How important is the simple leaf to life on earth? Consider this – without it, evolution would have taken a radically different course. Light is processed through the cells of a leaf to create energy. The process is called photosynthesis, during which oxygen is released into the atmosphere. Leaves, from the smallest plants hugging the earth to the mightiest trees that tower far above us, are a food source for just about all living creatures, from the insect to the elephant, not to mention human beings. In ancient cultures, certain leaves were food for the gods, and why not? They constituted much of folk medicine, and now form the basis of modern pharmaceuticals. Many leaves are used in many cultures all around the world for the unique properties of the oils they contain, as spices — think of the bay leaf, basil and oregano in your tomato sauce, not to mention the rosemary on your lamb — and for their fragrant scent in perfumes and body oils, such as lavender.
Tattoo art has embraced many leaf motifs, one of the most popular being the Japanese maple, a symbol of time passing. The design often conveys the leaves as floating, carried on the wind. In Japan, it’s also the symbol of lovers. In some Japanese tattoo designs, canopies of maple leaves float over shoulders and drift over the torso. Another favourite for covering large areas of the anatomy are bamboo leaves. The samurai’s sword guard – the tsuba — was often inscribed with a leaf motif signifying status and reflecting the personality of the owner.
One of the most sacred and most beautiful leaves is the lotus, whose symbolism goes back thousands of years. In sacred Buddha art it is depicted seated on a giant lotus leaf – an emblem of purity and beauty. It also carries a lesson about living in the world, since it grows in the mud yet remains untainted by it. The lotus retains its pristine purity in part because of the leaf’s capacity to filter away dust and dirt. Apparently, nothing sticks to the lotus due to microscopic bumps of its surface. Young lotus leaves are edible.
Another ‘sacred’ leaf is the olive, to this day still the symbol of Olympic victory. In Greek mythology it was attributed to the goddess Athena, and remains a symbol of peace and security. In the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark, Noah spotted the dove carrying an olive leaf, by which he knew that the flood waters were receding and his people were saved. A crown or laurel of olive leaves were awarded to the victors in the Greek Olympic Games.
The poplar, or aspen leaf, famed for its trembling movements, was called the talking, whispering, quivering tree. In Native American folklore, the poplar is seen as a tree whose leaves may tremble, yet the tree does not bow, even to the Great Spirit. That leaf symbolizes courage and respect. The willow – the tree of enchantment – lends its leaves to young women who press them into sachets and wear them around their necks to attract lovers.
The oak tree and the oak leaf were powerful symbols to the ancient Celts and Romans alike. Successful Roman Commanders were awarded crowns, or laurels of oak leaves for victories in battle, as the oak tree stood for strength, wisdom, and longevity.
In heraldry, a single leaf is said to symbolize happiness, while oak leaves represent faith and endurance. Nettles, however, are the heraldic symbol for the sting of death. If you want to make a statement about your endurance in love and friendship, the ivy tattoo will say it for you. As a tattoo design, the Celtic shamrock symbolizes either the trinity or pride in your Irish heritage. And the tiny four leaf clover is just plain lucky.
Ireland took the shamrock for its national emblem, while Canada has more recently adopted the maple leaf for its national flag.
A single leaf or a multitude of leaves are also potent symbols of regeneration and resurrection as they cycle through the seasons. In the temperate zones of the world, the changing seasons are most dependably marked by the transformation of the leaves of deciduous trees. Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter are potent reminders of the circle of life, from birth to death. From the plump buds of spring, to the edible green leaves of summer, to their dramatic autumnal death in a blazing show of colour, leaves are vivid reminders to us all of the life-and-death cycle of all living things. Nothing so thrills us with the sense of fresh hope and new beginnings as when leaves are budding in springtime. Everything is there waiting to burst out and begin a new life. Then follows full-leaf summer, when a broad canopy of leaves is a shady escape from the heat. The glories of a colourful autumn are the leaves last gasp before the dormancy of winter. A tree losing the last of its leaves in the cold winds of autumn, to be stripped bare for the onset of winter has a poignancy that has long stirred the souls of poets, philosophers and men alike. The parallels of our own human lifetime are all too obvious. We could do worse than to meditate upon a rotting leaf on a damp forest path, often just a ghost of its former self. ‘This too will pass,” said the Buddha.
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Leaf Inspiration Tattoos