Musician Jahnavi Harrison explored “sacred botany” in Something of Understanding. In many religious traditions, plants are considered spiritually symbolic: they nurture, delight, heal, and sometimes act as intermediaries with the divine world.
From lotus in the east to basil in the west, here are seven of our most sacred plants, past and present, which symbolize who and why.
1. Lotus flower
ahnavi Harrison explains how the lotus is a plant that, for those who grew up in an oriental spiritual context, evokes layers of meaning and narrative. For Hindus, the beautiful and dazzling lotus flower represents life, fertility and (as for Buddhists) purity, away from the mud and darkness from which it grows. Although its roots are in the mud, the flower sits on the water, clean and white.
The story goes that the lotus arose from the navel of the god Vishnu, with Brahma seated in the center of the flower. Some believe that God’s hands and feet are like the lotus and his eyes are shaped like lotus petals; its appearance and touch are said to be as soft as lotus buds. Hinduism also teaches that within every person there is the spirit of the sacred lotus. Power of flowers!
We now associate mistletoe with the magic of Christmas, but its symbolism dates back to the times of the ancient Celtic Druids. They believed that mistletoe represented the essence of the sun god Taranis and therefore any tree with mistletoe growing between its branches was sacred.
The winter solstice was the time when the Druid chief, dressed in a white cloak, cut the sacred mistletoe from the oak with a golden sickle. The special plant and its berries would later be used for rituals or medicines. It was believed to have miraculous properties: a mistletoe-based potion would cure diseases, serve as an antidote to any poison, ensure fertility in humans and animals, and protect against witchcraft. Indeed, this was highly reckless – mistletoe is toxic if ingested!
3. Holy Basil (Ocimum Sanctum)
In Hinduism, the goddess Vrinda is said to serve Lord Krishna and his devotees by acting as the guardian of the sacred land of Vindravan, a city of pilgrimage and worship. Although she is a goddess in human form, ancient texts say that Krishna himself blessed her to take the form of the holy basil plant in the worldly realm and that wherever she grew she would automatically become like the sacred soil of Vrindavan. This sacred basil plant, known as tulsi, grows abundantly throughout the area.
Millions of Hindus of different denominations around the world worship the tulsi plant as a daily practice, in temples and in their homes.
Peyote is a small, thornless cactus that grows naturally in the desert of southwestern Texas and Mexico and has been used by indigenous people for spiritual purposes for millennia. The Huichol Indians of Mexico and members of many Native American tribes in North America believe that peyote is a sacred plant that helps them converse with God. Used in prayer ceremonies, it can trigger hallucinations believed to be visions of an alternate reality. or the spirit world.
It is not only indigenous peoples who have praised the spiritual powers of peyote. The cactus’s psychedelic properties earned it a quasi-religious following in artists, musicians and writers around the 1950s. Ken Kesey claimed to have written the opening passage of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” while it was filled with peyote!
The yew, an evergreen conifer, has long been associated with rebirth and eternal life. This is because, incredibly, its fallen branches can take root in the ground and form new trunks. A yew can also grow a new trunk from inside the hollow shell of an old tree. No wonder it came to symbolize the resurrection!
The yew is a symbolic tree in the Christian faith: there was the custom of placing yew sprouts inside the coffins of the dead, and many churches have a yew next to it. However, although some yew trees were planted next to churches, in many cases a yew tree was already growing on a site before the first church was built there. Considered sacred by the Druids in pre-Christian times, these ancient yews were originally planted in pagan places of worship, or on the site chosen by the yew, to be later adopted by the church. Well what do you know