The Meaning of Plants
“That which resumes all under a unity is a Principle in which all things exist together and the single thing is All. From this Principle, which remains internally unmoved, particular things push forth as from a single root which never itself emerges. They are a branching into part, into multiplicity, each single outgrowth bearing its trace of the common source. Thus, phase by phase, there is finally the production into this world; some things close still to the root, others widely separate in the continuous progression until we have, in our metaphor, bough and crest, foliage and fruit. At the one side all is one point of unbroken rest, on the other is the ceaseless process, leaf and fruit, all the things of process carrying ever within themselves the Reason-Principles of the Upper Sphere, and striving to become trees in their own minor order and producing, if at all, only what is in strict gradation from themselves.” 1 – Plotinus
Introduction: The Essence of Plant-ness
Plants, and trees in particular, easily fall into the category of the most common symbolic images in the history of human expression. Why is this so? Well, firstly they’re all around us, a basic component of everyday experience and fundamental to life on Earth. More importantly though, the different components of their form and function are highly adaptable symbolically to different situations and phenomena. The very fact that this is the case suggests that plants must, in a way, represent something fundamental to our experience of the world. Something about plants—and again, trees in particular—must be archetypal, reality-structuring.
A good amount of plant symbolism deals with the relationship between plants and their environment: what kind of soil they grow in, how solidly their roots can take hold, the shelter they provide, how well they’re tended to, their use in medicine, etc. But there are other uses of plant symbolism which deal with the plant’s intrinsic nature, what it is unto itself—like the striking example in Plotinus’ Enneads quoted above. We might then ask the question: what is a plant as a self-contained symbolic phenomenon?
In putting forward this question, we’re basically attempting to pin down something like the ‘essence of plant-ness,’ what a plant is at its core. Moreover, we should seek to hone in on those elements of the plant in which is sensed the deepest metaphysical potency. A possible hint may lie in the status of plants within the hierarchy of living creatures. Plants are, to our common sense understanding at least, a mostly unconscious life form. In Aristotelian theory, they contain the most rudimentary form of soul, the vegetative soul. 2 This type of soul acts as a kind of funnel for the organization of material, drawing up nutrients from the environment into its own field of attraction. 3 Put simply (and ecological factors aside), a plant doesn’t do much more than trace out, maintain, and propagate its own form. The form is the purpose. We need look no further to discover the plant essence. Following the Aristotelian conception, the essence of the plant is contained within its very structure.
What then is the structure of the archetypal plant? If we look to the fruiting tree as the fullest embodiment of plant structure (justification forthcoming), we might use it as our model and describe it as follows:
In the trunk, root, branch, and leaf structure we have an iterated, self-similar pattern of bifurcations. 4 The trunk splits in two, and the branches follow suit until the seeds are reached at the tips. In the seeds we see the capacity for the microcosmic reflection of this entire fractal pattern. In the fruit we have a maturation of the reflective apparatus, a sort of teleological goal state of the whole system.
From this description, one way to parse what the plant form represents at the most basic level is threefold. Firstly, its bifurcation pattern encapsulates the nature of multiplicity, the manner in which the one gives rise to the many. Next, the seed demonstrates how that multiplicity is gathered up into unities, or individual reflections of itself. And finally, the fruiting body illustrates the teleological nature of form, how autonomous structures tend toward a mature, fully ripened state.
Seen from this angle, plants as archetypes are like naked ‘packets’ of self-reflective patterning. And not just any kind of self-reflective patterning, but a sort that highlights important aspects of the way reality comes together. That plant form and function have this quality might not come as any great surprise; many of the world’s great mytho-religious traditions feature overt plant symbolism in which we might feel hints of the plant essence playing a role. The immortality plant in Gilgamesh, Buddha under the Bodhi tree, the significance of the lotus flower in Hinduism, the many versions of the ‘world tree’ idea—these are a few. In the Christian tradition too there is certainly no shortage of such imagery. In fact some important biblical symbols — the two trees in paradise, several of Jesus’s parables (the fig tree, the mustard seed, the vine and the branches), even the Cross itself — potentially fall into this category.
If we were to go looking for evidence of archetypal plant form as somehow operative at a very deep level in the Christian mythos, we would perhaps most logically direct our attention to Genesis. In The Language of Creation, Matthieu Pageau puts forward a vision of Genesis that in a way conveys this opening to the Bible as containing something like what we might call the ‘axioms of reality.’ 5 If Genesis does indeed contain such axioms, if it constitutes a sort of blueprint or template for the future unfolding of the biblical world, then it is certainly the place to go looking for all things fundamental. 6 It would be here that we could expect to gain the surest insight into archetypal plant form as a reality-structuring principle.
