Culturally Significant Plants

Culturally Significant Plants
Culturally Significant Plants

Plants are often used as a tool for ceremonial purposes, as artistic media to express indigenous traditions, or as herbal remedies or hallucinogenics to fulfill cultural needs and expectations. Culturally significant plants grow on all continents and are used by all ethnicities.

Historically, humans have appropriated plants for numerous cultural applications. Since prehistoric times, plants have served as symbolic organisms to represent aspects of the life cycle and seasonal changes, to worship, and to make offerings to gods. Plants were incorporated into mythology and legends to show their meanings to various cultures.


American Indians are an example of a historic ethnic group which selected specific plant species for cultural uses, such as rituals and ceremonies.

These plants have significant roles in the lives of modern American Indians involved in preserving botanical cultural activities by recording information about the horticultural habits of their ancestors, such as knowing where plants grow, when and how they are harvested, how they are prepared and for what functions, and their role in sustaining tribal ethnicity.

Ethnobotanists investigate how cultures identify with and use plants. This scientific field addresses how people throughout time have managed plants, including cultivation methods to improve the quantity and quality of yields and to meet specific needs and requirements.

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palms are the primary Christian botanical symbol for immortality

Researchers compare societies’ interactions with plants to theorize and determine why people at varying times and places selected certain plants for ceremonies or social uses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Data Center (NPDC) issues culturally significant plant guides which update ethnobotany theories and knowledge.

Religious Uses

Plants, especially trees, have been assigned spiritual roles since prehistory. Humans’ daily lives have been influenced by how they perceive and integrate plants into their activities. Christians use plants and flowers, such as the Easter Lily, to represent the history of Jesus Christ.

At Palm Sunday ceremonies, palms are the primary Christian botanical symbol for immortality and are used to designate martyrs and divine people and places. Ancient legends describe the Tree of the Cross, which provided the wood for Christ’s crucifixion.

Easter Lily
Easter Lily

Because trees can attain sizable heights and girths, humans have considered them remarkable and worthy of veneration. The strength and longevity of most trees reinforced people’s ideas that groves have mythical qualities, and tree cults were formed to protect them.

The rarity of trees in many regions, particularly in the Middle East and in African deserts, convinced people that trees were divine and that specific trees could be regarded as sacred.

In Siberia, ancient people were silent when in shaman forests to express respect for gods and spirits they believed dwelled there. Celtic tribal names were derived from tree nomenclature.

Many cultures’ rituals involved ceremonies with oak trees, because ancient people thought the dead resided inside oaks. Pagan peoples used trees to mark heroes’ graves.

Many cultures’ rituals involved ceremonies with oak trees
Many cultures’ rituals involved ceremonies with oak trees

Germanic tribes erected trunks as pillars, and in the ninth century the Frankish king Charlemagne had them cut down in his effort to Christianize Europe. Christians destroyed groves where tree cults worshiped and built churches on these sites.

The interior decorations of cathedrals often included tree and acorn imagery that reminded worshipers of the groves. Other types of architecture incorporated plants in designs, such as palm fronds and bark on columns and branchlike arches.

Roman legends tell how the Trojan War hero Aeneas and his guide, the Sybil, were permitted entry to the Elysian Fields, a blessed place, by presenting the Golden Bough.

Pre-Columbian people living on the American continents gave cacti as sacraments, hoping this would enable them to have communion with the gods. At Zeus’s sanctuary in ancient Greece, an oak was believed to be an oracle because its leaves made noises which priestesses interpreted as Zeus’s voice.

Yggdrasil - The Norse World Ash; the giant mythological tree holding together the nine worlds of existence.
The ash tree Yggdrasil’s roots and branches connected the underworld and heaven

In Norse mythology, the ash tree Yggdrasil’s roots and branches connected the underworld and heaven. One of the most famous culturally significant plants was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the biblical Garden of Eden. Medieval miracle plays often featured the Garden of Eden.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, an ancient wonder of the world,was an artificial, terraced mountain with lush greenery, which archaeologists have been unable to prove existed. Tales about the gardens enticed the imagination in the ancient world.

