Symbolism of Trees: Leaf your Questions Behind!


forest main for trees

Trees have many meanings, including growth, wisdom, protection, and eternity.  Different kinds of trees have special meanings. Specific trees have cultural, religious, and personality-related meanings.  Trees also are a favorite symbol in fiction, going as far back as Adam and Eve.  Fallen and dead trees also have many symbolic meanings.   

While talking about friendship symbols, we learned that trees are popular friendship tattoos.  Trees have many meanings, including growth, wisdom, protection, and eternity, so are ideal to honor lasting friendships.  Let us take a closer look at the meaning of various trees.  

Christmas Trees

A Christmas tree is an evergreen, a tree that remains green for more than one growing season.  Trees usually lose their leaves, especially during “fall,” a season with a not very original name.  

Evergreens, however, keep their foliage.  So, they are ideal for the Christmas season, which in the Northern Hemisphere is during winter time.  Christmas honors the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to have brung everlasting life.  Evergreens are apt symbols of that too.   

Christmas trees symbolize Christmas and Christianity.  But, they often symbolize non-religious things too, such as children and family, the holiday season, wintertime (or summer in Australia!), and how life continues on no matter what.  

Many people now use artificial Christmas trees.  They can symbolize commercialization and lack of authenticity.  All the same, even artificial trees can symbolize all the rest as well.  Read more about the symbolism of Christmas trees here.

Pine Trees

Pine trees provide habitats for animals and are important resources for humans too.  Pine is used for construction, paper, to produce oil and tar, and many enjoy eating pine nuts. 

The pine tree is familiar and beloved.  No wonder it is the symbol of health and prosperity.  

An evergreen tree, it is a symbol of wisdom, longevity, and everlasting life.  It is also the symbol of rebirth as seen by how they thrived in Japan after World World II.  

Pine trees in Korea are believed to be honorable, strong, and wise beings. The Iroquois believe it is the “Tree of Peace,” bundles of its needles symbolizing each of the five nations.  

Pine trees make good Christmas trees.  Pine cones particularly have been religious symbols from ancient times, from ancient purification rites to use in Christian ceremonies.  

Oak Trees

Oak trees are one of the most common trees in North America.  

The two major types are red and white.  Some oak trees are evergreen while others are deciduous (seasonal shedding of leaves).   Rich in tannin, they are used in tanning of leather.

“Mighty as an oak” is a common saying, showing how oak symbolizes protection, strength and resistance. Oak trees were a common source of planks for shipping from the days of the Vikings until the 19th Century.  The oak was eventually voted the official tree of the United States.

Oaks had religious symbolism from ancient times, including as the sacred tree of Zeus and Jupiter, the kings of the Greek and Roman gods.  With life spans of two hundred years, oak trees symbolize long life, protection, and caring.  

Acorns, the fruit (nut) of the oak tree, symbolizes luck and abundance.  Acorns were also symbols of witches, Celtic witches using them for potions and rituals.  Acorns are also food for animals (Scrat loves them) and humans.  An acorn is a symbol of squirrels and urban wildlife.  

Bamboo “Trees” 

Bamboo is actually a type of very tall, very big grass with large, woody stems — called culms — divided into sections by nodes. They spread through tough underground stems, or rhizomes.

Bamboo is common in South and East Asia.  Bamboo is a primary source of food for pandas, both being special symbols of China.  Bamboo also has special spiritual significance in Japanese culture.  It symbolizes virtue, modesty, and culture.  Bamboo is the “gentlemen” of plants.   

Bamboo is very quick-growing while being very hard to destroy.  Bamboo symbolizes strength and endurance.  A Vietnamese fairy tale known as the “The Hundred-knot Bamboo Tree” tells of a peasant enduring hard labor and many seemingly impossible tasks to win his true love.  

Bamboo has many uses and is environmentally friendly.  No wonder it is especially honored in Buddhism, including as a meat substitute and sometimes as a protection from evil at shrines.  

Palm Trees

The first image many would have of a palm tree is a person on a tropical island, maybe even Gilligan.  The person might be daydreaming of sitting under the tree, drinking a coconut drink.  

Palm trees are a broad collection (Madagascar alone has 130 species) of plants that come in the form of shrubs, trees or long, woody vines.  Palms do favor tropical and subtropical climates, but are also found in places like Europe and the Pacific Northwest.   

Palms symbolize tropical areas, especially coconuts, and rest and relaxation.  They also are quite useful, serving as food (dates, coconuts, heart of palm), drink (palm wine), baskets and furniture (rattan), oil, and much more.  Palm trees are also used for decoration, giving a tropical touch.

Palms also have special religious significance.  Jews believe they represent peace and plenty. The gospels tell us the people laid palms on the ground to welcome Jesus in his entry into Jerusalem (celebrated on Palm Sunday).  Islam honors palms as a symbol of rest and hospitality

In Literature

In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:9

Trees have long been an important symbol in literature. The two trees referenced in the famous Adam and Eve account were common symbols in ancient mythology.   

A favorite example for me personally is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, an autobiographical novel by Betty Smith.  The book is about a family who is struggling to survive in an urban city. The tree is a symbol of life and hope.  It also symbolizes the main character herself, who is growing up.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein is a beloved children’s book.  The tree always has something to offer the boy, ultimately providing a place to rest when he is old.  Some do find the book problematic, believing it is a sign of a one-sided exploitative relationship.   

One more example would be the tree in To Kill the Mockingbird, often shown on the cover of the book.  The character “Boo” uses it to communicate with the children, leaving special gifts in its bark.  The tree also symbolizes the community as a whole.  And, the mockingbird metaphor itself also involves trees, which are, after all, the home of birds.   