Pageau’s interpretation of Genesis shows how the events it lays out unfold as progressive stages in an iterative fractal process. 7 The overarching structure this imparts to Creation is an outwardly radiating series of nested, self-similar levels. This is particularly evident in the six days of creation (the ‘hexaemeron’), where the state of being attained on each day is in a sense folded into subsequent days, producing with each iteration a new level of complexity and wholeness. Taking note that man is the culmination or fruiting stage of this fractal process, we may begin to notice a resonance with the archetypal plant form. Plant forms are of course specifically mentioned in the hexaemeron, on the third and sixth days. Let us then turn our attention directly to these passages in Genesis to see what sort of light the iterative, enfolding hermeneutic just described might shed on plants as archetypes.
I. SPROUTING FORTH – Life
Day 3 – And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so […] And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after its kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after its kind: and God saw that it was good.
On the third day, in the King James Bible quoted here, God creates three types of plant life: grass, the herb yielding seed, and the tree yielding fruit. In some Bible versions (including the Septuagint) the first two are grouped together into some version of “herb of grass yielding seed.” In both cases, the words “let the earth bring forth” engender the image of sprouting. So either way we are presented with three stages of maturity: sprouting, seeding, fruiting. This staging will serve as the kernel for the fractal structure I’ll attempt to illuminate in this essay.
Taken symbolically, these three stages might represent: 1) a sprouting-forth of multiplicity, 2) a reflection, and 3) a teleological completion. This maps perfectly onto the archetypal plant structure hypothesized earlier. But that’s not all. Remembering that each day of creation feeds iteratively into what follows, we might notice that the three-stage plant structure was latent in the two days prior. The appearance of the plant forms on day three can be seen as a microcosmic summing-up or recapitulation of the structure traced out over the first three days. In this way, the plants themselves represent the very process which led to their appearance. They themselves are the fruiting stage or telos of a symbolic fruit-yielding tree. I’ll take a moment to explain how this is the case.
1. Sprouting-forth: Heaven and Earth
Day 1 – In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the Waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and morning were the first day.
Illustration on left from the “Nuremberg Chronicle”
One way of looking at the first day of creation is that God brings about the initial foundations of multiplicity. He does this through a bifurcation, separating out the two constituents of what will become the primary iterated structural unit of the whole creation process. These two constituents—Heaven and Earth, in their first iteration of light and dark—can be thought of as ‘essence and potential’ or ‘pattern and substance.’ 8 We can see in this activity the sprouting-forth of a basic tree-like structure. God is the trunk, Heaven and Earth are the two branches.
2. Reflection: The Firmament and the Waters Below
Day 2 – And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
Illustration on left from the “Nuremberg Chronicle”
On the second day, there is a reflection. The two-part differentiation of the first day is projected down into a less rarified, microcosmic domain, with the firmament of Heaven (essence) now above and a copy of the waters (potential) below. 9 Tying this back to our plant structure, the pattern of the first day folds into the second in a seed-like manner, in the sense that it constitutes a microcosmic reflection. This seed-like reflection, when folded into the “dry land” of the third day, then brings about the plant forms.
3. Telos: Plants (sprouting-forth, reflection, telos)
Recalling the above interpretation of the three plant forms as themselves the fruiting stage of a symbolic tree, it should now be possible to see this tree’s full structure—sprouting-forth, reflection, telos—in the pattern of the first three days of creation. Thus, the three stages of plant are themselves fractally embedded in a three-stage plant-like structure.
Why label the plant forms as a telos? Isn’t each day of creation a kind of end in itself? Certainly they all are in a way. But highlighting the plant forms as an arrival makes sense in light of the fact that they represent something ontologically unique at that point in the creation process, an emergent condition if you like. They are the first stage that appears differently than a simple separation or parsing of the heaven-earth duality. The plants are a terrestrial union of Heaven and Earth and the first living entities, the first instantiations of the Logos as life, or zoe, in a structural prototype. 10 Additionally, their arrival occurs as the last stage of a series of inward contractions in scale. After their completion, the focus of attention is then drawn back out toward the macrocosm on day four. 11
II. REFLECTION – Consciousness
1. Sprouting-forth: Lights in the Firmament
Day 4 – And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
On day four, the firmament of heaven is differentiated. Here an explicitly temporal element is added to the picture with the celestial arrangement of heavenly lights. Genesis indicates that these lights will serve as markers for the cyclically recurrent processes of time.
