The next time you’re in a drier area of the western United States, take notice of the desert-loving tamarisk trees.
These are native to Africa and the Middle East, but they have adapted well to life in America. Each time I see one, it takes me back to my days spent working at an all-but-forgotten hot spring off the grid.
The water there was salty, which is why the tamarisks (Latin name Tamarix) thrive there while very few other trees can handle those conditions. After going through a tough time in my life, I took some time to recharge and recalibrate. The tamarisks played a role in helping me emotionally detoxify and feel better again.
Tamarisk tree symbolism has long been associated with protection. Tamarisk trees are evergreen, hence they offer protection throughout all the seasons. Tamarisk trees are also resilient, as seen in their ability to tolerate both droughts and floods.
Osiris (ancient Egyptian)
About Tamarisk Trees
The Tamarix genus consists of 54 species of deep-rooted shrubs or small trees, primarily found in Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Commonly known as tamarisk trees, these plants have slender, greenish branches and scale-like leaves that secrete salt.
The tiny white to rose-coloured flowers are borne in simple or compound racemes; the fruit is a capsule containing many seeds with a tuft of hairs at the apex.
The leafless tamarisk (T. aphylla) is a tree native to northern Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. It is richly branched and evergreen, growing to be approximately 30ft tall with pale pink-to-white flowers. Its branches are where photosynthesis and transpiration occur, as they are intensely green.
The more common Nile tamarisk (T. nilotica) can be found in wadis—desert watercourses—and marshes throughout its habitat range.
The wood of T. gallica, a species of tamarisk native to southern Europe but also naturalized in England, became the popular choice for crab-pot bases in the British Channel Islands because it could withstand long-term saltwater exposure without breaking down.
The orchard of Pharaoh Tuthmosis I (1528-1510 BCE) in ancient Egypt included tamarisk trees, but their medicinal use wasn’t passed down. In China, however, the branchlets and leaves of T. chinensis are classified as medicines because they contain salicin which is effective against fevers, headaches and arthritic pains.
Its diuretic properties help with bladder problems and clear toxins from the body too.
The famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper from England advocated using a tamarisk decoction (T. gallica) to treat various ailments such as varicose veins, heavy menstrual bleeding, jaundice, colic and leprosy.
He also said that the ashes could calm burns and blisters caused by fire.
Folklore, Myth and Symbol of the Tamarisk Tree
The ancient Egyptian myth of the death and resurrection of Osiris tells that the sarcophagus holding his dead body floated down the Nile river and landed on the coast of Phoenicia.
Immediately, a tamarisk tree sprouted up around the coffin and encompassed it in its trunk. The king and queen of the local land hear about the magnificent tree with its sweet scent, and they decide to have it made into a pillar for their palace. Meanwhile, Isis, Osiris’ divine sister-wife, has been searching everywhere for him. She finally finds the palace where he is kept inside an enchanted tamarisk column. She removes his coffin from the pillar and takes him home.
The tamarisk protects the body of Osiris alongside the acacia in the beginning stages of his story. Thereafter, the Acacia takes over this duty by providing him with magical shelter. Consequently, people also value the tree for its supposed protective abilities.
The ancient Israelites used the tamarisk tree in purification ceremonies. They believed that the smoke from the burning tree would keep away snakes. The Tamarisk was also known for its great healing powers, for example, it was used to cleanse lepers and their houses (Leviticus 14:4).
Abraham, a foreigner in the land of the Philistines, “planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba and invoked the Lord” (Genesis 21:33). When King Saul of Israel and his sons fell in battle against the Philistines, Jabesh’s citizens took their bodies back home, buried them under a tamarisk tree and fasted for seven days (I Samuel 31:13).
However, in another version of this event (Chronicles 10:12), the tamarisk was replaced with a “terebinth” or “female sacred tree”.
Tamarisk Tree Meanings and Symbols
Spiritual and Emotional Purification
The Epic of Gilgamesh purports the significant effects of tamarisk, as Ninsun (Gilgamesh’s mother) uses it to cleanse herself before begging Shamash, the sun god, to guide her son.
Like seawater and desert sunlight sanitize physical areas, tamarisks purge any emotional or spiritual darkness within a person. Consequently, they help an individual feel lighter and relieve them of any toxicity they may be carrying.
The taproots of these plants grow long to find hidden moisture deep within the earth. Additionally, their leaves disperse salt to discourage other plants from growing close by.
Connection Between Heaven and Earth
Osiris, the Egyptian god, was once hidden in a chest inside a tamarisk tree. The tree was later cut down and transformed into a pillar that many people believed to be an archetypal “tree of life” or “axis mundi”—a connection between the realm of the earth and the divine, heavenly realm of the sky.
Similarly, there is a traditional belief that the “manna from heaven” descended upon the Israelites from branches of a tamarisk tree.
In short, the tamarisk tree is a Protector with many forms of power. It is an evergreen that can last through any season and it has both masculine and feminine energies.
No matter what the meaning of the tamarisk tree is to you, there’s no doubt that this ancient symbol has a lot of history and cultural significance. If you ever find yourself in a place with these beautiful trees, take a moment to appreciate their symbolism and all they represent.