A huge variety of cultural values and symbolic functions are ascribed to the world’s tree species.
Particular trees have a sacred status, are used in rituals, provide ingredients for cultural dishes or have symbolic importance for ethnicity, identity and connection to a place.
Trees also play a central role in stories, myths and histories.
Below, we provide few examples of tree species that have attained significance to different cultures and communities.
Certain trees mark the location for social gatherings and political meetings
In Cote d’Ivoire, village elders sit under particular “abres a palabres” trees, such as the Gold Coast Bombax (Bombax buonopozense), to make major political and judicial decisions. In Madagascar, the majestic Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) plays a similar role, symbolising and providing a focal point for a number of village affairs.
Trees provide ingredients for a number of food dishes of cultural importance
The bush mango (Irvingia sp.) provides a nut that is pounded and used to thicken dishes such as the culturally important Pepe soup, consumed ubiquitously along the west African coast. The Bunya Pine’s (Araucaria bidwillii) occasional mass fruiting allowed native Australians to gather and conduct all sorts of social and cultural activities at the site where they grew. In Europe, the smell of roasting Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) heralds the onset of winter and the Christmas season.
Products from certain trees may also be highly symbolic
In west and central Africa, nuts from Cola trees symbolise hospitality and friendship. The Igbo from Nigeria begin all discussions, prayers, and ceremonies with the breaking of cola nuts, without which meetings would be deemed of no significance. In North America, some indigenous groups emit smoke from the False Lawson’s Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) to call spirits into ceremonial areas, thus symbolising the beginning of a meeting.
Trees that have attained a sacred status in their own right
One of the most famous trees may be the pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment. The pipal tree is also sacred to Hindus who regard it as a place of dwelling for Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. In Kenya, the sausage tree (Kigelia africana) is also believed to shelter spirits for female fertility and it is forbidden to cut it in the communities where it is sacred.
Threatened trees and culture
Losing threatened trees of cultural value would diminish important aspects of life for different communities and ethnic groups. Conversely, the future of many of the world’s trees is strongly linked to how different cultures evolve and change overtime. When cultural values ascribed to trees are enhanced or re-invigorated the survival prospects of a host of tree species may be greatly boosted.