A beam of sunlight shines through the canopy of the Point Arena Memorial Forest. This is an example of a spot for natural burial

Symbolism of Trees: Spiritual Meanings Across History

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From the earliest civilizations, trees have played an important role in our societies, communities, and lives. The symbolism of trees has long been a part of humanity, across many cultures. Not only do they offer beauty in the natural world that we can enjoy but they provide shelter, protection, and wood. 

It’s little wonder, then, that trees have a rich history of symbolism and spiritual meaning in cultures all across the world. From religious significance in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other world religions to their roles in the stories and mythologies of ancient civilizations, the meaning we’ve bestowed on trees over the centuries shows the significance they play in our lives.

Symbolism of Trees: The Spiritual Meaning of Trees

Spirituality and religion often express their teachings and beliefs through story, allegory, and symbolism. Many different faiths around the world include the symbol of the tree in their stories.

In particular, we find the imagery of the “world tree” and the “tree of life” in various forms across many different faith traditions. The world tree is a concept of the world being structured around a tree whose branches support our world and whose roots spread down into the underworld. The tree of life metaphor often involves a tree that is seen as the source of life, whose fruits provide life to humans and, in some cases, immortality.

A large tree stand in a meadow.  The symbolism of trees varies across cultures and religions.

Symbolism of Trees: The Meaning of Trees in the Bible

Within the pages of the Bible, trees stand as serene symbols of life and knowledge, most notably in Genesis. Here, the tree of life stands as a pivotal element within the Garden of Eden, coexisting with the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This second tree is an integral part of the well-known story in the Christian version of the history of mankind. Adam and Eve are told not to partake in the fruit from this tree, but Eve eats it, and as a result, they are exiled from the Garden of Eden.

This passage not only underscores the symbolism of trees within the Bible but also invites us to reflect on the deeper connections we share with the natural world. Trees, in their majestic and enduring presence, remind us of the delicate balance between life’s inherent beauty and the wisdom it offers.

Symbolism of Trees: The Symbolism of Trees in Islam

The tree of life appears in Islam as the tree of immortality. Like the Bible, the Qur’an places this tree in the Garden of Eden. However, in the Islamic version of the story, Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the tree because it will give them immortality and turn them into angels. Throughout the rest of the Qur’an, trees are symbolic of different ideas and concepts—a good concept is represented by a good tree and a bad concept by a bad tree.

In contemplating the trees’ message, we are reminded of the delicate balance of life, the importance of our choices, and our role in nurturing a world that flourishes in harmony and peace.

Symbolism of Trees: The tree of life in Judaism

In the rich tapestry of Jewish tradition, the tree of life, or etz chaim in Hebrew, is a significant symbol within Judaism. As well as appearing in the story of Adam and Eve, the tree of life is often used as a metaphor for the Torah, from the saying Etz chaim hee l’machazikim bah—“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her” in Proverbs. 

This imagery underlines the vital connection between nature, knowledge, and spirituality in Judaism. 

Symbolism of Trees: Sacred trees in Indian religions

Several of the religions that originated in India, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, hold special species of trees sacred. These trees are found in protected groves, which are often located by temples and in other areas of religious significance. 

For example, Panchavati groves are found across India and contain a combination of five of the following sacred trees: Banyan, Peepal, Bengal Quince, Indian Gooseberry, Ashoka, Cluster Fig, Indian Mesquite, and Neem.

Symbolism of Trees: Spiritual Meaning in Native American Culture

In the heart of Native American traditions, trees are revered as sacred embodiments of the Earth’s tranquility and wisdom. These majestic beings are deeply intertwined with indigenous spiritual practices, symbolizing the profound connection between nature and humanity.

For example, the Koyukon people believe that trees are aware of their surroundings and communicate with one another (research has also shown this to be true on a scientific basis, thanks to the mycorrhizal networks that connect trees underground)

Furthermore, the concept of a world tree, central to many Native American cultures, illustrates the pivotal role these beings play in the spiritual orientation of our existence. For the Ojibwa, the cedar tree emerges as a symbol of particular reverence, embodying their unique relationship with the natural world.

Read more: Memorial celebrations from around the world

What do different types of trees symbolize?

Different species of trees have their own meaning and significance in various cultures. In particular, Celtic and Norse mythology held meanings for different species of trees in early European history.

Symbolism of Trees: Alder

In Celtic mythology, the alder tree is said to represent a balance between the two genders, as male and female catkins grow on the same branch. It also symbolizes courage and evolving spirit. In Irish folklore, alder is also known as the tree of the faeries, who in many Irish tales live and hide in alder trees.

Symbolism of Trees: Ash

The ash tree is especially important in Norse mythology. This belief system has its own version of the world tree metaphor—represented by the ash tree. Historically, in European cultures, it was also believed that burning the wood of ash trees could ward off evil spirits. These trees also symbolize higher awareness and sacrifice.

Symbolism of Trees: Aspen

Aspens make a beautiful soft whispering sound when the wind blows through their leaves. Many cultures believed our ancestors shared messages with us through the wind so aspens were considered sacred. Because these trees are often associated with peace, it’s a calming experience to sit in an aspen grove and listen to the messages from those who have gone before us.

Symbolism of Trees: Hazel

In Celtic mythology, the hazel tree is a symbol of wisdom and inspiration. Nine magic hazel trees are said to hang over the sacred well of wisdom, dropping their hazelnuts into the well to bestow wisdom. It is also prominently featured in Greek and Roman mythologies, where the messengers of the gods Hermes & Mercury, who also represented intelligence and wisdom, both carried hazel staffs.

Symbolism of Trees: Maple

Maples are known to have magical properties and symbolize balance, strength, and endurance among other things. Because of their ability to change colors in the fall, these trees are also a symbol of change for many people. Their wide canopy offers protection to those under its leaves. In some cultures, maples are known to ward off evil spirits. 

Symbolism of Trees: Oak

Across various mythologies and literature, the sturdy oak tree is portrayed as a symbol of strength, stability, and protection, standing strong through all things. These trees are also thought to provide comfort and are considered spiritual guardians by some cultures. In addition, oak trees are known for their long life span. One particular oak tree in Sherwood Forest, the Major Oak, is believed to be where Robin Hood hid from his enemies. This thousand-year-old tree still stands to this day.

Symbolism of Trees: Redwoods

These giant trees are symbols of strength, resilience, and healing. Redwoods can withstand fires that other species cannot and have the scars to show their strength to survive. Standing the test of time for thousands of years, these massive trees are a testament to the vitality and longevity of nature and the earth.

A tall redwood tree stands in a forest.  Redwoods can symbolize strength, resilience, and healing.

Symbolism of Trees: Yew

Yew is typically associated with the dead and is often found in graveyards. The Druids saw yew trees as the guardians of the dead. In Greek mythology, yew trees are associated with the Greek goddess Hecate, the liberator of souls after death.

Remembering Loved One

The symbolic nature of trees means that they are often used to remember a loved one or yourself. Tree saplings are planted to celebrate or commemorate a life.

Having a special place where family and loved ones can visit you beyond your time on Earth is a meaningful way to celebrate life. At Better Place Forests, our memorial forests feature a wide range of trees to choose from so you can pick one that is most significant to you, either based on the meaning of the tree, the beauty of it, or even the feeling you get when you stand underneath it. If you are considering a tree for yourself or as a gift to a loved one as a part of end-of-life planning, read more about our forests.