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Because of their importance to humans since prehistoric times, many temperate broad-leaved trees have been the subjects of legends, folklore, mythology and religion. Some have served as symbols in military organizations or have been associated with wisdom, strength and reliability. There have also been a number of historic temperate broad-leaved trees and forests in both the Old and New World.


The majestic oaks, Quercus spp., with their impressive size and longevity have been revered as sacred trees by many human cultures. The evergreen oaks (e.g. the European Quercus ilex and Q. suber) were especially favoured and were rated as high as pines in early human societies who worshipped trees as they worshipped other wonders of nature that they could not understand [Mirov and Hasbrouck 1976]. The ancient Hebrews considered the oak sacred because it was under an oak that Abraham gave hospitality to God and two of his angels, who were disguised as travellers. This story is told in Genesis 18; and is one of 60 references to oak in the Bible. The early Gauls worshipped oak as a symbol of their supreme God. To the Druids, an order of priests or ministers of religion among the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain and Ireland, oak was considered a sacred celestial tree. Both oak and the mistletoe, Viscum album, a plant that grows on oaks and other trees, were involved in almost all Celtic-Druid ritual ceremonies [Lust, 1990].

One of the most intriguing aspects of the oak as a sacred tree is its widespread association with thunder gods in various European cultures. This is probably due to the fact that oak seems to attract lightning more than other trees in the forest. To the northern Europeans, it was the tree of life sacred to the thunder god Thor. The oak was also sacred to the principal Greek god Zeus with his thunderbolts and to his Roman counterpart, Jupiter. The oracle of Zeus at Dodana, Greece, mentioned by Homer, was situated in a sacred grove of oak trees. Predictions were made at this oracle by interpreting the rustling of oak leaves. The Slavic countries of eastern Europe had their own versions of a thunder god associated with oak. In Russia, his name was Perun, derived from the Russian word for thunderbolt. In Lithuania, the god of thunder was called Perkunas, a name thought to be taken from an Indo-European name for oak [Lust, 1990]. In William Shakespeare’s King Lear, reference is made to “oak cleaving thunderbolts” [Walker, 1990].

In Greece and Rome, the oak and the linden, Tilia cordata, are associated with the mythical story of Baucis and Philemon, a humble, elderly married couple who extended kindly hospitality to the disguised gods Zeus and Hermes after all of their richer neighbours had refused to do so. The two gods punished the inhospitable neighbours by covering all of the homes in the area with a lake except for the small cottage occupied by Baucis and Philemon, which was transformed into a beautiful temple. The couple held priestly office there until they died. The gods granted their request that they would die at the same time so as not to be separated by death. The couple was then transformed by the gods into two trees growing side by side. Baucus became a linden tree, the symbol of conjugal love. Philemon became an oak, the symbol of hospitality [Lust, 1990].

In England, the name “gospel oak” relates to a time when Psalms and Gospel truths were said under the shade of an oak tree. They were considered resting places in the “beating of parish bounds”, a practice that has its origins in a feast to the pre-Christian god Terminus. The ceremony was performed by a clergyman and his parishioners going to the boundaries of the parish and choosing a site, preferably an oak tree, to read passages from the gospels and ask blessings for the people [Grieve, 1931].

Another temperate broad-leaved tree with a rich folklore is the European mountain ash or rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia). Another of this tree’s common names is witchwood. In northern Scotland, it was once common practice to plant rowan trees around homes to prevent witches from entering. Another practice involved hanging sprigs of rowan above doors and stables to keep away evil spirits. An old German folk tale says that if you carry a leaf or a bit of wood from the mountain ash in a bag on your person, it will protect you from harm. This belief was brought to northern Pennsylvania by the early German settlers who hiked to the top of the Allegheny Plateau in search of native mountain ash. They collected sprigs of foliage and pinned them to the coats of their children when they left home to go to school [Ciesla, 1990a].

