door.

    This past spring, I noticed out the window one day when I was sitting at my altar, that in the branches of the maple were some sticks that had gotten tangled into an unmistakable pentagram shape that turned out to be visible from nowhere except my altar. Over the summer, that pentagram survived every thunderstorm that came through. In the fall, a wind storm finally dislodged one of the sticks. I asked the maple if it could fix the pentagram. Couple days later, I noticed from my altar that the pentagram was fixed. I finally lost the pentagram last week, the sticks are dislodged again and have remained so this time. I must admit, I have wondered whether the pentagram will reappear in a few weeks when the maples wake up! (Fortunately I got a picture of it.)

    Nothing like this has happened to me before. I did not know trees are conscious to that degree!

    1. Hi PaulaPaula,

      They certainly are, and it sounds like you had a very powerful experience! I’d suggest spending some time sitting with the tree and seeing what happens next (especially in the light half of the year). It sounds like the tree is clearly communicating with you. Did you see my post on the magic of sugar maple? https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/sacred-tree-profile-sugar-maple-acer-saccharum-magic-mythology-and-medicinal-qualities/

  7. […] (creator of Tarot of Trees) offers up her lovely observations of trees’ natural cycles in Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth. I particularly enjoyed the reading more on trees collective inhale and exhale at particular times […]

  8. Reblogged this on Blue Dragon Journal and commented:
    I was privileged to see blooming Witch Hazel in the Seattle Arboretum several years ago. The yellow blooms are a welcome sight in the gray autumnal and winter skies of rainy PNW.

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