2. Reflection: Animals
Day 5 – Summary: God creates the creatures of the waters and the firmament and multiplies them in the seas and the sky.
Day 6 – After creating the land animals and man: And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
When the animals and man are then created on the fifth and sixth days, the ratiocination of the macrocosm from day four is folded into them, partially reflected in the rudimentary consciousness of the animals (who possess a nascent form of temporal perception), but fully housed within the human microcosm.
3. Telos: Man
The reflective capacity of the animal is matured to perfection in man, who takes into himself the full depth of the heavens; the signs, seasons, days, and years structure man’s experience concretely, with consciously mirrored clockwork precision. 12 And not only the heavens, but all of Creation—each iterated stage—is enfolded within man, focused into his being as a condensed locus of wholeness. 13 This comes across subtly in the image of the plants being given to man and the animals. All creatures in whom there is life receive the plant forms as food. The foundation of the first three days is therefore symbolically transferred to the second three, where the staging is mirrored. 14 Man now occupies the position that the fruiting tree—that tree which according to Anastasius of Sinai “has the fruits of the Spirit”—did before. 15 In this way everything before man is shown to culminate in him.
So here we have yet another fruiting tree structure: the patterning of the heavens as an initial sprouting-forth of temporality, animals as a reflection, and man as the fruiting stage. The plants were the sum and telos of the first three days, and man is the sum and telos of the last three. Symbolically, the ‘lower fruit’ is overlaid on the ‘higher fruit.’ This in a way connects the two hidden tree-like structures, showing how they can be superimposed on top of each other to reveal a kind of ur-pattern of nested archetypal plant forms, the one ‘growing’ or reflected within the other. We might find that the notion of this ur-pattern is suggestive of what later appears in Genesis 2 as the Tree of Life, itself a symbol of the fractally structured perfect order of God’s Creation. 16
Additionally, remembering that the plant forms on day three marked the first appearance of the Logos as life may provide an interesting shading to the fourth line from the opening words of John’s Gospel: “What came to be through him was life [zoe: ζωὴ], and this life was the light of the human race” (1:4). In other words, that which came to being first through the plants prototyped what would later receive full expression as the “light of the human race.” That essence first instilled in the plants receives higher realization in man. Philo of Alexandria, in a lead-up to describing how man embodies the tree-like structure of the Logos, states very suggestively, “let us now look at the way the all-wise God also crafted trees in the human being, the miniature cosmos.” 17 Ambrose of Milan makes a similar symbolic connection in his Hexaemeron where he, referencing Isaiah, describes the microcosmic glory of man as a flower among grass. 18 But he enjoins us to remember:
“[T]he glory of man waxes green in his flesh like grass, and what is considered to be sublime is actually a lowly green herb. Blooming early as a flower and briefly as the green herb, it has the outward appearance of vigor, but its fruit has no lasting quality.” 19
Here St. Ambrose is speaking post-Genesis. He makes the point that fallen man’s earthly glory is temporary, of a lowly rank compared to what it has the potential to be. A further development beyond the earthly fruiting stage is required of him in order to return “the gift of [his] kind,” or in other words, to sprout forth again in the image and likeness of the Creator. Indicating a way forward, he says, “Let us sow the seed, not in the flesh, but in the spirit.” 20 In these words we get the sense that, due to man’s fall, the two nested plant structures are not in themselves complete.
III. TELOS – Deification
1. Sprouting-forth: Christ – The Vine and the Branches
The completion, as foreshadowed in St. Ambrose’s words, is of course found in the phenomenon of Christ. Here in the fulcrum of the mythos there in fact appears to be yet another recapitulation of the threefold plant archetype. St. Anastasius gives us reason to suspect this might be the case in his vivid portrayal of the New Testament return of the fruiting tree archetype, which he suggests is implied in Genesis:
“Then it [the earth] was commanded to thrust above the earth a fertile tree, to bear fruit that held the seed of the tree. When you hear this, you should think of nothing else than this was a Mosaic prophecy, presenting the passion of the cross for us to imitate.” 21
This image simultaneously connects in our minds the fruiting tree from the hexaemeron, the Tree of Life, and the Cross. In it we get the first inklings of an even larger version of the structure emerging at the grandest scale, with all three tree-like patterns embedded within one threefold plant form that we could perhaps call a hypertree. Before proceeding to this final level though, it will first be necessary to elucidate the stages of the threefold structure within the Christ phenomenon itself.