According to old Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, the ash, Fraxinus excelior, is believed to be the world tree; the legendary Ygdrasil or the tree that Odin rode. It takes its name from the way Odin came to wisdom. He hung himself by the arms in top of the tree for nine days to learn the secrets of the runes, symbolizing man has always had to struggle for knowledge. The gods had their meetings at the base of this tree and its branches covered the world (Personal communication, Peder Gjerdrum, Norwegian Forest Research Institute, Norway).

To the people of Finland, birch (Betula spp.) was a sacred tree. In the Kalevala, a Finnish epic, birch was designated as a holy tree of great use to humanity. The Germanic people dedicated the birch to Thor, their god of thunder [Lust, 1990]. “Besom brooms” made of birch twigs were used in England for cleaning out a property believed to be bewitched. The supernatural underworld, however, has a way of turning to its own uses the implements of law and order. Witches discovered that some of the bad spirits became entangled in the twigs. A witch who secured some of these polluted brooms might bind the birch sticks to a handle made of ash wood to make a broomstick on which she could ride across the country, carrying out the duties of her profession. The ash handle protected her against drowning, a fate to which witches were particularly susceptible.

The Romans believed that a person standing under a laurel (Laurus nobilis) would be shielded from infection by plague and also from lightning. During the Middle Ages, laurel was believed to provide protection against both lightning and witches [Lust, 1990]. The related myrtle (Myrtus communis) was an important tree in religious rituals and ancient festivities. The ancient Persians regarded the myrtle as a holy plant. In Egypt, women wore blossoms of myrtle, pomegranate and lotus on festive occasions. To the Jews, the myrtle was a symbol of peace; to the ancient Greeks, it was sacred to the god Aphrodite; and to the Romans, it was sacred to Venus [deWit, 1967].

Because the silk industry was so important to the early Chinese people, the mulberry (Morus spp.) was revered in ancient China as a sacred tree. Some scholars connect it with the fu-sang tree, a symbolic tree of life that appears in the mythology and art of the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). In another classic legend, the red berries of the mulberry tree acquired their colour after two young Babylonian lovers, Pyramus and Thisbie, bled and died under a white mulberry tree. This legend is the source material for Shakespeare's story of Romeo and Juliet [Lust, 1990].

Several legends concerning the crucifixion of Christ involve temperate broad-leaved trees. The redbud (Cercis siliquastrum), a tree that produces brilliant pink-red flowers in early spring (Figure 2.1), and is also known as Judas tree. According to a legend, this was the tree on which Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ, hanged himself [Hora, 1981]. Before this incident occurred, the tree supposedly produced white flowers. Now it is said to produce pink-red flowers in shame. This legend spread to North America where several species of Cercis are native. According to another legend, the cross of the Calvary was hewn from the wood of aspen (presumably Populus tremula). This legend also made its way to the United States where the tree was once feared by lumberjacks in the Great Lakes region (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) where the indigenous P. tremuloides is a major component of the forests. They refused to sleep in buildings built of aspen wood [Graham et al., 1963].

According to another legend, Christ was beaten by birch rods as he carried the cross to Calvary [Lust, 1990]. Christian people of far northern Europe believed that the birch of the Arctic tundra lay low along the ground out of shame for the birch rods that were used to scourge Christ [Peyton, 1984].

Box 2.1 Legends of the aspen

Two species of aspen, the Old World Populus tremula and the New World Populus tremuloides have transcontinental distributions and are among the most widely distributed broad-leaved temperate trees. The leaves of aspens are hinged on petioles that act as a pivot, causing the foliage to move every time a breeze blows. One of the common names for P. tremula is the German Zitterpappel. In Canada and the United States, P. tremuloides is known as quaking or trembling aspen.

This unusual foliage characteristic has been the basis of several legends relating to aspens. According to one, Christ doomed the aspen to tremble when it refused to bow down before him. Another legend says that the cross of Calvary was made of aspen wood and the leaves of the aspen have not stopped shaking since. This Old World legend made its way into the New World via European settlers. Father DeSmet, an early missionary to the north-western United States relates that the French coureurs du bois had superstitions about the aspen that originated from this legend [Peattie, 1953; Boom and Kleijn, 1966].

