I am a big fan of tree names. Trees are precious, vital, unique, complex, and strong. Almost everyone feels a personal connection to a certain type of tree. For example, did you have a favorite tree as a child? Is a certain type of tree very popular in your hometown, ancestral homeland, favorite vacation spot, or other special place? Is there a tree that reminds you of a loved one you’d like to honor? These kinds of personal associations make for great namesakes. Of course, tree names have their own histories too, which is what I will provide in this post. For my birthday, my sister gave me a book called Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History by Diana Wells. It is a gorgeous, beautifully illustrated little book that divulges the origin of many tree names, their spiritual significance, medicinal properties, art and literary connections, etc. I can’t help but wonder if each tree name would make for a meaningful person name too. All of the names in this post are tree names found in Lives of the Trees. I consider most tree names to be unisex, but I tend to be fairly “liberal” on that issue – and I trust you to use your own judgment. So here they are in all their glory: tree names!
Acacia – The largest trees of the biblical desert and Mount Sinai, it’s said that their wood was used to make the Ark of the Covenant. The sweet acacia grows in America and has intensely fragrant flowers used to make perfumes: “cassie” is a basic ingredient of French perfumes even today. Called mimosas or wattles in Australia, the beautiful gold wattle is the country’s official floral emblem. Nicknames: Casey, Cassie.
Alder – Able to live where other trees cannot, alders are hearty trees with pale bark and red sap. Known for their healing properties, Alder is Old High German for “reddish-yellow” Variants: Vern (English), LaVerne, Lavern, Vernon, Vernal.
Almond – Harvested by humans since the Bronze Age, almond trees originating in Persia. The tree was sacred in ancient Greece, going by the name amygdale from Sumerian ama ga, “Great Mother”. A symbol of hope and rebirth, the biblical name for this tree was shaked, meaning “awake tree”, because the tree “wakes up” so early in the season, promising spring. Variants: Amande (French), Mandel (German), Almendra (Spanish). Nicknames: Al, Mandy.
Apple – From the Gaelic word ubhal, Apples were used for eating, cider, and medicine throughout antiquity, although scholars now agree that the apple was not found in the Garden of Eden. Johnny Appleseed popularized apples in America by spreading the tree’s seeds across the country, and today the Big Apple, “apple of my eye” and “American as apple pie” are just a few expressions that deepen the meaning of this name. Variants: Avalon, Pomona (Latin), Pomeline.
Ash – Very tall and with, deep roots, the ash was considered the Norse Tree of Life (Yggdrasil). Its top touched heaven and its roots penetrated the underworld – and a squirrel ran up and down it to report on how things were going in the two worlds. The Norse god Odin created the first man from ash (the woman from elm). Variants: Asher, Aston, Ornella (Italian).
Aspen – Some of the toughest trees on earth, yet bearing delicate heart-shaped leaves, Aspen is a very appealing name. Christian legend states that aspen growing on the road to cavalry refused to bow down when the crucifixion passed, and were punished by being made to tremble. These trees may have noisy, fluttering leaves, but they are incredibly resilient and able to survive fire and ice storms. The name Aspen calls to mind this beautiful, gentle strength.
Bamboo – Although technically grasses, bamboos can grow to over 100 feet tall. Evergreen and noted for its flexibility, bamboo have been long been the subjects of poems and paintings; they are a Chinese symbol of longevity and an Indian symbol of friendship. Bamboos are heralded as a suitably sustainable material, as a replacement for trees that take more resources to grow and process. Certainly a quirky choice, but also one with great history. Nicknames: Bam, Boo.
Baobab – An African tree, highly valued baobabs are sometimes called the Tree of Life because of their ability to store water in their trunks. Some African legends say baobab trees fall from heaven. When they die, the trees collapse into powder and are quickly dispersed by desert winds. A tree worthy of reverence, with a strong tie to Africa. Nicknames: Bo, Bob, Babs.
Beech – These are the trees that couples traditionally carved their initials into, due to their smooth gray bark, which is elastic and allows for the inscriptions to grow as the tree grows. Crescunt illae; crecent amores, “as these letters grow, so does our love.” The name actually comes from the German and Anglo-Saxon words for book, as their bark was written on tied together to make books long ago.
Birch – Known for their silver bark that flakes off in papery curls, this tree was also used for paper. North American Indians build canoes and baby cradles from birch were because they were believed to possess powers of protection. Flexible, birch are able to bend with the wind to avoid breaking. Variant: Birk (Irish), Berkeley, Barclay (Scottish), Björk (Icelandic), Ritva (Finnish).
Cedar – Another tree with biblical ties, the “cedar of the Lord” was treasured for its aromatic wood, and Solomon used it to build the Temple of Jerusalem. The Hebrew name for cedar, erez, means “strong firmly rooted tree” – a lovely sentiment to bestow on the newest member of your family tree. Variant: Erez (Hebrew).
