Botanic Notables: The Ancient Cypress of Saint Francis

Botanic Notables: The Ancient Cypress of Saint Francis

January 13, 2012
Photo by: E. Salvatore via

Saint Francis of Assisi is surrounded with stories of his legendary sway over nature: the spellbound birds, the tamed wolf, the obeisant fish. That's not all—the people of Rimini, Italy, will tell you that the patron saint of animals and ecology also spoke to the trees—at least, to a cypress tree (Cupressus sempervirens) that grows in the hilltop city of Verucchio. It is 800 years old—one of the oldest cypress trees in Europe—and, it is said, improbably grown by Saint Francis himself. Today, the ancient cypress still stands in the cloister that emerged around the tree. 

As the story goes, Saint Francis was on a pilgrimage to Rimini when he paused by a small shrine in Verucchio's forest. He performed several signature miracles (quieting the sparrows, resurrecting a spring of water), then prepared a fire of gathered wood. His contribution to the fire was his own walking staff, a branch of cypress. As the fire burned, the wood turned to ash, while his staff became green with life. According to Thomas Parkenham (Remarkable Trees of the WorldRandom House, 1998), Saint Francis responded: 'All right. If you don't want to burn, then grow.' He planted the green staff, and it grew into a tall cypress. 

Today, the withered tree is supported with several steel crutches. Surrounded by other cypress and olive trees, it is still the central monument of a sacred and historic place—founded by Saint Francis on his visit in 1200, the Franciscan Convent is the oldest in Romagna, a region of Italy. Inside the adjacent church is a fresco that depicts Saint Francis planting the tree that would beget a legend. 

giotto - saint francis

Legend of Saint Francis #15: Sermon to the Birds, by Giotto (c. 1297- 1299). Photo credit: JarektuploadBot.

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at her website.