Figure 2.1 Redbuds or Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum) line a street in Padria, on the Italian island of Sardinia. According to a legend, this was the tree on which Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ, hanged himself.

The hollies, Ilex spp. (family Aquifoliaceae) have a wealth of folklore associated with them, both in the Old and New World. They were held by Celtic druids to symbolize the sun, and sprays of their evergreen foliage were taken into the dwellings during the winter months. Holly is still a popular Christmas decoration among Christian cultures. It was also a popular decoration during the Roman Saturnalia. In North America, holly was used as a martial emblem by some indigenous tribes and a celebration known as the “Black Drink” ceremony was based on the emetic properties of Ilex vomitoria [Hora,1981].


To northern European cultures, the oak leaf cluster is a symbol of heroism and victory. This symbol spread to the United States where it has become a military symbol. The Oak Leaf Cluster is a small bronze decoration consisting of a twig bearing four oak leaves and three acorns. It is given to holders of medals for valour, wounds or distinguished service, in recognition of some act justifying a second award of the same medal. In Rome, the oak wreath crown was a prize for saving a citizen’s life in battle [Lust, 1990]. A spray of oak once appeared on English sixpence and one shilling coins [Grieve, 1931].

The hard wood of the oak was equated with incorruptibility. The hard wood, combined with the great age that some oaks can achieve, caused oaks to be associated with both strength and eternal life in many societies. In China, the oak signifies male strength but also signifies weakness because, unlike the willow or bamboo, it remains rigid in storms, therefore breaking under pressure. To some native American tribes, the oak is a symbol of Mother Earth.[1]

During Roman times the fasces, a bound bundle of birch sticks enclosing an axe with the blade projecting, was carried by soldiers in advance of emperors or other important officials. These fasces symbolized the state’s power to punish by flogging (the birch sticks) or by putting to death (the axe) [Lust, 1990].

In Christian religions, oak is associated with steadfastness in faith and virtue. The oak is also considered to be a symbol of great achievement accomplished through patience, dedication, perseverance and commitment to the truth.[2] In literature and music, the oak often connotes strength, masculinity, stability and longevity [Lust, 1990]. An example is seen in this verse from a traditional English/American folk ballad known as False Love.

I leaned my back against an oak,
thinking it was a trusty tree.
But first it bowed, and then it broke.
And so my love proved false to me.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the hawthorn, Crataegus spp., had happy associations, symbolizing sweet hope, marriage and babies. It was dedicated to Hymen, the god of marriage and was used as a symbol of hope at Greek weddings. Bridal attendants wore its blossoms while the bride carried an entire bough. Also in Greece and Rome, torches carried in wedding processions were made of hawthorn. The Romans put hawthorn leaves in the cradles of newborn babies to ward off evil spirits. In medieval Europe, on the other hand, hawthorn had a very different image. It was generally regarded as an unlucky plant and it was believed that bringing its branches inside would portend the death of one of the household’s members. Hawthorn was said to be one of the witches' favourite plants and was especially to be avoided on Walpurgis Night, when the witches turned themselves into hawthorns [Lust, 1990].

The weeping willow, Salix babylonica, is a well-known symbol of unlucky love in the western world as exemplified by the words from a traditional folk song from the southern Appalachian Mountains of the USA:

Bury me beneath the willow,
‘neath the weepin willow tree,
for when she hears that I am sleepin’
maybe then she’ll think of me.

In Asia, however, it has been associated with the springtime regeneration of nature, eternal friendship, patience, perseverance and meekness [Lust, 1990].

The laurel, Laurus nobilis, a small to medium evergreen tree of the Mediterranean Region was the symbol and victory and honour. During the Middle Ages, distinguished men were crowned with a wreath of laurel foliage and berries. This ceremony is the origin of the term “poet laureate.” University undergraduates are known as “bachelors” from the Latin baccalaureus, meaning laurel berry. They were forbidden to marry because it was believed that this would distract them from their studies. By extension of this idea, all unmarried men are referred to as bachelors [Hora, 1981].

