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Cypress Tree Symbolism and Meaning Behind: Ultimate Guide

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The Cypress tree, also known as the mournful tree, is an evergreen conifer that symbolizes mourning, immortality and hope.

Ever wonder which tree stays green all year, even in the cold winter? That would be the Cypress. 

These trees have a slim shape and green leaves and stand tall, almost reaching heaven. They’re sometimes known as “the churchyard cypress” because they’re often found standing like guardians around graveyards. The Cypress tree is a symbol of sadness. Long ago, in ancient Greece, people used cypresses to decorate the gate to the underworld.

Now, let’s explore Cypress Trees’ symbolism, history, stories, cultural importance, and how people have used them.

Cypress Tree Characteristics

Cypress is a name for a genus from the cypress family (Cupressaceae) that includes more than 30 tree species of Cypress. It is found on the slopes of mountains and in the sparser forests of the northern hemisphere, mainly in warm climates.

They have typical needle-like, evergreen foliage and seed cones resembling acorns. Some notable Cypress tree species include the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), and Leyland Cypress (Cuprocyparis leylandii).

Today, however, we will talk about the evergreen Cypress, a noble symbol of sadness.

Cupressus sempervirens

Cupressus sempervirens, commonly called the Mediterranean Cypress (also known as Italian Cypress, Tuscan Cypress, Persian Cypress, or pencil pine), originates from the eastern Mediterranean region and Iran (1).

The evergreen Cypress is known for its strong, refreshing scent, attractive appearance, and peeling brown-gray bark. Its cones are ellipsoidal to spherical, starting green and turning brown to gray as they mature. Female cones, rounder and up to four centimeters long, ripen in the second year, each containing 5-20 seeds that usually stay on the tree. Male cones are smaller, around two centimeters long, oval in shape, and grow at the ends of the shoots.

The evergreen Cypress is also an integral part of alleys, especially in southern Italy – the most famous is the Via Cassia near Poggio Covili – or in France.

Cypress Trees with seed cones
Cypress Trees with seed cones

The Symbolism and Spiritual Meaning Cypress Tree

Symbol of mourning and grief

The Cypress tree serves as a symbol of mourning and grief, deeply rooted in the culture of the Greeks and the Romans. where it was known as the “mournful tree.” Romans would carry branches of Cypress as a mark of respect, and bodies of the respected were placed upon cypress branches previous to the interment. This symbolic association with mourning has persisted through history.

Cypress trees were commonly found in ‘Graveyard Cypress’ as one of the oldest classical mourning symbols used in Western and Eastern societies, and its importance and longevity are just as timeless as the tree itself.

Additionally, adherents of Christianity connect the Cypress to the crucifixion, considering it sacred as they believe it was the source of wood for the cross. 

Tree of Immortality and Hope

The Cypress tree, with its towering height and pyramid-like shape points to the sky. It was understood as a symbol of immortality and hope, like dandelions.

It serves as a poignant reminder, offering profound responses to the human experience of mourning, embodying the concepts of everlasting life.

Cypresses motifs on Persian Rugs
Cypresses motifs on Persian Rugs

Cypress as a sign of death and the underworld

In ancient beliefs, the cypress tree was associated with death and the underworld. It was chosen to make wreaths that adorned statues of Pluto, the classical ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology. This connection emphasizes the Cypress’s symbolic role in bridging life and death.

Connection of Afterlife

The Cypress tree is symbolically tied to the afterlife in Greek myth and Zoroastrianism. Greeks planted Cypress near graves, associating it with the underworld’s gateway. In Zoroastrian religion, the word for tree means “immortality,” symbolizing life beyond death. The ancient Cypress of Kashmar, 4,000 years old, on the Uber Mountain in central Persia, witnessed the dawn of Zoroastrianism (2)

The earliest form of worship in the Zoroastrian religion involved open-air gatherings, typically conducted on elevated mountains or burial sites. This ritual included an urn containing a fire, surrounded by two cypress trees stretching towards the sky.

