Plants and trees are commonly used in metaphors to explain concepts related to growth and origin stories (your ‘roots’). Plant and tree metaphors are so built into our language that we often don’t even realize we’re referring to them in our language. In these cases, the phrases have become commonplace idioms.
The following metaphors can be used in writing and speech to create powerful visualizations in the mind of your reader.
Examples of Plant Metaphors
1. I’ve Grown as a Person
Literal growth – when you grow taller – is not a metaphor. But when we talk about growing as a person, we’re referring to the development of our minds and thought processes. A person who has grown ‘as a person’ may have become wiser, overcome personal problems, or learned to move on from past hurts.
This concept of growth is figurative because nothing actually grew. The personal growth concept helps us envisage the idea that something has changed for the better.
Our growth metaphor could be either linked to the growth of an animal or a plant – the link is somewhat ambiguous.
2. He’s in my Family Tree
A family tree is a list of ancestors that is organized to show relationships between children and parents. It helps us see our origins and identify relationships between distant kin. Often, you can trace your family tree back to famous people or immigrants to your new country.
This hierarchical list, when drawn down on paper, looks a bit like a tree. Each time a link is made from parent to child, a new ‘branch’ is created.
So we can ask someone to ‘draw a family tree’, which of course is no tree at all. But because it looks like a tree, we use the term rhetorically.
But we can also use the phrase ‘family tree’ in our language to simply refer to people in the past. To say a famous explorer is “in my family tree” is of course not to say they’re in a tree of any kind. It’s to say you are related to them somehow.
3. Going Back to your Roots
Going back to your roots is a term that can be connected either to the ‘family tree’ concept above or the simple idea that the roots of a tree is a place where life begins.
In general, we say we’re going back to our roots when we go to our childhood home. This is the place of origin – much like a tree’s roots are its origins.
Another time we might say we’re going back to our roots is when we go to the place of our ancestors. Many American-Irish expatriates, for example, might return to Ireland and the village of their ancestors during a trip to see ‘their roots’.
Lastly, you might go back to your roots psychologically when you pause and reflect on what’s important to you. Maybe you haven’t been to Church for a while, and you head to church one day to ‘reconnect’ with your roots – here, they’re moral and values-based roots that you’re returning to.
4. Deep Rooted
To say something is deep rooted is to say that it’s really firmly embedded into something else. But, it doesn’t have to be physical. It can be something psychological, cultural or spiritual too.
An example of something that’s deep rooted is a deep rooted depression. This would mean that someone has depression that is hard to get rid of.
We could also consider things that are deep rooted in a culture. For example, a chauvinistic culture could say that chauvinism is deep rooted – it’s not going to change even if you tried!
Of course, this metaphor is based on the idea that roots of trees and plants ensure they’re lodged deeply into the ground and hard to extract.
5.The Root of the Problem
The metaphor of something being at the ‘root of the problem’ is similar to the above deep rooted metaphor. Here, when we say we have found the root of the problem, we’re identifying the problem’s origins or main cause. This, of course, links to the roots in plants and trees. If we get to the root, we can dig it out!
If you cut down a plant but leave the roots in it, the plant may regrow. But if you get to the roots and kill them, you’ve killed the plant. This metaphor harks back to this idea that the deepest and most central feature of a problem (‘the root’) is the thing that needs to be addressed.
6. Roots and All
“Roots and all” continues our roots theme and is closely related to the idea of the “root of the problem”. When we say we got rid of something “roots and all”, it means we’ve thoroughly removed something.
The roots are often below ground and impossible to see. So, we’ll often remove a tree but not its roots because they’re too hard to access. But, a tree can regrow from the roots.
So removing ‘roots and all’ is a sign that something was done thoroughly. While it’s usually a removal of something, it could also be more generally a comment that something was completed ‘roots and all’ meaning it was a job well done.
7. Root and Branch Review
Our last ‘roots’ metaphor – we promise! A root and branch review is a review is a review of something that looks at all its parts. Roots and branches are two separate but very important parts of a tree. If we were to hypothetically review a tree (perhaps to assess its health), we’d want to look at both its roots and its branches.
Similarly, a root and branch review will look at a government department or business operation and thoroughly review it all to identify areas that need to be fixed or changed.