The birch is associated with cleansing. Sauna bathers in Finland and Russia slap themselves and each other with vasta, bundles of birch twigs tied at the butt end. When steeped in hot water, they give off a sharp, clean, medicinal odour [Peyton, 1984].

The Canadian flag is a red maple leaf on a field of white. This design replaced the Canadian Red Ensign, which was used in various versions between 1870 and 1965. The maple leaf flag was adopted by resolution of the Canadian Parliament (House of Commons) on 15 December 1964 and by the Senate on 17 December 1964. The maple leaf became Canada’s official flag on 15 February 1965.[3]



The common name “beech” for the trees of the genus Fagus, which is found in various forms throughout the Teutonic dialects, refers to “book”. Early books or tablets were made from the wood of this tree [Grieve, 1931]. The modern common name for beech in German is Buche [Quartier, 1978] while the word for book is Buch.

When the Romans invaded Gaul, they were not prepared for the foreboding oak and beech dominated forests of northern Europe. They were the direct opposite of their idea of civilization. To reduce potential problems of warfare and the mental dread of mystery, darkness and the possibility of an enemy bowman behind every tree, the Romans divided these forests with roads and fields and brought them down to manageable proportions [Miller and Lamb, 1985].

Early English kings saw oaks as a source of wealth and an opportunity for taxing. The number of swine that an oak forest could sustain from its acorn crop was used to determine tax rates [Walker, 1990]. An entry in the Doomsday Book, compiled on the orders of William the Conqueror, around AD 1086, says of a certain village: “There is wood for forty swine, and the village was taxed accordingly.” [Edlin, 1985].

The oak forests of North America were an important source of cooperage even during the early colonial period. Casks were assembled and disassembled in a prefabricated style and shipped abroad. Some made the journey several times, filled with various liquids. A defiant Englishman named Samuel Maverick, living in colonial America, was aggravated with the British Government over regulations governing stave trade and marketed his material through an agent in Spain. The agent sold Maverick’s cargo and forwarded receipts in Spanish coin to an English merchant for English goods needed and not otherwise available in New England. This is how the word “maverick,” meaning dissenter, entered the English language [Walker, 1990].

The American live oak (Quercus virginiana) was a favoured source of ship’s timbers in the United States until metal ships were constructed during the American Civil War. Tree harvesters known as “live oakers” cut large volumes of live oaks in the southeastern United States because their timber was said to have a better grain for shipbuilding than that of the English oak (Q. robur). At one time there was a lucrative export market for live oak ship’s timbers in Denmark, England, France and other European countries. During early 1800s, American gentlemen in Louisiana and other southern states often settled their differences by duels fought at the site of a live oak tree [Walker, 1990].


Many records exist of temperate broad-leaved trees and/or forests that have historical significance. In the Near East, a specimen of Quercus coccifera, known as Abrams’ oak, supposedly represents the spot where Abraham pitched his tent. There is a superstition that any person who cuts or otherwise damages this tree will lose his firstborn son [Grieve, 1931].

A grove of some 12 oaks in the state of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania in northeastern Germany is believed to contain some of the oldest living trees in Europe. Known as the Ivenack oaks, the oldest tree in the grove has an estimated age of about 1 200 years. According to a legend, these oaks have a definite prescribed lifespan. It is said that seven nuns from a Cistercian convent broke their vows and were punished by God by being turned into oaks. According to another version of this legend, the nuns were surprised in their sleep by robbers. As they ran half naked through the woods, they called on God for protection and were turned into oaks. After a thousand years, the first oak will die and liberate one nun’s soul. Every hundred years thereafter, another oak will die and its human soul will be freed. In 1962, the German Democratic Republic gave protected status to the Ivaneck oaks. This status was maintained after German reunification in 1990 [Bolgiano, 1997].

