Of all the trees Vincent van Gogh described in his letters to his brother Theo, cypresses are the most famous. They are also a distinguishing factor in the man’s work.
In his letter to his brother in the summer of 1889, he describes them this way: “The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts … ” He later explains, “It astonishes me that they have not been done as I see them.”
Anyone who has fallen in love with the famous post-Impressionist’s landscapes from the south of France knows van Gogh visually defined these trees in a unique way. “And the green has a quality of such distinction,” he writes. “It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.”
The south of France is a Mediterranean climate where olive and cypress trees were grown because they were drought-tolerant enough to naturalize there. These cypresses were Cupressus sempervirens, known today as the Italian cypress. But those in the paintings are not the pencil-thin trees we know, but the older, pure species planted perhaps a century or more before van Gogh arrived. Yet in the typical lifespan of such trees, they were still very young. Old specimens in the eastern Mediterranean can exceed a 1,000-year life span.
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These cypresses of France were fatter and more irregular, which explains the nuanced way the artist depicted them. They were likely born of the ancient strain of forest trees of Persia, which are quite different from the cypress we know today. Over the centuries, classical civilizations selected the more narrow-growing trees to propagate, and over time the species in cultivation have become progressively narrower.
The most upright and uniformly pencil-like individuals dubbed Italian cypresses became the standard. In the meantime, the more irregular species became rarer and rarer until all that’s available today are the sleeker forms.
In Provence, these thinner trees became a language to travelers, acting much like signage. This is because they could be seen over a great distance and were not confused with any other species.
At wayside taverns, a single cypress at the gate told the traveler to come in for a drink. A pair of cypresses meant the traveler would find both food and drink inside. The presence of three cypresses meant the traveler could expect food, drink and overnight accommodation. This symbolism led to the common practice of planting pairs of cypress to flank entries and gateways.
There may be another explanation for why cypresses in the paintings are often shown as individuals. It is a very ancient practice to plant trees at the time of a property survey. Those that bore no resemblance to other trees, that were long-lived and drought-resistant, could be planted to mark corners for posterity. A similar practice was done with tall Mexican fan palm trees in early California for the same reason.
In Derek Fell’s beautiful book, “Van Gogh’s Gardens” (Simon & Schuster, 2001), he proposes that the evergreen cypresses in the paintings aren’t cypresses at all, but junipers. The species he writes about is Juniperus communis, which is native to an enormous range of the Northern Hemisphere and reflects the dark coloring and slightly wider pyramidal form in many of the paintings.
Whether or not this is true, Fell has provided us an alternative to Cupressus sempervirens, which won’t take winters colder than USDA plant hardiness zone 7 (which encompasses of the Carolinas). Hardier Juniperus communis withstands zone 2 winters (minus 40 and below).
When selecting evergreens for Mediterranean-style gardens, remember the lesson of van Gogh, who showed us that less is more. One or two dark columnar elements in the landscape can be dynamic, but more can spoil the effect altogether, proving that sometimes you really can be too rich or too thin.