Cherry – Known as a symbol of beauty, Washington D.C. has been famous for its beautiful flowering cherry trees since they were given as a gift from the mayor of Tokyo in 1910. Cherry blossoms have been particulary valued in Japan: planted in gardens and commemorated in art for ages. Cherry trees bloom for just a short time each spring – a symbol of the beauty yet brevity of life on earth. Poet Alfred Edward Housman wrote in “Loveliest of Trees”: Now, of my threescore years and ten/ Twenty will not come again/ And since to look at things in bloom/ Fifty springs are little room/ About the woodlands I will go/ To see the cherry hung with snow. Variant: Cerise (French), Sakura (Japanese). Nickname: Cher.
Cinnamon – Highly valued as a spice since ancient times, nowadays cinnamon is associated with comforting foods: sticky buns, warm apple pie in autumn, cinnamon toast dripping with butter, and creamy soothing rice pudding. A spicy, yet sweet and inviting name.
Clove – Another spice name that evokes autumn and apple pie.
Cotton – The cottonwood tree does not produce true cotton, but its fluffy white seeds do resemble the fiber. Young cottonwoods were used for the traditional Sioux Sun dance ceremony. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim build a shelter on their raft out of cottonwoods, under which Huck eventually learns to respect and love Jim.
Cypress – Evergreen and pointing toward heaven, Cypress trees suggest the possibility of eternal life. In ancient Islamic gardens these trees symbolized the connection of life and death. Cypresses last a long time: ancient Egyptians made coffins from them and Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome had thousand-year old cypress wood doors. One of Vincent Van Gogh’s last paintings was of cypresses. Nickname: Cy.
Ebony – The extremely black wood has always been a luxury and valued for its beauty. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lord Berowne wrote: “Is ebony like her? O wood divine! / A wife of such wood were felcity.” Today of course, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory” duet as well as Ebony magazine associate the name with a celebration of the beauty of blackness – a lovely name.
Elm – Greeks and Romans used to use elms as props for grapevines, and this union became a symbol for matrimonial unity. These stately, majestic trees are endangered due to disease, but they have long been revered. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote of the valley where Love is to be found: “Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn, / The moan of doves in immemorial elms, /And murmuring of innumerable bees.” Norse legend states that god Odin created the first woman from elm. Variations: Elowen (Cornish), Embla (Norse).
Fig – Staples of the ancient world, it was a type of fig tree which Buddha chose to sit under to achieve enlightenment. Thus, the F. religiousa or Bo tree became the symbol for letting go of all human desire and passions.
Franklin – Named after Benjamin Franklin, the Franklin tree was first “discovered” along the Alatamaha River in Georgia. It is a flowering tree with large, beautiful, and fragrant blossoms. Nicknames: Frank, Frankie.
Ginkgo – Ancient trees that predate the evolution of conifers and insects, their leaves are known to aid memory and the Chinese have used them medicinally for centuries. Ginkgo are also astonishingly resilient; a temple has been built around a ginkgo tree which miraculously survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima. The peculiar lobed shape of the tree inspired a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which he explored the meaning of the twin-lobed leaf as that of a divided being, two beings fused together, which he then saw himself as. Nicknames: Gin, Ginny.
Hawthorn – Also called the May tree, they blossomed on May 1, leading to the celebration of May Day. Hawthorns wer associated with Christ’s crown of thorns, and so they were thought to possess spiritual powers: their branches were used to protect ships, and the Mayflower was named after the May/hawthorn tree. With the added literary reference of Nathaniel Hawthorne, this name seems poised for use.
Hazel – Long associated with magic, forked hazel twigs were used by diviners in search of precious metals and water sources. Hazelnuts are a popular food, and used to be used as dolls. Shakespeare was the first to use hazel as an eye color descriptor, when in The Taming of the Shrew he described Kate as “straight and slender and brown in hue / as Hazel-nuts.” Nicknames: Zella, Zee, Haze
Holly – These broad-leaved evergreens have always had magical/spiritual connections. Their leaves shine vividly even in winter woods, so they have been used since Roman times to celebrate the winter solstice. Its name was probably derived from “holy”; holly was used as a Christian symbol for its thorns and blood red berries. Variants: Celyn (Welsh), Hollis, Leslie.
Joshua – A yucca plant which grows in the Mohave desert, Mormons named the Joshua tree because the branches looked as if they were beckoning them to their promised land. The Joshua Tree National Monument is one of the only places to view this unique desert plant.
Juniper – This tree was seemingly universally respected for magical powers. The King James bible describes Elijah seeking shelter under a juniper tree. In Germany, the tree was called Wacholder, or “awake tree”, and it was customary to take off one’s hat when passing one. A favorite landscaping tree and one that was used in the past for totem poles, this name is completely appealing. Variant: Ginevra (Italian). Nicknames: June, Junie, Juno.
