Trees in and of themselves have a long and detailed history of symbolism in literature; they typically symbolize steadfastness, life, nourishment, and fertility. But did you know that particular types of trees have their own forms of symbolism attached to them as well? If when you’re reading a novel you stumble upon a small mention of a particular type of tree—oak, yew, or olive, for example—pay attention. Chances are that the author selected that particular tree type for a reason. Here is a brief look at some of literature’s most common tree types and what they typically symbolize.
Yew trees are small coniferous trees or shrubs within the genus Taxus. They are extremely hardy trees and are remarkably slow-growing. In Celtic mythology and Christian symbolism, yew trees have actually long symbolized resurrection and immortality. This is due to the unique way in which the yew tree grows, with branches growing into the ground to form new stems. However, because of the yew tree’s poisonous nature, it has grown to symbolize death as well. This is probably why yew trees are so frequently placed in eerie settings in literature. Did you happen to notice that yew trees populated Little Hangleton graveyard, the final resting place of the Riddle family, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Voldemort’s wand was also made from yew.
While on a Harry Potter note, it’s no surprise that the tree from which the Elder Wand was honed often symbolizes sorrow and death. The elder tree, according to Celtic mythology, has also long been recognized as having medicinal qualities, giving it connotations of rebirth, renewal, and good health as well.
The oak tree is known for its hardiness and noble presence, and it has long been a symbol of durability, constancy, and strength. This might be why there was an oak tree outside of Boo Radley’s house in To Kill a Mockingbird—a symbol of friendship and continuing kindness despite the adverse circumstances.
The olive tree was central and sacred to the Ancient Greek way of life, and to them it was a symbol of peace, prosperity, resurrection, and hope. This symbolism is present in Judeo-Christian culture as well. One famous instance of the olive tree in literature is in Virgil’s Aeneid, when Aeneas held out an olive branch to Evander as a symbol of peace.
Many upon first pondering willow trees probably think of Pocahontas’ Grandmother Willow, who throughout the film imparted her wisdom to Pocahontas. The iconic willow tree has long been a symbol of strength, adaptability, power, and even magic. The willow tree features prominently in creation legends because it cannot live without water—much like the earth as a whole. It also has an almost unique ability to bend significantly without snapping, making it a potential symbol for bending with the hardships of life and taking those hardships as they come without breaking. Willows have also garnered a connotation for sorrow for their “weeping” appearance. Some of the most famous willows in literature include the willow from which Hamlet’s Ophelia falls to her death; the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; and the learned elder willow tree in Hans Christian Andersen’s Under the Willow Tree.
The apple tree has a long and complicated history of symbolism in literature. Popular Christian tradition holds that Adam and Eve partook of an apple from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, making the apple a symbol of knowledge, immortality, temptation, death, or sin. This gives meaning to the poisoned apple that Snow White eats, which sends her into a deep sleep.
As this article explains, juniper trees can thrive in very harsh conditions, including extreme heat, extreme cold, and drought. They are small evergreen trees or bushes and are actually members of the cypress family. In ancient times, the branches of juniper trees were burned for the ritual purification of temples because they generated relatively little smoke while putting out a pleasant aroma. They have been burned by many cultures to dispel evil spirits and protect from witchcraft. The berries from juniper trees have often been used in medicine over the centuries, such as by the Egyptians to cure tapeworm infestations and by the Romans to cure stomach ailments. Juniper trees thus came to symbolize purification and healing. This might explain why, in the Grimm brothers’ The Juniper Tree, a boy was resurrected when his bones were placed below a juniper tree.