Death Plants: Plants and their symbolism in graveyards

Plants in front of a tombstone. Photo via Wikicommons.

Throughout history, plants have played a symbolic role in human burial practices as parts of graveyard landscapes and on individual tombstones. The meaning of each plants can vary depending on religious affiliations. 

As part of a research project done through the William L. Brown Center and University of Missouri St. Louis, Tonia O’Neal put together the following list of some more common plant depictions on monuments in St. Louis. 


Almond blossoms bloom in the Temperature House. Photo by Marissa Billmeyer.

Almond Blossoms, Prunus dulcis, represent rebirth. 

Bellflower, Campanula ‘Ringsabell Mulberry Rose.’ Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Bellflower, any species of Campanula, is a symbol for consistency, like a church bell that rings at specific times.  

Carnation, Dianthus caryophyllus ‘KLEDP09103’ SUPERTROUPER RED+WHITE. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Carnations, dianthus caryophyllus, set at a gravestone are meant to represent the passion of Christ.

Clover, Trifolium dubium. Photo by Bethany Ottens.

Clover, the common name for any species of Trifolium, is considered a symbol for the trinity because of its three leaf pattern. It is also a symbol of Ireland and may represent the location of the deceased’s home country. 

Common daisies. Photo by David Stang via TROPICOS.

Daisies, bellis perennis, often adorn children’s headstones because they represent innocence. The simplicity of this flower made it an early addition to tombstone iconography because it was easier to create with primitive methods. 

Asiatic lily, Lilium (Tiger Babies Group). Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Lilies, which are any species of Lilium, represents purity, charity, and hope.

Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis, is not a lily. It is a herbaceous perennial that produces white flowers. At gravesites, it symbolizes innocence.

Pansy, Viola x wittrockiana ‘Fizzle Sizzle Yellow Blue Swirl’

Pansies, Viola × wittrockiana, are a symbol of modesty and humility. 

Passiflora incarnata. Photo by Rebecca Pavelka.

Passion flowers, including several species of Passiflora, Passiflora caerulea, take on a Christian context, symbolizing Christ’s crucifixion, and redemption. 

Climbing rose, Rosa ‘WEKvaldaom’ LADY IN RED. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Roses are rich in symbolism. The meaning assigned to roses in life are also assigned to headstones. Red roses symbolize passion, white symbolize purity and peace, and yellow roses friendship.

Food Plants

Native grape, Vitis labrusca ‘Concord.’ Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Grapes at graves are meant to represent the blood of Christ. When paired with wheat the scene represents the Holy Communion.  

Common wheat, Triticum aestivum. Photo via WikiCommons.

Wheat, Triticum aestivum, on its own symbolizes rebirth, lifeforce, and mankind. When shown in a grouping, it represents a long life. 

Branch of an olive tree, Olea europaea. Photo by Monica Carlsen.

Olive, Olea europaea, symbolizes justice and peace, just as reflected in the expression, “to extend an olive branch.”

Common hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus.’ Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Hops adorn the grave of Adolphus Busch, co-founder of a brewery Anheuser-Busch. This is an example of plant iconography unique to an individual. Hops, a key ingredient in beer, represent his brewing career.


Chinkapin oak, Quercus muehlenbergii. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Oak trees and acorns has a long history in funeral iconography. Oak is a sacred symbol in the Celtic, Greek,  Norse, and Roman cultures. Just a few of the concepts oak represents are;  power, strength, stability, endurance, honor, virtue, faith, eternity, fertility, and justice.  

A sycamore fig, Ficus sycomorus, grows in the Climatron. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

The fig tree, different species of Ficus, is believed to be the original “Tree of Knowledge” and therefore represents knowledge, earthly happiness, abundance, and fertility.  

Spruce (Picea abies) represents the resurrection of Christ and immortality. 

Trees as a grave markers

Tree stones, or a the use of a tree stump or tree motif as a headstone, were prevalent during the Victorian era. They represent numerous different concepts ranging from a life cut short to skills such as carpentry. The tree stone provides the backdrop for other symbols in some cases. 

Other plants

A palm tree in the Climatron. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Palm leaves, from any type of palm, are a symbol of a martyr’s victory over death.

Spotted laurel, Aucuba japonica ‘Mr. Goldstrike’ in the English Woodland Garden. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Laurel, Aucuba japonica, symbolizes many things, and context may change the meaning slightly. When in the shape of a wreath, it can represent immortality and eternity. This comes from it being evergreen and the closed circle representing eternity. In the form of a crown, laurel represents victory. In some cases, it can mean military success. Surrounding iconography can help determine this.

Himalayan ivy, Hedera nepalensis var. sinensis. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Ivy is used on gravestones to represent many meanings. When ivy appears to cling to or climb up the headstone, it represents friendship and undying attachment. Ivy can also represents immortality.   

Mushrooms (Fungi) growing near a Climatron waterfal. Photo by Tom Incrocci.


While not technically plants, fungi have their funerary symbolism, too. Mushrooms can represent everything from a specific artisan leaving their mark on the tombstone, the fairy realm, to death itself. It depends on the formation and type of mushroom. For instance, destroying angel, amanita virosa, represents death.  

The William L. Brown Center is dedicated to the study of useful plants, understanding the relationships between humans, plants, and their environment, the conservation of plant species, and the preservation of traditional knowledge
for the benefit of future generations.
Learn more >

Leave a Reply