Blessed Are Those Who Plant Trees Under Whose Shade They Will Never Sit

Greek Proverb? Indian Proverb? Marcus Tullius Cicero? Joycelyn Elders? Warren Buffett? Hyacinthe Loyson? M. Trottier?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular adage praises people whose selfless actions are designed to benefit future generations. Here are two versions:

  1. Blessed are old people who plant trees knowing that they shall never sit in the shade of their foliage.
  2. Those who plant trees, knowing that only others will enjoy the shade, are public benefactors.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a sermon by French theologian Hyacinthe Loyson delivered in Paris in 1866. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ces arbres qu’il plante et à l’ombre desquels il ne s’assoira pas, il les aime pour eux-mêmes et pour ses enfants, et pour les enfants de ses enfants, sur qui s’étendront leurs rameaux.

The sermon was translated into English and published in 1870. Hyacinthe Loyson approvingly described the actions of the proto-farmer: 2

These trees which he plants, and under whose shade he shall never sit, he loves them for themselves, and for the sake of his children and his children’s children, who are to sit beneath the shadow of their spreading boughs.

The above prolix passage did not directly state that the planter was blessed. A closer match to the adage under scrutiny appeared in “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London in 1868 within an article titled “Australian Trees and Algerian Deserts”. The article presented a compact saying described as an Indian proverb; hence, the attribution was anonymous. Interestingly, the source text was a French article published in 1868 by M. Trotter: 3

The Eucalyptus globulus at fifteen years of age is as valuable as an oak tree of one hundred years. One seed planted near Algiers four years ago is now a tree three feet in circumference at the base. The man who plants the hills of Africa with these trees, though he is no less blessed, does not require the faith spoken of in the Indian proverb, “Blessed is he who plants trees under whose shade he will never sit.”

QI believes that The adage evolved over a long period. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The central idea that planting trees benefits posterity occurred in ancient writings. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero credited Roman poet Caecilius Statius with the following expression: 4

CICERO Cato Major vii. 24

‘serit arbores, quae alteri saeclo prosint,’ ut ait Statius noster in Synephebis,

‘he plants trees, which will be of use to another age,’ as [Caecilius] Statius says in his Synephebi.

In 1732 Thomas Fuller’s collection “Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs” also contained an instance of this idea, but this early statement did not mention shade: 5

He that plants Trees, loves others besides himself.

Fuller’s 1732 collection also included a statement about walnut trees that was parallel to the adage under examination. The delayed benefit provided by the tree was fruit instead of shade: 6

He who plants a Walnut-Tree, expects not to eat of the Fruit.

In 1837 the “Newcastle Weekly Courant” of England printed a statement about the future benefits of planting trees: 7

Planting Trees—He who plants trees upon his paternal estate, repays a debt to his posterity which he owes to his ancestors.

In June 1856 the “Nebraska Advertiser” of Brownville, Nebraska reprinted one of the proverbs given in Fuller’s collection. The accompanying remarks mentioned the shade provided by elms planted long ago: 8

. . . another proverb, is noble and generous: “He that plants trees, loves others besides himself.” Who has ever passed through Northampton and seen the stately elms planted more than a century ago by Jonathan Edwards, without feeling that a man who provides for the summer shade of other generations, is a true lover of mankind?

In November 1856 “The West Middlesex Advertiser” of London praised individuals who planted trees and suggested that their immediate descendants would enjoy the shade of the trees: 9

A man who plants a tree where none grew before is a benefactor of his species. We may yet live to see the ground covered with stately oaks and spreading elms, under which may sit the children and grandchildren of the present generation, and those who aid in the laudable cause we now advocate will deserve to be had in remembrance by posterity.

In 1863 “The Waterford Mail” of Ireland printed a pertinent adage labeled Turkish. The person planting the tree was young instead of old. Also, the planter probably would be able to enjoy the tree shade in the future: 10

Plant Trees. — There is old turkish adage that every young man should plant a tree under whose shade he could recline in his old age. It is a good adage, too. By all means plant at least one tree.

In 1866 theologian Hyacinthe Loyson delivered in sermon in Paris that contained a passage that was congruent to the saying under examination as mentioned previously.

In 1868 “The Pall Mall Gazette” printed a strong match as mentioned previously: 11

. . . Indian proverb, “Blessed is he who plants trees under whose shade he will never sit.”

Also, in 1868 Reverend Reuben Smith published a religious essay that mentioned fruit instead of shade: 12

Let the old men plant trees, though they may never expect to eat the fruit of them.

In 1928 “The Sunday Sun” of Vancouver, Canada suggested a less altruistic motivation for tree planters: 13

Ambition impels men to do that which will not benefit them, except in their own consciousness. It is the ambition that causes an old man to plant a tree, although he will never sit in its shade or eat of its fruit.

