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The Cultural Significance of Trees

Updated on July 23, 2015

Trees endure for not decades but centuries and sometimes millennia. The pine called Prometheus in Nevada has endured for 5,000 years. Sarv-e-Abarkooh in Iran has stood for 4,000 years. Empires come and go, histories become academic subjects, billions of people are born and die and still trees go on; they are the immovable witnesses of the ages.

In the city of Athens where Socrates pontificated on justice and the good, cutting down olive trees was a punishable offense.

The Tilia, Lime Tree or Linden is the national emblem of Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. The Croatian currency the Kuna consists of 100 Lipa (which means Tilia). The pre-Christian Germanic peoples originally gathered under Tilia trees to hold courts because it was believed that the Tilia tree could ‘unearth the truth’. According to Herodotus Scythian diviners wrapped a Tilia leaf around a finger as part of their ritual in preparation of divination. Tilia trees also feature in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

In 2004 Congress passed a bill making the oak America’s National Tree. Indeed it is the national tree for England, Estonia, France, Germany, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Wales, Bulgaria and Serbia. In Celtic mythology the oak is the portal between worlds. In Norse mythology the oak was the sacred tree of Thor the God of Thunder. The cutting down of the scared oak of the Chatti tribe marked the Christianization of the Franks. In classical mythology the oak was the symbol of Zeus, the king of the gods. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is credited with being one of the hideouts for Robin Hood.

The beautiful autumnal colours of the maple tree have helped define countries and given birth to cultural activities. In Canada there is a tourist bonanza every fall to see the maple colours. In Korea and Japan millions of people flock to famous places to view the maple reds, pinks and oranges that festoon the forests of Kyoto, Nikko (Japan) and Seoraksoan and Naejang-san Mountains (Korea).

In Norse mythology the first man, Ask, was made from an ash tree. It is also thought that the sugary substance that ash trees secret was fermented to make a drink known as ‘The Mead of Inspiration’.

Trees have also long been used as a source of medicine especially by rain forest people and other indigenous tribes around the world. Pharmaceutical companies over the last decade or so are waking up to the amazing medicinal properties of trees and have been trying to secure samples of rare trees and plants before they become extinct from over-logging. Chinese medicine in particular has several remedies based on tree ingredients. For example, the walnut tree is used to make medicines to treat the kidneys and lungs. It is believed that the walnut tree contains a substance that helps with the flow of qi in the body.

Trees often mark historical sites. The elm tree is important to the history of the United States. The ‘Treaty Elm’ in Elm Treaty Park is where the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, entered into a peace treaty with the local Indians. The Liberty Tree is an elm on Boston Common which marks one of the rallying points for resistance to English rule. The ‘Washington Elm’ in Massachusetts is where the general took control of the American Continental army that went up against the British.

Trees in religion

Monks chanting under a bodhi tree or sacred fig.
Monks chanting under a bodhi tree or sacred fig.

Trees feature prominently in world religions. Famously the Buddha sat under a sacred fig or Bo-tree (Bodhi Tree) meditating until he achieved enlightenment. Cuttings were taken from the legendary tree and planted elsewhere in India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka is dated to 288BC making it the oldest verified hardwood in the world. Hindus and Jains also believe the fig has immense spiritual significance. For this reason the tree is called the sacred fig (ficus religiosa).

These are just a few random tree references in world culture. They clearly show, however, just how important trees are to us. Trees symbolize all that is worthy in us: our striving for justice, for the divine, for national identity. We turn to trees for medicine, warmth, shelter, nourishment and spiritual solace. We use them to see the future and they are link to the past. They are woven into religious stories and into political events. And now trees are taking center stage in man’s latest dominant ideology- environmentalism. A new understanding is becoming universally acknowledged and that is that we should manage our remaining forests. That we should use bamboo instead of hardwood and that reclaimed hardwood flooring is much more preferable to new growth hardwood flooring. Without trees we will be cut adrift from one of the major environmental and cultural anchors that sustain man and gives meaning to his history.


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