Cutting down a cypress is seen as bad luck in Zoroastrianism, bringing misfortune and illness. People planted Cypress trees around Persian temples to shade graves and ward off evil spirits.

Uses of Cypress Tree

Resilience and durability

Like Cedars, Cypress trees are also associated with eternity and long life, frequently appearing in Zoroastrian folk art. The evergreen nature of the Cypress, staying green throughout the year, contributes to its symbolic representation of longevity. Additionally, cypress trees are recognized as some of the longest-lived trees globally. In a real-life incident, Spanish scientists discovered the fire-resistant quality of the evergreen Cypress. During a test on the resilience of various Mediterranean cypress species to a pathogenic fungus, a group of green cypresses survived a wildfire that consumed several thousand hectares of forest. Their ability to retain high water content allowed them to withstand the flames, showcasing the endurance of the cypress tree.

Folklore and Myth of Cypress Tree

Long ago, a poet named Ovid told a story about why people connect the cypress tree with sadness. There was a boy named Cyparissus who was really close to Apollo, the god. Sadly, Cyparissus accidentally killed a deer that he loved a lot. He felt so sad that he asked to cry forever. The gods turned him into a cypress tree, and now people think the tree’s sap is like his tears. In another version, a god named Silvanus, who was friends with Cyparissus, also accidentally hurt the deer. When Cyparissus got really sad, Silvanus turned him into a tree and started carrying a cypress branch as a symbol of being sad.

In Greek stories, besides Cyparissus, the Cypress is linked to Artemis and Hecate, a magical goddess. The ancient Romans used Cypress a lot in their burial ceremonies.

In a big Muslim cemetery in Turkey called Istanbul Karacaahmet Cemetery, cypress trees are used extensively. In Istanbul Turkish, people call them a “cemetery tree,” and in Turkish forestry, they’re known as “kara selvi” or black Cypress. Cypresses are also frequently mentioned in the Shahnameh, a famous Iranian poem.

In Jewish stories, they thought the Cypress was the wood used to build Noah’s Ark and The Temple. It’s mentioned in the Bible, comparing its shape to being upright or its always staying green to mean eternal beauty or health. Nowadays, in Israeli cemeteries, they like using cypress trees because they look like candles and being evergreen reminds people of the soul living forever.

Van gogh cypresses
Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, starting from left “The Starry Night, Wheat Field with Cypresses and Saint- Rémy de Provence.

It is not surprising that the motif of the cypress tree appears in Persian art and on Persian rugs.

“Van Gogh’s Cypresses” was created in the late 19th century. Young artist Vincent Van Gogh used oil on canvas to portray two cypress trees in the French countryside. This piece is presently exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. 

Another endangered species of Cypress (Monterey Cypress) inspired other artists like Dr. Seuss (The Lorax) or Erin Hanson ( Cypress Moon or Cupressus macrocarpa)

Uses of Cypress Tree

Ornamental Tree

Mediterranean Cypress has been widely planted for its beauty for millennia, even in places beyond where it naturally grows. People plant it in various locations, such as the Mediterranean, California, southwest South Africa, and southern Australia. These areas share similar climates with the Cypress’s native environment, featuring hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters.

Cupressus sempervirens

Cypress Wood

Cypress wood is hard and durable. It is no coincidence that in Egypt, it was used to produce pharaohs’ sarcophagi. The arrows of Cupid, the Roman god of love, are said to have been made from cypress wood. In ancient times, the wood of these beauties was used in construction and carving. And if you ever go to the Vatican and visit the Basilica of St. Peter, notice the tabernacle door. These are also carved from cypress wood.

 In the past, Cypress was used in distilleries to ferment alcohol before stainless steel. 

It’s used in cosmetics for its astringent, firming, and anti-aging properties. Cypress wood is insect-repellent, making it suitable for furniture like pantry cabinets. The oil from cypress leaves is used as a massage cream.

Native Americans have traditionally seen the Cypress as sacred symbols of protection and healing.

cypress tree symbolism
Vladka Merva on March 11th, 2024

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