One of the most fascinating folklore traditions may also one of the newest: the coin tree. Contrary to popular assumptions, coin trees seem to be a relatively new tradition, though they grew out of a very old one.
In ancient times, “wish trees” were a common way to give offerings to local deities, or in an attempt to rid oneself of disease. Valuable items might be dropped into a pool at the foot of a tree, or attached to the tree itself. For the cure of an ailment, one might wash the affected body part with rags (known as cloughties or clooties), then tie the rag to the tree; as the rag decays with time, the disease goes with it. Pins were also commonly used to transfer illnesses from bodies to trees, and it’s possible that this is the origin of inserting coins into the bark of a tree.
While coins have been used as votive offerings and good luck charms for millennia, the phenomenon of coin trees may be relatively new. Ceri Houlbrook, a folklorist who specializes in coin trees, reports that no coins found at the Ardmaddy Coin Tree date to before 1914.
In one of her posts about the Ardmaddy dig (please go read the entire multi-post story on her blog, it’s fascinating!), Houlbrook says, “[Visitors] were all very interested in how old the tree was (I deal with people’s preoccupation with age in my thesis) and wanted to know what we’d found. A few of the local residents we’ve spoken to have been convinced that the wishing-tree is far older than the testimony of the coins would suggest; either we’ve not been digging deeply enough/in the right places, or it’s a case of that preoccupation with age again. A lot of people tend to over-estimate the ages of coin-trees, claiming that they’ve ‘always been there’, when they’re in fact only 10 or so years old. Obviously this coin-tree is much older than 10 years – if I had to estimate, I’d say that it possibly began in the 1920s, but didn’t become popular until the 1940s/50s – but I doubt that it’s ‘centuries’ old, as they claim in The Heritage Trees of Scotland. But like I said, I find the contemporaneity of these coin-tree fascinating; unlike my fellow archaeologists, the more modern these folk customs are, the more I’m intrigued by them.”
Hundreds of trees have been documented, and there are certainly more that are known locally without being on any historic registry. It will take a great deal more work from folklorists, historians, and numismatists to be able to tell the full story of when coin trees began to make their appearance.
Whether any given coin tree is ancient or modern, the fascination with them is consistent. It’s almost impossible to pass such a tree without depositing a coin; Houlbrook once witnessed twelve families pass by a tree and decide to pound coins into the bark with a simple stone. The desire to leave an offering, for luck or simply as an “I was here,” is palpable. Human beings use coins to make purchases and exchanges every day; is it any wonder we would use them as good luck offerings, too?
[The image at top is from Ceri Houlbrook’s Twitter feed; and yes, even that ancient looking coin tree is quite modern! Many thanks to her for permission to use the photo and for answering questions! You can follow her on Twitter here.]