Larch (Tamarack) – The American larch is also called tamarack, a word of Algonquin origin. American Indians used the roots of tamarack to sew together birch bark canoes (Henry Wadsworth Longellow wrote about this in “The Song of Hiawatha“, wherein Hiawatha asks the tree’s permission to use what he needs). Larches are one of the only conifers that are also deciduous; their needles turn a beautiful golden brown in autumn before they fall. Either Larch or Tamarack could serve as a majestic name. Nicknames for Tamarack: Tam, Tammy, Mac
Linden – In Germany in the spring, it was customary for couples to dance around this tree in a festival called Lindenbluten fest. Women hung votives on the branches and ate Linden leaves to aid pregnancy. German Renaissance artists like Tilman Riemenschneider carved beautiful of the Virgin Mary from Linden wood. Linden trees were sacred to the Norse mother goddesses Freya and Frigga and have always been thought to prevent mothers and children. Variant: Linnea, Tilia (Latin). Nickname: Linn, Lindy, Denny.
Mahogany – The tree was likely named by African slaves in Jamaica, likely from the Yoruba tree name M’Oganwo. Mahoganies grow in the West Indies, South America, and Florida. Spanish conquerors sent home mahogany wood from the new world for furniture, paneling, and musical instruments, and the wood has been highly sought after ever since.
Maple – The changing color of maple leaves is emblematic of autumnal beauty. Then there is the sap of the sugar maple (syrup) which has been collected and celebrated for centuries. Maples are the symbol of Canada and several U.S. states – everyone knows and loves this tree and it seems a symbol of the generosity of the land. Variant: Javor (Slavic).
Oak – In “Yardley Oak,” William Cowper extols, “I might with rev’rence kneel and worship thee, / It seems idolatry with some excuse / when our forfather Druids in their oaks Imagin’d sanctity…” Some believe the name druid comes from Gaelic for oak tree. Indeed, humans have lived and prayed near oak trees for much of history. Oaks were sacred to many gods: the Norse Thor, Roman Jupiter, Slavic Peun, Celtic Dacda, and Hebrew El. Variant: Alon/Alona (Hebrew), Elon (Hebrew), Dara (Irish), Ogden (English).
Olive – There is no tree which is more universally represents peace than the olive. Greeks and Romans grew olive trees and used their oil, as did the Israelites – in the book of Hosea the beauty of God is “as the olive tree.” These trees can live for a very long time, and the name and its variants, while particularly popular now, seem timeless as well. Variants: Olivia, Oliver, Olivier. Nicknames: Ollie, Liv.
Peach – The peach was a symbol of truth in Renaissance paintings: the heart-shaped fruit and the tongue-shaped leaf symbolized that when united, they speak the truth. The fruit also served as the Chinese symbol of longevity. A sweet and juicy name with a symbolic legacy.
Persimmon – The botanical name of the persimmon is Diospyrus, meaning “divine grain”. Nicknames: Percy, Prissy, Simon, Simmy.
Pine – The first American revolutionary flag depicted a white pine tree, because pines were so sought after in teh New World as European forests had already logged much of their large trees. Amber jewelry is made from fossilized pine sap. Variants: Oren (Hebrew), Orna (Hebrew)
Quince – For ages, quinces have been included in celebrations of love and marriage – they were thrown into bridal chariots in Athens, and Juliet’s nurse refers to “dates and quinces in the pastry” in Romeo and Juliet. British marmalade was originally made of quinces (not oranges).
Rowan – The rowan is most well known for its bright red fruits, which have since ancient times been associated with the magic of life. It’s a small, hardy tree abundant in northern countries. Th tree was forbidden from being cut down in Ireland and Scotland, although they were plentiful there, except for express purposes. Sprigs of rowan were used as protection from evil spirits and misfortune. A beautiful name that is currently gaining popularity. Variants: Roan, Rowana. Nickname: Ro.
Saguaro – These cacti are mostly found in Arizona, and their blossom is the state’s official wildflower (usually pronounced sah-WAH-ro). They are hard to miss – some grow up to sixty feet tall, and their famous large flowers only open at night. Their intriguing name originated in the O’oodham Indian language. Nicknames: Sawa, Ro.
Spruce – A neat, sharp name for a neat little tree – spruces have a symmetrical, triangular appearance. Would make a great name for a spruced up Bruce!
Tupelo – this tree’s botanical name was named by Carl Linnaeus after Nyssa, a water nymph and foster mother of Dionysius, because the tree grows on swampy ground. The common name Tupelo is thought to be an Anglicization of the Creek Indian eto, “tree”, and opelwr, “swamp”. Also happens to be the name of the town in Mississippi where Elvis was born – a rare combination: a nature and rock n’ roll name!
Willow – A 9th century Chinese gardener, Ji-Cheng, wrote, “A curving bay of willows in the moonlight cleanses the soul.” I agree. What can be said of this tree that hasn’t already? A symbol of heartbreaking beauty throughout history, elegant Willow is one of the most popular tree name today.
So what do you think about tree names? Some certainly seem more “user-friendly” than others. If you hesitate to use a lesser-known tree name, consider using it as a middle name for an unexpected and meaningful choice.