In 1951 “The Life We Prize” by Philosophy Professor Elton Trueblood contained the following: 14

A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.

In 1955 an essay by influential political commentator Walter Lippmann suggested that community allegiance explained some behaviors: 15

That is why young men die in battle for their country’s sake and why old men plant trees they will never sit under.

In 1992 a biography of investor Warren Buffett credited him with the following: 16

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” —NewsInc. January 1991.

In November 1992 a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Education and Health convened a meeting to discuss teenage pregnancy. A message for the record was submitted by Joycelyn Elders who at that time was the Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. She later became the U.S. Surgeon General. Her message included a version of the adage: 17

I would like to close with my favorite saying which I stole from someone so long ago that I’ve have forgotten who I borrowed it from: A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they’ll never sit.

In conclusion, QI conjectures that the adage evolved over time. The core of the adage suggesting that trees are planted for the benefit of future generations was expressed in ancient times. In 1866 theologian Hyacinthe Loyson employed a thematic match for the saying within a sermon. In 1868 a compact instance was labelled an Indian proverb.

Image Notes: Painting titled “Picnic Under The Trees” by Julius LeBlanc Stewart circa 1895. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to David Driscoll and Eric Fuchs whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Roger Pease who posted a germane article on his blog. Further thanks to gnorrn who posted information about the 1866 citation in French and English in the r/quotes forum of Reddit. Additional thanks to researcher Nigel Rees who explored this topic in his newsletter.)

Notes:

  1. 1868, La Famille: Compte Rendu des Conférences de Notre-Dame, Prèchées par Le R. P. Hyacinthe (Hyacinthe Loyson), Avent 1866, Quatrième Conférence, Date: 25 Décembre 1866, Title: De la Paternité, Start Page 68, Quote Page 77, Publisher: Joseph Albanel, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1870, The Family and the Church: Advent Conferences of Notre-Dame, Paris, 1866-7, 1868-9, Reverend Father Hyacinthe (Late Superior of the Barefoot Carmelites of Paris), Edited by Leonard Woolsey Bacon, Lecture Fourth, December 23, 1866, Fatherhood, Start Page 106, Quote Page 113, G. P. Putnam & Son, New York, (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1868 May 16, The Pall Mall Gazette, Australian Trees and Algerian Deserts, (Acknowledgement to “Notes sur l’Eucalyptus et subsidiairement sur la nécessité du reboisement l’Algérie.” Par M. Trottier. (Alger. 1868.)), Quote Page 11, Column 2, London, England (British Newspaper Archive and Newspapers_com)
  4. 2015, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Sixth Edition, Entry: WALNUTS and pears you plant for your heirs, Quote Page 339, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Quote Number 2248, Quote Page 91, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Quote Number 2401, Quote Page 99, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1837 February 17, Newcastle Weekly Courant, Local and Country News, Quote Page 3, Column 1,Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1856 June 28, Nebraska Advertiser, Proverbs, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Brownville, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1856 November 8, The West Middlesex Advertiser and Family Journal, Celsea Burial Ground by J.M., Date: Nov. 6, 1856, Quote Page 2, Column 4, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  10. 1863 December 28, The Waterford Mail, Plant Trees (filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Waterford, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  11. 1868 May 16, The Pall Mall Gazette, Australian Trees and Algerian Deserts, (Acknowledgement to “Notes sur l’Eucalyptus et subsidiairement sur la nécessité du reboisement l’Algérie.” Par M. Trottier. (Alger. 1868.)), Quote Page 11, Column 2, London, England (British Newspaper Archive and Newspapers_com)
  12. 1868, Nearing Home: Comforts and Counsels for the Aged by William E. Schenck, Old Age Anticipated by Reverend Reuben Smith, Start Page 64, Quote Page 69, Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1928 October 27, The Sunday Sun (The Vancouver Sun), Section: Sunday Illustrated Editorial, Three Towers of Man, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1951, The Life We Prize by Elton Trueblood (Professor of Philosophy, Earlham College), Chapter 2: The Demand for Meaning, Quote Page 58, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1955, Essays in The Public Philosophy by Walter Lippmann, Chapter 3: The Derangement of Powers, Section 2: The People and the Voters, Quote Page 36, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  16. 1992 Copyright, Warren Buffett: The Good Guy of Wall Street by Andrew Kilpatrick, Chapter: A Few Last Words from Warren Buffett, Quote Page 288, Donald I. Fine, New York. (Verified with scans)
  17. 1994, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Education and Health of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, One Hundred and Second Congress, Second Session, Date: November 24, 1992, Teenage Pregnancy: The Economic and Social Costs, Section: Submissions for the Record, Prepared Statement of M. Joycelyn Elders, M.D., Start Page 41, Quote Page 44, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link