Where ever you look, slender, conical cypress trees in Provence are a definite feature of the landscape. 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.
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. They are planted in a triangular shape, near the entry to the property. Traditionally, this is a symbol of hospitality. Long ago, when 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.”
Good Luck Charm
Another 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 “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.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France and blogs at curiousrambler.com. She is the author of Curious Histories of Provence, Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions, details: curiousrambler.com/margos-books