In the first three days of creation, the plant forms were the first point at which the heaven-earth duality was clearly brought together rather than parsed. In the pattern of the Christ narrative, the union of Heaven and Earth is already present in the first, sprouting-forth stage. This union is embodied in Christ Jesus, the presence of God on Earth in human physical form. As the vine (from the parable of the vine and the branches), he imparts the Holy Spirit to those who would serve as his branches. 22 So the sprouting-forth of this symbolic plant structure involves not an iteration of the heaven-earth duality as in Genesis, but an iteration of the heaven-earth union.
2. Reflection: Christ-filled Acts
What then is the second stage, the seed-like reflection? We might consider the Christ-filled products of human thought and action. Human deeds and creations which follow the pattern of the Logos are like microcosmic reflections. 23 The Logos branches out through Christ-filled human creation, steering it toward perfection, just as it branches out through God’s Creation and restores it to perfection on a higher level through Christ in man. 24 25
3. Telos: Heaven on Earth
Jesus’s words in John’s gospel then provide an indication of where these Logos reflections ultimately lead: “whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit” (15:5). One way to think of this fruit might be as the glorious surroundings of God-filled humanity in the coming Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. In the parable of the mustard seed, the Kingdom is indeed described as “the largest of plants” (Matthew 13:32). Thus we arrive at the fully ripened tree of the third threefold symbolic plant structure.
And now let us zoom back out. Laid out before us is the hypertree: three symbolic trees nested fractally as the three stages of one all-encompassing macro tree. The first tree was an initial sprouting forth of the pattern of reality. It culminated in the plants, the instantiation of the Logos in life. In the second we saw the pattern reflected on a level now involving consciousness. It culminated in man. In the third and final stage, we find restored, matured, and perfected something that had been occluded in man through sin: his Logos-reflective capacity, otherwise referred to as his connection to the Tree of Life. Once restored through Christ the New Adam, that reconnection brings about the ultimate biblical telos: deification. 26 27 In the deification of the world, the coming together of Heaven and Earth first embodied in the plant forms of day three is now reflected at the highest level; God is united with all of Creation through the Logos. As Fr. Maximos Constas points out in his recent interview with Jonathan Pageau, this can be understood as the very purpose of Creation. 28
We began this contemplation by considering the essence of plant-ness, asking the question, “how might we describe the structure of a plant unto itself?” Extrapolating what appeared to be essential features from the actual plants of common experience, we then found the same features echoed in the creation of plants in Genesis. These plant forms became the kernel for what then unfurled. They were the naked packets of pattern that made plain the template upon which a much larger, archetypal plant complex would be modeled. From here we saw the pattern as depicted in the Bible unfold across multiple levels of reality, scaling up into a fractal form spanning the whole large arc of the Christian mythos, from God’s first action in Genesis to the farthest reaches of eschatological fulfillment.
For lack of a better term, I called this fractal construction a hypertree. Through the aid of the hypertree idea, we’re able to see one common form recurring in and connecting several separately operating biblical symbols. The fruiting tree of the hexaemeron, the Tree of Life in Genesis, the image of the New Jerusalem as the “largest of plants”—these symbols can all be understood to stand for the progressive overarching pattern of reality, and not merely in a vague or imagistic way, but as a more or less direct structural mapping.
Now we might ask, is the nested archetypal plant structure really there in the biblical text? It’s probably best thought of as implicit, or even as a coincidental pattern emerging out of the explicit symbolism. What I’ve attempted to do here is to show the intensely fractal nature of this plant symbolism, which weaves through the Bible’s metaphysical fabric and connects it at its outermost structural points. These connections are undoubtedly there, automatically forming a nested sequence when put together. The threefold model I’ve laid out is one way to conceive of this sequence, a potentially useful lens through which to view it. Through any attempt to convey something of it we are at the very least left with the distinct impression that there is something deeply significant in the structure of plants, particularly the fruiting tree. In their symbolism we seem to hit archetypal bedrock. Their usage in the Christian tradition brings this feeling to the fore. From axiomatic foundations to visions of the ultimate telos, the meaning of plants sprouts forth into the world, reflecting its pattern and bearing fruit across levels of Being.
Linked Articles & Posts
Linked Premium Articles & Posts
- Plotinus. The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, at 185. Faber and Faber Limited, January 1956.