Other times branches are used in metaphors can be found in our article on wind metaphors.
Trees have leaves. And the leaves of a tree are small, flat and thin – almost like paper. It’s no wonder, then, that we have used the term ‘leaf’ and adapted it for many other situations.
One key situation where leaves have been used metaphorically is in the concept of the leaflet. A leaflet is a piece of paper with a core marketing message or important piece of information on it. leaflets are usually released en masse to spread the word about something. They’re even dropped from the sky in propaganda campaigns over enemy territory. And when they’re dropped from the air, they look like leaves falling down in autumn time.
Examples of Tree Metaphors
9. A Stump Speech
A stump speech is usually a political speech that someone makes as they travel around campaigning. It’s generally the same speech made over and over again.
The reason we call it a stump speech is that back in the days before microphones and television, people would literally stand on tree stumps to give their speeches! Today, the literal meaning of the term is gone, and all that’s left is a metaphor calling a public speech a ‘stump speech’ – referring to the (now figurative) idea that the person’s speech involves them standing on a stump!
10. Trees are Giants
Tall, ancient trees are often called giants. This metaphor is not employing trees to describe something else, but rather employing something else to describe a tree! Of course, trees aren’t enormous mythical beings. But when we look up at them in a large old growth forest, it’s hard not to think of them as the wise old giants of the forest.
11. Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
When you say that someone “can’t see the forest for the trees”, you’re saying that someone is so focused on the small details that they can’t see the big picture.
Here’s an example. Imagine someone is so busy trying to get every single word perfect when writing a book, that they forgot to pay attention to the plotline. They have written a lovely well worded book but it’s just got a boring plot! They’re too focused on the details and didn’t look at the big picture.
The idiom is based on the idea that someone is so close to the trees in a forest that they can’t see the forest itself. They need to walk up a hill and look at the forest from a distance to really get a good idea of what the forest itself looks like.
12. It’s an Offshoot
You’ll often see on a tree the start of a new branch forming. It’ll be green, small and vulnerable at first. You could easily snap it and kill the offshoot right away. But over time, that offshoot might grow into a mighty branch.
We use this term ‘offshoot’ to explain other things as well. We’re using the plant metaphor here to explain things like the start of a new sit com that ‘branches out’ (there’s another metaphor) from the original Frasier is an offshoot from Cheers, for example.
13. Go out on a Limb
To go out on a limb is to do something that makes you vulnerable. It uses the concept of someone (or an animal, perhaps), climbing out on the limb of a tree (aka a branch) to get a piece of fruit hanging from the tree. You’re going out there because there might be a reward. But there’s risk involved – the limb might break and you’ll fall!
14. Branches (of Government or a Bank)
The branches of governments are different sections of the government like ‘treasury’, ‘healthcare’, or ‘education’. The branches of a bank are your local bank which you go to in order to get money out. They are one of many banks all under the banner of a corporation like “Bank of America” or “HSBC”.
We call these offshoots ‘branches’ because if we were to draw an organizational diagram, you’d see each of these little offshoots as lines drawn from the ‘central bank’. The drawing ends up looking a little bit like a tree.
This branches concept has similar origins as the ‘family tree’ concept.
15. A Seed in the Mind
When we say we have planted a seed in the mind, we’re saying that we have put a thought in someone’s head that may grow into something big. This is much like a seed for a plant, which starts small and unassuming, but could end up being a huge enormous pine tree one day!
Something that is grassroots is something that comes from regular people, not powerful people. A grassroots movement, for example, is a group of people who got together to lobby for change.
We call it grassroots because it feels like a grassroots organization is not organized around a tall powerful tree or central stem. The organization is sprawling and disorganized, much like grass, which has no central trunk or stem as an organizing principle. There is rarely an central figure or organizer for these sorts of movements.
Examples of grassroots movements include the Occupy movement of 2008-2009 and the Arab Spring of 2011.
Tree and plant metaphors surround us everywhere. They help us explain structures and ideas in easy to interpret visual formats. A tree metaphor might explain something enormous and grand, or something small like a seed. It’s because there is so much diversity and complexity to plants and trees that we can come up with so many metaphors for the one thing.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.