Morphology and symbolism of trees. General habit

Halina Galera


Morphology is the study of the form, shape and structure of an organism. The connection between the morphology and symbolism of trees is associated with the spirituals bonds existing between humans and trees. The common terms, such as „tree”, „trunk”, „branch”, „root”, „fruit”, „flower”, „leaf” have a specific meaning in botany. In addition these terms carry various symbolic meanings. This article attempts to analyse symbolic plant motifs which were based on the morphological structure of trees. The symbolic significance of trees is associated with their specific structure: the crown represents the mystical heaven, the trunk symbolizes the earthly world, the roots extend deep into the underworld. Possibly the best known cosmic tree (arbor mundi) is the Scandinavian Ash or Yggdrasil. It also represents the axis mundi – the centre of the world. Tree-like diagrams which graphically illustrate genealogies refer to the structure of trees as well (e.g. the tree of Jesse). Trees are the largest and longest living organisms on our planet. Among the tallest trees in the world are: Sequoia sempervirens „Hyperion” from California (measuring 115,5 m), and Eucalyptus regnans „Icarus Dream” from Tasmania (97 m high). The largest tree in terms of total volume is Sequoiadendron giganteum „General Sherman” in California (1500 cubic meters). The myth of the Ultimate Lotus Tree Sidrat al-Muntaha – that marks the end of the seventh heaven is a reference to a very large tree (probably Zizyphus lotus, however its specimen are not so large). The oldest known living specimen is the „Methuselah”, a bristle cone pine Pinus longaeva in California, which is estimated to be about 5000 years old. Taxus baccata from Henryków Lubański is the oldest tree (1250 years-old) on record in Poland. Due to their long life span, trees can be seen as “monuments”, which remind the world of important events in history, eg. the sycamore tree destroyed during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, whose roots were used in preparation for the sculpture honoring St. Paul’s Church. Tree symbolism also relates to changes in the appearance of trees that result from their life cycle and phenology. Trees, which lose their leaves in winter and produce new ones in spring, symbolize rebirth after death. Therefore, the cosmic tree is also called the Tree of Life. In Japanese culture the seasonal changes in the appearance of trees indicated the passage of time. In many cultures around the world trees were held sacred because they were believed to be the homes of certain gods (e.g. Ficus sycomorus in ancient Egipt, oak trees in Slavic and German legends). It should be noted, however, that the trees themselves were not the objects of worship but the gods who were thought to dwell in these trees. Nowadays the respect people have for trees stems from other reasons.


plant structure; world record holders among plants; symbolic plant motifs; arbor mundi; axis mundi; the Tree of Life

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