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Unit 4. Plants and Their Symbolic Meanings

Hieros October 21, 2022

Please note that this unit is still under construction. Meanwhile a list of plants and their associations can be found in my book Gardens of the Gods (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005).

The language of plants is a vast subject, and here we can only scratch the surface, but this lesson contains some selective thoughts about ways to create a tapestry of meaning through the choice of vegetation. Essentially plants convey meaning in two ways:

(a) Physical characteristics and properties, such as colour, shape, aroma, chemical properties etc. Allowing for certain cultural variations, each colour of the rainbow has particular associations. The seven rainbow colours form a scale in terms of the energy they give off and the types of mood they generate. In some traditions they are also linked to the chakras in the human body. At one end of the scale are the warm colours: red, which is vital, energetic, vigorous and has the visceral quality of the base chakra: orange, corresponding to the sexual chakra, is linked with stimulation, pleasure and youthfulness; yellow is linked to the solar plexus and, correspondingly, is radiant, exuberant, celebratory and expansive; green, in the middle of the spectrum, promotes a mood of balance and harmony. Then come the cool colours, blue, indigo and violet, which are dreamy, contemplative and sometimes melancholy (think of “the blues”). Appropriately, many plants with blue flowers yield an alkaloid that has a quietening or sedative effect. If you are creating a quiet, contemplative corner of the garden, plants of the blue-to-violet end of the spectrum would be a good choice – say lilac, lavender or blue hydrangea. Whereas, in a more public area, for sitting with friends or holding an open-air party, more suitable plants would be those in the red-to-yellow range, such as forsythia, sunflowers, red poppies or red roses.

Yellow, linked to the solar plexus, is radiant, exuberant, celebratory and expansive, like this laburnam tree.

Blue flowers, like those of this hydrangea, induce a mood of dreaminess and calm.

(b) Traditional and mythological associations. This is an endless subject that could fill many libraries, especially as these associations are culture- and region-specific. In the following highly selective list I concentrate mainly on associations taken from European traditions. Readers from other parts of the world will be able to draw on their own enthno-botanical traditions. The list is divided into: (a) trees and shrubs, (b) flowering plants, (c) herbs.

Trees and Shrubs

Trees have a special place in many mythologies of the world. They are the aristrocrats of the vegetable kingdom. Here are some of the associations that the word “tree” conjures up: The universal tree Yggdrasil of the Nordic mythology with its nine worlds; the tree as axis of the world, the apple tree of the Garden of Eden, the bodhi tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment, the Tree of Life in the Jewish Kabbalah, the burning bush from which Moses heard the voice of God, the village linden or oak in Germanic tradition, the sacred grove, the “dark wood” of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the enchanted forest of many a fairy tale. Here is a small selection of some familiar trees and their associations in lore and legend.

Acacia

The acacia, with its clusters of aromatic flowers and its delicate leaves, arranged in pairs along the leaf-stalks, has mythological associations going back thousands of years. In ancient Egypt it was sacred to Isis and was associated with the death and resurrection of Osiris. Its connection with the theme of death and resurrection also appears in Masonic lore in the story of the architect Hiram Abif, and in Christian iconography it symbolizes the immortality of the soul. The type of acacia that abounds in suburban streets and gardens is most likely to be the Robinia pseudoacacia, a different genus of the same family, but it can be treated as sharing the same mythological associations.

Birch

The familiar silver birch (Betula pendula) is a much-loved tree. With its white or silvery bark, slender form and small, shimmering leaves that seem to dance in the wind, it radiates lightness, gracefulness and vitality. Is as associated with female beauty and youthfulness. In mythology it is sacred to Venus and, in the northern tradition, to Thor and Frigg. In Siberian shamanic lore it is the world tree, and in Russia as a whole it is a kind of icon, celebrated in folklore and myth and much treasured on account of the beverage that can be made from the sap and has many medicinal uses Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess (London: Faber & Faber, 1948, 164-5), writes that, in the Celtic tree alphabet, the birch stands for Beth, the first letter, corresponding to the first month after the winter solstice. It is therefore a tree of inception. Among the nature-worshipping peoples of the northern hemisphere it is often used to create sacred groves. If you have the space and inclination to create such a grove, the birch would be an obvious candidate, but be aware that birches drink a lot of water.

Laurel or bay

The dark, lance-shaped leaves of the laurel are traditionally used for the crowns of victors, heroes and poets – hence the word “laureate” for a prize-winner. This comes from the tree’s association with Apollo, who is often depicted wearing a laurel wreath on his head. The aromatic leaves are popular with cooks as a flavouring ingredient. NB: The true laurel, often called bay laurel or bay tree (Latin name Laurus nobilis) is not to be confused with the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), which belongs to a different genus.

Lime or linden

The name linden is cognate with the German word lindern, meaning to soothe or salve, and indeed the tree has a soothing, calming effect when you sit in its shade. Perhaps this is why in former times the village linden was the place where the local people assembled to hold court, settle disputes and debate local affairs, the reason being that the calming energy given off by the tree would hopefully keep tempers even and exert a moderating effect on judgments. Today the centre of many a town and village in Germany has a linden tree, often surrounded by a bench. Tea made from the leaves and blossoms brings relaxation and alleviates pain, fever, stomach complaints and a variety of other disorders. Culpeper assigns the tree to the benevolent planet Jupiter.

