Trees and their Biographies, part one

by Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant
August 14, 2013

Trees and their Biographies, part one

Pinus rigada

M-7. Pinus rigada, Massachusetts (Wareham), Cape Cod. Photograph by E.H. Wilson, October 28, 1923. [Information from label on verso of mount.]

Plants, trees, and flowers seem to have their own biographical histories at times, which humanize and personify them. Trees can be symbols of generation, and many cultures draw analogies between human bodies and trees. For example, in modern-day Nusa Penida, an island southeast of Bali, the coconut is thought to have “five recognized stages of growth and maturation that closely parallel the stages of human development,” and coconut trees live approximately as long as human beings—sixty to sixty-five years. Plants such as tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), sacred fig trees (Ficus) and the urd bean (Vigna mungo) in India, mandrakes (Mandragora) in medieval and early modern Europe, and fava beans (Vicia faba) in the writings of Pythagoras (c. 570 BC-c. 495 BC) all have aspects of life, death, and resurrection associated with their humanized histories.

The mandrake resembled a human body, and according to the medicinal writings of medieval nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), certain parts of the mandrake could be cut off and eaten depending on the area in which one experienced pain. If one experienced head pain, he or she would eat from the mandrake’s head. Other popular, non-Christian myths about the mandrake involve the idea that it supposedly grew near gallows, fertilized by the droppings of recently hanged men—showing a rebirth from corruption and decay, as the mandrake with curative and aphrodisiacal properties ultimately came from a locale of criminality and death. Additionally, in fifteenth-century Slavic countries, as well as in France and Germany, mandrakes were kept in miniature coffins and were believed to produce wealth for their owner—if one put a coin in the mandrake’s coffin as it slept, it would generate more coins for its owner.

Pythagoras forbade the consumption of fava beans because he believed in the transmigration of souls, the idea that humans could be reincarnated as other life forms, such as animals, stones, or in this case, beans. Pythagoras also associated beans with human conception and reproduction, because beans smelled like semen, resembled uteri, and even contained the heads of children. Beans were therefore thought to be souls only partially reincarnated and caught in transit. Aristotle added that in Pythagorean thought, beans also resembled testicles and therefore had aphrodisiac properties; they also represented the gates of Hades because their hollow stems served as a direct conduit to Earth from the underworld, and should be prohibited as a dietary staple because they resembled the universe in their basic form.

Plant explorer E.H. Wilson (1876-1930) sometimes described trees using human terms; he published books entitled Aristocrats of the Garden, or Aristocrats of the Trees, for example. A photograph labeled M-7 in E.H. Wilson’s North American collection (taken on October 28, 1923) depicts an excellent example of a plant that seems to have a legendary lifecycle of sorts, with a birth, life, death, and even a “resurrection.” It is called a Pinus rigida, or pitch pine, and it is from Wareham, Massachusetts, the “gateway to Cape Cod.” Cape Cod and Long Island, where these trees still flourish, were once pitch pine forests. The P. rigida has leaves that grow in threes, the cones are sharp and rigid, and the bark is rough and sometimes quite black, which is why it is also called “black pine.” The P. rigida is also called a “pitch pine” because it was an important source of pitch, tar, rosin, and turpentine in Colonial periods. In Wilson’s photograph, the pine is situated near a house on the outskirts of a fence in a peaceful country landscape. Wilson favored symmetrical compositions, with a centrally-placed tree. The overall impression is stable, calm, and perhaps even civilized because of the appearance of the house in the background. The tree seems as if it is part of a domestic landscape.

However, the Pinus rigida often had a more rugged, difficult life than E.H. Wilson’s photo suggests. It is a tree known for being uneven, asymmetrical, and irregular in shape, even unattractive and unsuitable for garden or domestic landscapes. E.H. Wilson and George Emerson (1797-1881) both felt that it was an unattractive tree because it was asymmetrical, and Wilson even called it an “unlovely tree” with “little garden value.” Virginia Barlow writes in Northern Woodlands that its “survival mechanisms take a toll on appearance,” and that many of these trees have “irregular profiles,” which “include heavy, lopsided lower branches, and many years’ worth of aged cones blacken the crown.” It was also considered to be a phoenix-like tree that could withstand human abuses and the harsh elements of wind, salt water, and even fire.

In addition to being able to endure elemental abuse, the P. rigida could supposedly even resurrect itself after being chopped down. Emerson and Wilson both noted that the tree could withstand the elements of wind and rain when “lashed by the sea.” Emerson said that for this reason it thrives on Cape Cod. In her study about the nature of Cape Cod, Beth Schwarzman mentions that pitch pines are flammable, but especially well-adapted to surviving and regrowing after fire, and that their serotinous cones actually don’t open until they are heated by fire. Wilson mentions “green sprouts that grow on its trunk,” by which he means that the stump of this tree sprouts when it is cut down. The sprouts do not grow to be very tall, but they flourish. This trait is evidently unique, and this is the only variety of pine tree that has these resurrective properties. This photo of a Pinus rigida by E.H. Wilson is proof that appearances can be deceptive, but also shows that each tree has its own interesting story to tell, and possibly a biography.

Barlow, Virginia. “Pitch Pine,” Northern Woodlands, March 1, 2010. [ link ] Emerson, George. Trees and Shrubs of Massachusetts (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1887).
Hildegard von Bingen (trans. Priscilla Throop). Physica (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998).
Rival, Laura (ed.). The Social Life of Trees (NY: Berg, 1998).
Schwarzman, Beth. The Nature of Cape Cod (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2002).
Simoons, Frederick J. Plants of Life, Plants of Death (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).
Wilson, E.H. Aristocrats of the Garden (NY: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1916). [ link ] Wilson, E.H. Aristocrats of the Trees (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1930).

Miranda Mollendorf, Library Intern

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