From the earliest civilizations, trees have played an important role in our societies, communities, and lives. 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 the ancient civilizations, the meaning we’ve bestowed on trees over the centuries shows the significance they play in our lives.
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.
The meaning of trees in the Bible
In the Bible, the tree of life appears in Genesis. It’s a part of the Garden of Eden, along 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.
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.
The tree of life in Judaism
The tree of life, 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. Etz chaim is a common name for synagogues and Jewish educational institutions.
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.
The spiritual meaning of trees in Native American culture
The Indigenous peoples of America have a very strong connection with nature, and trees hold a special significance in many of their spiritual beliefs. For example, the Koyukon 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). Many Native Americans also believe in the concept of the world tree around which our world is oriented. For the Ojibwa, this tree is a cedar, meaning that this species takes on a special significance to them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, liberator of souls after death.
Trees as gifts
The symbolic nature of trees means they are often given as a special and meaningful gift. Often tree saplings are planted to celebrate or commemorate a significant time in someone’s life. For many, the gift of a tree helps them feel connected to their loved one and to the Earth on a more spiritual level.
Having a special place where family and loved ones can visit you beyond your time on Earth is a meaningful way to celebrate life. In our forests, we 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.