Trees are significant to many religions’ origin. The Bodhdruma, or Bo Tree, is sacred to Buddhists because it is a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa, a form of fig tree) under which Siddhartha Gautama sat to receive enlightenment to become Buddha.

Bodhi tree
Bo tree

In modern Thailand, Buddhists sprinkle water on religious statues of Buddha adorned with orchids, and many temples keep orchids in large pottery bowls filled with water to serve this purpose.

Tree myths and traditions are also practiced in other parts of Asia. Indians believe that ghosts awaiting reincarnation live in fig trees. Because they are evergreen, pines represent immortality to many cultures.


Many plants are identified with ceremonial activities that commemorate holidays or anniversaries or celebrate a rite of passage in which an individual enters a new phase of life.

When celebrating the new year, ancient peoples used plants in symbolic acts, such as drinking cactus juice to appeal to gods to bless them with sufficient rains and large crop yields. Before emancipation, African-American slaves jumped over a broom made from straw as a way to validate publicly their commitment to marriage when such unions were illegal.

In the modern world, vestiges of these ceremonial uses of plants retain some of their symbolic significance. Flowers are often used symbolically in romantic courtship. Plants convey meanings of love, fidelity, and longevity at weddings and are selected in accordance with personal preferences as well as regional and religious customs.

Plants memorialize people. In the United States on Mother’s Day, women wear corsages that indicate whether their mother is alive or deceased. Red poppies pay tribute to soldiers’ sacrifices on veterans’ and memorial holidays.

On Decoration (Memorial) Day, many people place flowers on graves as a form of respectful remembrance. Roses are often thrown into oceans near offshore plane crash sites. Flowers form makeshift memorials where people tragically died or at their homes.

At holidays, including Valentine’s Day and Christmas, people give symbolic plants with meanings, such as renewal and protection, that have developed from religious and historical customs. Holly was sacred to Romans who feted Saturn, god of agriculture, at Saturnalia festivals during the winter solstice.

Early Christians decorated with holly to avoid persecution; later, that plant was incorporated into Christian rituals. People went “wassailing” to pay tribute to apple orchards by anointing their roots with cider to wish for large spring yields.


Plants are used culturally for nutrition. Ancient peoples from diverse civilizations revered various crop spirits, including the Corn Mother and the Corn Maiden, which appeared in various forms in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa.Often, people believed that spirits of crops resided within specific people in their communities.

Human sacrifices and the ceremonial slaying of figures representing agricultural phases were sometimes held in the hope that such offerings would appease gods and assure ample harvests.

Many plants are harvested for medicinal uses. Often, plants are incorporated as drugs in religious rituals. Peyote has been used ceremonially by native peoples since pre-Columbian times for its hallucinogenic properties, which users thought assisted communication with gods and brought on supernatural powers. American Indians are guaranteed legal rights to use otherwise illegal plants for religious purposes.

Plants express cultural values. Plant fibers are used to weave baskets and clothing. Crushed plant parts create dyes which can be used to stain fabric, write, or draw.

Plants inspire superstitions: For example, three-leaf clovers are considered lucky because Saint Patrick convinced Druid leaders to convert to Christianity by stating the shamrock was proof of the Trinity.

Often, plants have different meanings: Peonies, for example, represent faithfulness to some cultures and shame in others. Literature and works of art—including Aesop’s fables, William Shakespeare’s plays, the children’s story “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Wagnerian operas have featured plant themes.

Cornfields are shorn into mazes for amusement. In the United States, nostalgia for old-fashioned plants resulted in heirloom seeds becoming popular. Authorities and ethnic groups are attempting to preserve, restore, and reestablish culturally significant plants in natural settings in order to retain traditional use of such plants for ceremonies, food, and craftsmanship and perhaps develop innovative future applications.