Stately tree waves the flag

The large tree on the left is a mature cedar of Lebanon growing at the corner of Bellevue St and...
The large tree on the left is a mature cedar of Lebanon growing at the corner of Bellevue St and Granville Tce in Belleknowes, Dunedin. Photo: Gregor Richardson
It’s surprising how few national flags feature the great trees of the world, writes Mark Clark.

Mark Clark
Mark Clark
The life-giving date palm is conspicuously absent from the flags of countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In the Pacific, island nations seem to have been more interested in putting stars and crosses on their flags than in using the iconic coconut palm. (Fiji’s flag sports a tiny profile of a coconut palm in a coat of arms, but you could be forgiven for not noticing it.)

Elsewhere in the tropics, trees and leaves are barely visible on the flags of a few small countries such as Belize, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea.

There is, of course, the Canadian flag with its prominent red maple leaf, and the flag of Cyprus showing the island cradled in olive tree branches. Very few show a whole tree - or at least the part above ground that we see.

As I wrote recently, the Norfolk Island pine takes centre stage on that island’s flag, but Norfolk Island is officially part of Australia. So the prize for the best image of a tree on a national flag goes to ... Lebanon.

An awful explosion in Beirut on August4 focused the world’s attention on this little nation of nearly 7million people. Lebanon is not much larger than the combined areas of Dunedin City and the Clutha district, but what a rich and fascinating history it has.

Byblos, a city of about 100,000 people on Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, has been continuously inhabited since 5000 BC - a record few cities in the world can match.

Two other coastal centres, Tyre and Sidon, are famous Phoenician cities mentioned in the Bible and other ancient records. The Phoenicians were renowned seafarers, and the alphabet has its origins in the Phoenician alphabet. Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and the French have all lingered in Lebanon and left their cultural influences.

A Lebanese national flag waving at Byblos. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
A Lebanese national flag waving at Byblos. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
One powerful living symbol of all that history and all those cultures is the majestic cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), famous throughout the Levant as a symbol of strength and eternity. Among the many references to these arboreal aristocrats is Psalm 92 in the Bible: "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon."

Earlier this year, "Wordways" columnist Dr John Hale wrote a wonderful article about the Cedars of Lebanon Grove in the Dunedin Botanic Garden. As well as the bronze cedar cone he described, there are two vigorous young cedars of Lebanon in the grove. Dr Hale explained that "cedar" came from the Greek "kedros", and that "Lebanon" comes from the Phoenician root "LBN", meaning white - referring to the snowcapped mountains where a few of the cedars still grow.

Outside the natural stands of cedars, it’s a brave person who claims they can tell one species of cedar from another at a distance. There used to be a rough rule of thumb along the following lines: A for Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica) and ascending branches; D for deodars (Cedrus deodara) and drooping branches; and L for Lebanese cedars (Cedrus libani) and level branches. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t care about our rules, so it’s not quite as simple as that.

There are some impressive cedars in Otago gardens that are almost certainly cedars of Lebanon.

My favourite is a specimen growing beside a drainage channel in the East Taieri Cemetery. Although this tree is relatively young, it has adopted the classic pose of a Lebanese cedar, with its tiered lower branches and flattened plates of foliage. Closer to Dunedin’s urban centre, there’s a stately mature cedar of Lebanon on the corner of Bellevue St and Granville Tce.

No doubt such trees are freighted with deep meanings and emotions for the many local descendants of the city’s Lebanese immigrants.


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