One of Europe’s most famous forests is the Sherwood Forest of central England. This forest is listed in the Norman Doomsday survey of 1086, and at one time encompassed an area that extended for 32 km north of Nottingham and was 12.8 km wide. Today, development has left it in a fragmented condition. Sherwood Forest (Shire Wood) was a prize hunting ground for English royalty and the legendary home of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. A massive specimen of Quercus robur, known as the Major Oak, is reputed to be Robin Hood’s meeting place and is believed to be over 1 000 years old.[4] It is the largest tree in what remains today of the Sherwood Forest and has a circumference of over 10 m [Bourdu and Viard, 1988].

An oak known as the Charter Oak is the symbol of the state of Connecticut in the United States. This tree played a significant role in an event that took place in colonial America. On 9 October 1662, the citizens of the Connecticut Colony received a Royal Charter from King Charles II. This charter granted Connecticut’s residents the unique right “to have and to hold forever this place in ‘New England in America’.” Obtaining such a charter for a colony was an extraordinary diplomatic coup for the citizens of Connecticut. Twenty-five years later, King James II had second thoughts about this charter. After negotiations aimed at persuading the citizens of this colony to surrender their charter failed, the King sent Sir James Andros and an armed force to seize the charter from the colonial government in Hartford. After hours of debate between Andros and the leaders of the colony, with the Charter on the table between opposing parties, the candle-lit room suddenly went dark. When light was restored, the charter was gone. Joseph Wadsworth, one of the colony's leaders had taken it to a hiding place inside a huge, ancient oak on a nearby estate. As a result, Andros returned to England empty-handed and Connecticut’s charter remained in the hands of the colonists. The famous oak finally succumbed to a storm in 1856 (Connecticut, 1994). A picture of this oak is depicted on the observe side of a $US 0.25 coin, commemorating the State of Connecticut.

In the southeastern United States, 46 live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are on the List of Famous and Historic Trees. The Evangeline Oak, located on the Bayou Teche in St. Martinville, Louisiana (Figures 2.2 and 2.3), is sometimes referred to as “the most famous tree in America”. This tree is a living memorial to a tragic episode that occurred during the French and Indian War when the Acadians, people of French-Canadian ancestry, were forced to migrate from eastern Canada to the southeastern United States. This migration is chronicled in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline. According to a local legend, residents stood under the shade of this massive oak to greet Acadian exiles who landed there. It also marks the spot where Gabriel waited for his lost love Evangeline to arrive. A short distance upstream from the Evangeline Oak is the Gabriel live oak. The Sidney Lanier live oak stands on the edge of the Marshes of Glynn near Brunswick, Georgia. Here, Sydney Lanier, a poet and lyricist, wrote the poem The Marshes of Glynn. The Aaron Burr live oaks form a row at the entrance of Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi. It was under these oaks that this famous figure in American history was tried for treason in 1807 and acquitted. The County Charter Oak, a live oak in Texas, located east of the Nueces River, was the site of an assemblage of people from a place called Fox’s settlement. At this site, they drafted a petition to the State Legislature asking that another county be created since they were so far away from San Patricio, their country seat. On 2 February 1856, the new county was created and named “Live Oak County” [Miller and Lamb, 1985].

During the days of the California gold rush, a massive valley oak (Quercus lobata) was designated the “Forty-niner’s Tree.” The tree later gave name to the Sierra Nevada foothill community of Big Oak Flat. The tree was said to have a diameter of 11ft (3.35 m) and was so sacred to the gold prospectors, they passed a camp ordinance to protect it. Ironically, it was the gold mining activity that eventually destroyed the tree. Mining operations caused the land to slip, carrying the giant oak with it [Peattie, 1953].

Figure 2.2 The Evangeline Oak, St. Martinsville, Louisiana.

Figure 2.3 Sign describing the historical significance of the Evangeline Oak, St. Martinville.

[1] Source: Rare Earth International in 1997 (
[2] Source: Jacksonville University, Florida (USA) in 1997 (
[3] Information provided by Vidar John Nordin, Associate Editor, The Forestry Chronicle, Ottawa, Canada.
[4] Source - “Decline of Sherwood” - http//

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