Significance of sacred trees and groves

Authors and Affiliations: 

Prof Oliver Rackham, University of Cambridge UK


Sacred trees and sacred groves exist in many parts of the world, varying in scale from a single ancient yew in a churchyard to a whole landscape. They are associated with many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Japanese Shinto. Sometimes religious orthodoxy provides a theological basis for them, sometimes not. They can be important public amenities, especially sacred groves in cities.

        Sacred groves are often many centuries old, and are often thought of as relicts of original forest protected from exploitation and preserved in a near-to-natural state. However, most sacred areas had a secular human history or prehistory before they became sacred. Sacred groves have often developed along a different trajectory from the secular countryside, but it is a trajectory and is not usually static.

        Sacred landscapes and sites do, however, tend to create and preserve important ecological features, especially ancient and veteran trees, which may survive in greater numbers than in the secular countryside.

        This contribution is about the ecological and spiritual values of European sacred landscapes (Pungetti et al, 2012) and the relation between them, and the part to be played by sacred groves in the conservation of biological and cultural values.


Rackham, O. (2002). ‘The Holy Mountain’ [Athos]. Plant Talk, 27, 19–23.

Grove, A. T. and Rackham, O. (2001). The Nature of Southern Europe: An Ecological History.

Yale, CT: Yale University Press.

Pungetti, G., Hughes, P. and Rackham, O., 2012. Ecological and spiritual values of landscape: a reciprocal heritage and custody. In: G. Pungetti, G. Oviedo and D. Hooke (eds.), Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 65-82.