Elm Trees

The first thing that comes to mind regarding elm trees is the horror movie series, Nightmare on Elm Street.  The title is a result of tree names being a common choice for suburban street names.  The name brings up an image of an ordinary community, who suddenly deal with horror.

Elm trees are a “staple”  of North America, a symbol of everyday life.  The Liberty Tree, for instance, that became a symbol for American resistance to Great Britain before the Revolutionary War was an elm tree.  A symbol of the average patriot.  

Elms were associated in Ancient Greece with the underworld.  The first reference of elms in Greek literature was an account of them being planted at the tomb of Achilles, the great hero of The Iliad.  The wood of elm also was traditionally used to make coffins.   

Elms, which are large shade trees, do at times have positive meanings.  Elms can symbolize peace and comfort, arising regularly in pastoral poetry to express charming images.  

The Japanese Ainu people also use the bark of the elm tree for a distinctive cloth.  One myth holds that the chief goddess of the Ainu people herself was the child of an elm tree.   

Magnolia Trees 

The magnolia tree is named after a French botanist, Pierre Magnolia.  It is popular because of its beauty and nice scents, which attract both humans and bees to them.  

Magnolia trees symbolize beauty, femininity, and purity.  White magnolias are popular wedding flowers. Magnolias can also symbolize power and endurance, strength during adversity, particularly women.  A magnolia can symbolize someone who is stronger than she looks.  

Magnolias are particularly associated with the Southern region of the United States.  Mississippi is the “Magnolia state” and a magnolia flower is front and center in its new state flag. The movie Steel Magnolias  portrays strong willed (“steel”)  Southern women (“magnolias”).  

Magnolias are also honored in Asia.  They are the official flowers in  major cities in China and South Korea as well as the national flower of North Korea.  In Chinese art, magnolias are a symbol of feminine sweetness and beauty.     

Olive Trees 

Olive trees are one of the oldest cultivated (grown by humans) trees in the world.  They are native to Mediterranean Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Olives are beloved for their taste and oil.  

Olives and olive oil symbolize the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Very associated with Greeks and Romans, olives are also symbols of Middle Eastern people, including the Palestinians.   

Olives symbolize certain types of foods and drinks.  An olive is particularly associated with the martini, a stylish alcoholic cocktail.  And, of course there is the Olive Garden, a chain Italian restaurant.  For many cultures, olives are symbols of family and home.  

The “olive branch” is a symbol of peace, including a sign of peaceful intent during negotiations.  The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States is clutching an olive branch.  

Olive branches are a symbol of abundance and glory.  An olive leaf crown, a wreath, was placed on the heads of winners of Olympic Games in Ancient Greece.  

Olive oil often symbolizes holiness, being used in religious rituals as a sign of purity.  It was also used for medicinal reasons; injured Greek and Roman warriors were given olive salves.  

Willow Trees

Willow trees are native to China, where it symbolizes immortality and rebirth.  

In Japan, willow trees are associated with ghosts.  The Native Americans also believe willow trees symbolize old age and wisdom as seen in the story “Wisdom of the Willow Tree.”

The “weeping willow” gets its name from its drooping branches, thought to represent tears.  Willows can therefore symbolize sadness and grief.  Some believe the first weeping willow grew in Babylon, where the Ancient Israelites were taken into slavery.  

Willow was long used as medicine, symbolizing health and well being.  It is also a useful source of manufactured materials (baskets, fishing nets, dyes).  Willow symbolizes everyday life.  

Willow trees can also symbolize strength, their branches extremely flexible. The leaves can also represent balance, harmony, and growth. Willow Place is a women’s treatment center, which chose its name in honor of the long time spiritual and cultural meanings of the willow tree.  

Fallen Trees 

Trees fall for various reasons, providing a range of symbolism in the process. 

Trees fall for natural reasons, including by lightning strikes and because of disease and old age.  Fallen trees here symbolize nature and God, death and dying, and the passing of time.

A broken branch or fallen tree can mean death, especially a life cut short.  It can also reflect a chance for a new beginning.  A fallen tree provides an opening for new life and experiences.

If a person is not hurt by a fallen tree, it is a sign of good luck.  A fallen tree causing damage, including to your car or home, is a sign of bad luck and/or a bad omen of things to come.     

Trees also are chopped down. Fallen trees can symbolize the people who knock them down as well as how they are used.  Fallen trees, for instance, can symbolize a log cabin. 

Beavers are “animal lumberjacks,” and fallen trees can symbolize them as well.  

Dead Trees 

Trees are symbols of life.  The branches of a tree can symbolize the different parts of a family.  The interconnected roots of trees symbolize how the world itself is connected.  

A dead tree, therefore, symbolizes death.  It can be a useful tool in a horror movie, giving us the creeps.  A dead tree is sometimes believed to be haunted by ghosts.  Maybe, not truly dead?

A dead tree left to decompose (creepy word!) upright is called a “snag” while those fallen on the ground are called “logs.”  These trees are quite useful.  Many forms of lifelike insects, moss, and fungi feed off them.  Animals can live in them.  

Dead trees are ironically quite thriving places.  They are also important for the “circle of life,” providing nutrients to the soil.  Dead trees symbolize the life cycle and rebirth.  

Conclusion 

I am typing this entry during the last days of winter.  

People are looking forward to spring, symbolized by leaves growing on trees. Trees are an important symbol of the changing seasons, both during the year and in life itself.  

Trees provide a taste of nature to residents of New York City.  They also grumble a bit because they have to rake all those leaves.  Still, it is worth it overall.  

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