Slender, conical cypress trees are everywhere in Provence: they line roads, outline fields, decorate cemeteries, and adorn houses. These sturdy, practical trees protect crops and homes from the fierce mistral wind that whips through this area, but there is more to them than meets the eye. These ubiquitous trees may have a hidden meaning depending on where and how they are planted. Let’s investigate the secret language of the cypress.
Since ancient times, the cypress has been a symbol of eternal life: it stays green year round, its wood is resistant to decay, it’s always bearing fruit, it’s fire resistant, and its shape seems to point toward the heavens. For these reasons it is often planted in cemeteries. In days gone by, a solitary tree would be planted in a cemetery for a child, and two trees for a couple. The expression, Dormir sous un cyprès, or “to sleep under a cypress” means to be dead.
Around the House
On a happier note, Provençal farmhouses, called mas, often have three cypress trees, planted in a triangular shape, near the entry to the property. Traditionally, this is a symbol of hospitality. When long-ago travelers passed by and saw three trees, they knew they could rest their weary bones there for the night. Two trees, and they could fill their belly and wet their whistle. But if there was only one tree, it meant “don’t even think about stopping here.”
Since this is a very old tradition, many people may not be aware of it. So, it’s probably best not to stop in at a house with three cypresses and ask for a meal and a bed – unless you are very well acquainted with the owners.
Good Luck Charm
Another “old tradition,” which is actually a new one, declares that cypress trees near a Provençal mas bring good luck. This legend conveniently took root in the 1980s, when it was becoming fashionable for Parisians to have a second home in Provence. They would arrive keen to buy a property, but when they spotted cypress trees near the door of their prospective holiday home, they would be reminded of cemeteries and get cold feet.
That wasn’t good for the real estate market, so the notaires (who supervise real estate transactions in France) and the Office of Tourism got together and invented the “old Provençal tradition” that cypress trees near the entry of a home bring good luck. That made the Parisians feel better and they snapped up those “lucky” farmhouses.
There is one more thought about why these trees are planted by farmhouse entrances, and it’s a very practical one. Some say that if you plant a few cypress trees when the house is built, you will have replacement beams at hand should the original ones ever rot or break.
Well, that’s all very sensible, but it really muddles things up. What if you see a house with only one tree? Can you safely assume they needed to replace a beam or two? Should you still ask for a meal and a bed?
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*More about Provence – You can find more about Provence traditions in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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Well who knew there was so much mystery and so many superstitions and myths about Cyprus trees. I adore them, they are definitely a symbol of warmer climes!
They are beautiful and full of symbolism – it’s no wonder Van Gogh painted so many of them.
I also heard of a legend that says that there was a deceased Phoenician warrior buried beneath every cypress tree. Anybody else heard that?
That’s a new one to me. I’ll have to check into it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Reblogged this on The Happy Traveler and commented:
Please enjoy a wonderful blog written by my friend Margo!
Thank you for the reblog, Jay! 🙂
Wonder if these customs are the same in Italy. I do know that when they plant them in a zigzag from the door to the street along a very long path..it is not for design but so they can see the road and the area side to side isn’t blocked either.
Enjoyed this immensely.. I will start looking for ones, twos and triangles now…
Oh, it would be interesting to know if they have the same meaning in Italy… or some other meaning altogether. Or if they are just pretty. Let me know what your research uncovers. 🙂
I love the Cypress trees! I didn’t know all of that! Very nice!
Sent from my iPad
Thanks Julia. It’s good info for when you are in Provence and hungry or tired – just look for the trees. 🙂
We live in Haute Savoie and the ‘cyprès du midi’ as we call them also do well around here. We planted five along our neighbour’s wall, which they so charmingly built right on our property line!
So what secret message were you sending them, I wonder. 🙂
What a lovely article! Really enjoyed reading this. We have three plane trees at the entrance to our mas – wonder if the same theory applies? (It certainly feels like it when we seem to run a small hotel for friends and family in the summer!)
Thank you, Deborah. Plane trees are beautiful too. And your experience may be proof that they too bring in visitors. 😉
I love those trees, and now I will chuckle every time I see them to think of the gullible Parisians… #AllAboutFrance
Well, I guess sometimes you just have to make your own luck, don’t you… 🙂
Who knew? The estate agent who sold off all the plots in our lotissement planted a handful of cypress trees, about one for each of the early houses built including ours. I wonder if he was assuming we’d all be gullible Parisians, or thought that we’d all be inhospitable “don’t even think about asking here”-types (so much for the good reputation of my gîte!) or simply got hold of a job lot to plant cheaply? I reckon it might well have been the 3rd option, he is notoriously tight! Thanks for enlightening us with yet more quirky Provence history and thanks for joining in with #AllAboutFrance
Thanks, Phoebe. Well, at least you have one for good luck. Maybe you need to add two more to make sure your site is hospitable… 🙂
Hi Margo trust you to dig up these interesting facts about cypress trees. I will certainly be on the lookout now to see if the house I am visiting has 1, 2 or 3 trees. #AllAboutFrance
Hi Carolyne, It’s interesting how these things get started and change meaning over time – but still, it’s good to know the origins of theses associations. 🙂
How interesting! I shall be keeping a look out for the number of cypress trees wherever I go. #AllAboutFrance
I love cypress trees – the combination with the lavender is beautiful and so classically French! #AllAboutFrance
I agree. They are just lovely!
What a wonderful blog, I love old superstitions and myths. I’ll certainly be looking at Cypress trees in a whole new light! #AllAboutFrance
Thanks so much. I’m glad you found something you like. I’m also a fan of legends, tales, myths, etc… I love it digging them up.
Thanks for reading!
Fascinating, as always. I’ll never look at a cypress tree (or three) in the same way again! Those crafty notaires!! #AllAboutFrance
Always fascinating information to share, thanks yet again ! I’ve also heard that Cyrpess trees are a windbreak from the Mistral winds, which can be downright violent around here at times. I just might take a wander around this afternoon to count a few Cypress trees…
Love this & all the other quirky facts about France – we have one very overgrown & straggly tree just by our terrace, although the immobiliser failed to mention it would bring us luck!! #AllAboutFrance
It must have been an oversight on his part – I hope it brings you lots of luck anyway! 🙂
Those trees do have a romantic appeal! Thanks for all the fascinating info you always manage to discover for the rest of us!
My pleasure, Pat! 🙂
Wonderful article, thank you. I love cypress not knowing the story around. Thank you Margo for this outstanding article!
Thank you, Jana. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love the cypress trees too – especially in Provence.
Happy Holidays, – Margo