A village linden tree in Borgfeld, a district of Bremen, Germany

Oak

Most majestic of trees, the oak can live up to a thousand years and has a high place in the mythology of many peoples. It is sacred to the supreme god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, and to his Roman counterpart, Zeus. It is particularly revered in the Germanic world, where it is sacred to Thor or Donar, the thunder god. During the Christianization of Germany many sacred oak were destroyed, notably the one at Geismar in Hessen, felled by the missionary Boniface in 724. Today often takes the place of the linden as the focal point of a town or village in Germany.

File:Oak leaves by the Quoile - geograph.org.uk - 924799.jpg - Wikimedia  Commons

Plant power

The symbolic vocabulary of plants is infinite and, to a great extent, culture- and region-specific. In England, Japan, China, India and other countries plants have their own set of associations, although over the centuries they have been constantly migrating and taking on new associations with their changing environments. It is a matter of taste whether you wish to stay as far as possible within the traditions of a particular region or to mix different traditions. The following very selective list is just intended to give a few examples of plants that have meaningful associations for me. They are taken mostly from Europe but with a few references to other regions. I suggest keeping a notebook of plant lore and making your own more comprehensive list.

Fern

There is something a bit eerie about this elegant plant with its feathery fronds that uncurl from the ground like a snake. In many folklore traditions the spores of the fern are said to confer invisibility. The word fern may conjure up grottos and half-shaded woodland places, so these plants are suitable for little secret corners of a garden or secluded places that invite contemplation, like the ones shown below. The 17th-century English herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper assigns the fern to the planet Mercury. So in the spot shown below left one could substitute the phoenix with a relief of Mercury or a Hermetic caduceus.

Herbs

Herbs often have a place of their own in a garden on account of their special uses in cuisine and medicine. They are also interesting from a symbolic point of view because of their astrological correspondences. The English 17th-century herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper lists the following herbal correspondences of the seven traditional planets:

  • Sun: bay, St. John’s wort, lovage, rosemary, rue.
  • Moon: moonwort, cerastium, poppy, purslane, saxifrage.
  • Mercury: mandrake, carraway, dill, fenugfreek, lavender, marjoram, parsley.
  • Venus: origanum, feverfew, mint, thyme.
  • Mars: basil, chives, garlic, madder.
  • Jupiter: melissa, betony, potentilla, houseleek, hyssop, sage.
  • Saturn: wild campion, comfrey, fumitory, equisetum.

Here’s an idea for a garden of the planets and the herbs. Create a circular bed with seven divisions, arranged in the traditional sequence of the planets, and plant the herbs in the corresponding planetary sections. On a given day, harvest the appropriate herb, e.g. on Monday (Moonday) pick some saxifrage and prepare a dish with it. The days are assigned to the planets as follows:

  • Tuesday – Mars
  • Wednesday – Mercury
  • Thursday – Jupiter
  • Friday – Venus
  • Saturday – Saturn
  • Sunday – Sun

In a garden one could apply these correspondences in various ways

Ivy

In ancient Greece both the ivy and the vine were sacred to Dionysus, god of ecstasy and intoxication. The maenads, female cohorts of Dionysus, carried a thyrsos, a rod ending in a bunch of ivy or vine leaves and symbolizing drunken ecstasy and wild abandon. This picture shows ivy growing above a wall with a plaster relief of a maenad, bringing a touch of Dionysian ecstasy to a corner of our terrace.

Poppy

The seeds of one species of poppy, Papaver somniferum, have long been used as a narcotic drug. According to Greek mythology, the poppy was created by the goddess Flora to assuage the grief of the goddess Demeter (Ceres, to use her Roman name) whose daughter had been abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.

Rose

The rose is the the empress of flowers. Its symbolism is endless and very ancient. In many cultures it is a symbol of perfection and of the mystic centre, comparable to the lotus in Middle Eastern and Asiatic iconography and to the mandalas of Buddhism and Hinduism. It appears in the rose windows of churches, in the rose cross of the Rosicrucians and as an image of the supreme heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rosa Mundi (Rose of the World) is one of the names for the Virgin Mary. The rose is also sacred to Aphrodite, Dionysus and Isis. In the story The Golden Ass, by the 2nd-century Latin author Apuleius, the narrator, having been turned into a donkey, is changed back into human form through eating some roses during a festival of Isis. Hence the rose also implies initiation to a higher state.

An arch of roses forming the entrance to a sacred space with the figure of Christ in the centre. From the 17th-century Altarpiece of Princess Antonia at Bad Teinach, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

A path into enchantment. A tunnel of rose arches leading to a fountain in the rose garden at Kaisersteinbruch, Austria. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Helmuth Furch.

A rose cross in a square, framed in ivy. This piece of carved masonry, bought from a dealer in architectural bits and pieces, forms an ideal object for contemplating the Rosicrucian mysteries.

These are only a few, somewhat randomly selected, plants and trees and their characteristics and associations in tradition and myth. This lesson will hopefully have given you an idea of how, through the choice and placing of plants and their combination with visual symbolism and iconography, you can creat a fabric of meaning in a garden setting.

Exercises

  1. Choose a spot in your garden, or imagine such a spot in an imaginary garden, and describe how you might turn it into a shrine for a particular mythological figure or deity by using the associations of plants and trees and by introducing symbolic artefacts, works of art etc.
  2. Choose a particular tree, research into its various qualities and traditional associations. Sit under it for an hour or so and observe what thoughts come to you. Then write those thoughts down.
  3. Using books and/or the Internet, research into some of the different sacred and symbolic gardening traditions of the world. Describe in writing which of them appeals to you and why.

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