- See Guyomarc’h, Gweltaz. “Dividing an Apple,” in Nutrition and Nutritive Soul in Aristotle and Aristotelianism, eds. Giouli Korobili and Roberto Lo Presti, at 197-220. De Gruyter, December 2020.
- See Gill, Mary Louise. “Method and Nutritive Soul in Aristotle’s De Anima II, 4,” in Nutrition and Nutritive Soul in Aristotle and Aristotelianism, at 35-39.
- The trunk, roots, branches, and leaves all of course have specific functions, but at the broadest structural level they participate in the same patterning. Goethe makes something akin to this observation in his theory on plant morphology. See Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Metamorphosis of Plants, in The Metamorphosis of Plants / Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, ed. Gordon L. Miller. MIT Press, 2009.
- See Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 2018.
- See Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and the Resurrection, at location 333 (Kindle version). Publisher not listed, February 2015. (Reprinted from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, January 1992.) St. Gregory mentions the idea of Genesis containing axioms. “The Scripture […] lays it down as an axiom that there is no excellence in the soul which is not a property as well of the Divine nature.”
- See Pageau. The Language of Creation.
- See Pageau. The Language of Creation, at 22. Pageau doesn’t use the terms in single quotes; rather, I’m using them here to paraphrase his description.
- See Origen of Alexandria. Homilies on Genesis, I:2, in Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, trans. Ronald E. Heine, at 48-50. The Catholic University of America Press, July 1981. Origen discusses how the second heaven (the firmament) is a corporeal reflection of the first.
- See Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I:28, in The Commentary of Origen on S. John’s Gospel, ed. A. E. Brooke, at 36. Cambridge University Press, 1896. Origen refers to life (zoe) as one of the attributes (epinoia) of Christ the Logos. For an overview of the Origen’s usage of the term epinoia, See Kuhner, Matthew. “The ‘Aspects of Christ’ (Epinoiai Christou) in Origen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans,” in Harvard Theological Review, 110(2), at 195-216.
- Anastasius of Sinai. Hexaemeron, Book 6, I:2, trans. Clement A. Kuehn and John D. Baggarly, at 173. Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 2007. St. Anastasius notes the partitioning between the first three and second three days, albeit in a different way.
- Another way of saying this is that the fully variegated spatio-temporal matrix is built into man’s experience of the world.
- See Constas, Fr. Maximus, in Jonathan Pageau. “The Relevance of St. Maximus the Confessor Today | with Fr. Maximos Constas,” at 39:00. Youtube, December 2021.
- There is also a threefold staging of the animals: 1) the creatures of the waters and firmament, 2) the creatures of the seas and sky, and 3) the creatures of the land. A deeper investigation of this detail is beyond the scope of my intentions for this essay.
- Anastasius, Hexaemeron, Book 3, XI:5, at 91.
- See Pageau. The Language of Creation, at 168-170, 174-177.
- Philo of Alexandria. On Planting, 1B:28, in Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series, ed. Gregory E. Sterling, at 49. Koninklijke Brill, November 2019.
- Isaiah, 40:6-9
- Ambrose of Milan. Hexaemeron (The Six Days), III: 7.29, in Hexaemeron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel (The Father of the Church, Volume 42), trans. John J. Savage, at 89. Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
- Ambrose, Hexaemeron, III: 7.29, at 91.
- Anastasius, Hexaemeron, Book 3, XI:5, at 91. Original italics.
- John 15:5 – “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
- See Origen. Homilies on Genesis, I:4, at 52-53. “And we, therefore, ought thus both to bear fruit and to have seeds within ourselves, that is, to contain in our heart the seeds of all good works and virtues, that, having fixed in our minds, from them now we might justly perform all the acts which occur to us. For those are the fruits of that seed, namely our acts, which are brought forth ‘from the good treasure of our heart.’”
- There is also the interesting resonance that within the Logos are thought to be contained the logoi spermatikoi, the seeds of all things made manifest firstly in the days of creation. See Hirai, Hiro. “Logoi Spermatikoi and the Concept of Seeds in the Mineralogy and Cosmogony of Paracelsus,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, vol. 61, no. 2, at 245-264. 2008.
- See Fr. Maximos Constas. “The Relevance of St. Maximus,” at 50:00.
- See Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I:20, at 24. Origen discusses Christ Jesus as the New Adam.
- See Fr. Maximos Constas. “The Relevance of St. Maximus,” at 37:00.