On Beauty, Ethics and the Nature – The Story of Tree Shape Preferences

When it comes to aesthetic preferences, I like to remember an older colleague’s explanation of why his wife’s eyes are beautiful – not because they fit some common criteria of what is considered a beautiful shape, size, or color, but simply because they’re hers.  He loves her, he loves her eyes. Many memories are kept in those eyes. He watches them smile, cry, get angry, getting old, and sees the value and beauty in them.

Is this a beauty pageant?; Lime Tree Avenue, Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire; photo by Lincolnian (Brian)

There are some things we consider beautiful (or at least want to) per se, just because. All the things and people we love could be included here, and everything we think of as valuable. Just writing about how some trees are prefered over others because of their appearance seems somewhat unfair.

This tree has superior perspective; photo by AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker

Do I presume that not even trees are made equal? That they don’t have the same chances in life? That we judge them, too, upon something as shallow as their appearance? Since trees are valuable to us, what do answers to these questions say about us? (Luckily, I’m not writing about children’s beauty pageants. I’m not sure I can handle our attitude towards children’s appearance – there are some depressing research findings about that, too, though.)

Angel Oak, Charleston, South Carolina, estimated to be over 1500 years old; photo by ctankcycles

Writing and researching about how beauty isn’t always in the eyes of a beholder, (or how most beholders have the same point of view) often makes me disappointed with how shallow we often are. However, not dealing with our shallowness won’t make it go away. When there’s a chance to learn more about it and gain understanding about it,  maybe we’ll come to the conclusion that describing some attitude as shallow was a rushed judgement.

A beautiful model+great lighting+photoshop= of course the result is amazing; photo by Miroslav Petrasko (blog.hdrshooter.net)

If you google “beautiful tree”, you’ll mostly find  images of  trees with big, broad canopies and short trunks. Those  can be considered conventional beauties in the tree world. As a cross cultural study showed (Orians,1992;  according to Falk and Balling, 2010) trees rated as most attractive are those in which the canopy is relatively dense and the trunk bifurcates low to the ground. These characteristics of tree-form, the author pointed out, typify those found in the East African savanna.

Acacia, The Malilangwe Game Preserve in Zimbabwe; photo by Artbandito

Sommer and Summit (1995, according to Falk and Balling 2010) found consistent findings, with preference for large canopies and small trunks. A later study of tree species preference and context, Summit and Sommer (1999) found that the acacia-type tree-form, typical of the African savanna, was preferred over oak, conifer, palm, and eucalyptus.

Bonsai is pruned to be as wide as possible; Japanese Pavillion, Montréal Botanical Garden; photo by elPadawan

Heerwagen and Orians (1993, according to Summit and Sommer, 1999) also found a preference for savanna forms in research using line drawings and photographs, analysis of landscape paintings, and the tree-pruning practices used in Japanese gardens. No doubt about it, accacia-forms are Barbie dolls among trees (at least from human perspective).

Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OR; photo by ahp_ibanez

Environmental context also plays a role in how likable different trees are. While the acacia is preferred in all contexts, the oak, pine, and eucalyptus received highest ratings in the wild, and the palm figure received its highest ratings in the urban context (in a study by Summit and Sommer,1999).

Palms are supposedly prefered in urban context, here in Barcelona; photo by Andrei Pop

Lohr and Pearson-Mims (2006.) took one step further and examined both visual preferences and emotional responses to different tree shapes. They compared responses to scenes with spreading tree forms to responses to scenes with conical (such as firs and spruces) and rounded  tree forms (such as oaks and maples). The scenes with a spreading tree were both rated significantly more attractive, and participants reported feeling more happy or pleased, and had lower diastolic blood pressure when viewing them instead of viewing the rounded or conical tree images.

Cherry blossom, Sakura, in Ueno Park, Tokyo; photo by Kabacchi

Similar outcomes – preference, feeling happy or pleased (and, interestingly,  slightly more fearful) and lower blood pressure – were recorded when viewing the tree images with dense canopies compared to trees with open canopies.

Feeling happy; photo by ˙Cаvin 〄

Possible explanations  for these findings come from evolutionary psychology. It is a field which describes deeply rooted behaviors (or behavioral tendencies) that most modern human posses because those behaviors increased the likelihood of survival in the history of our species (for more on intersection between evolutionary and environmental psychology see here). Orians, a prominent author in this field, stated that people prefer dense canopies because a dense canopy signals a productive environment that favors survival (Orians, 1980 according to Lohr and Pearson-Mims, 2006.) and Appleton added that these trees offer better prospect and refuge (Appleton, 1975 according to Lohr and Pearson-Mims, 2006.). In other words trees provided a shelter tor our ancestors as well as lookout, and indicated a moderate climate.

Englisher Garten, Munich; photo by rkirchne

It seems ok to acknowledge that our evolutionary inheritance has an important and strong influence on our behavior. However, I belive it’s also a first step to begin thinking outside of our evolutionary “base”. In other aspect of our lives, motives for survival and procreation are those basic drives that get us going. However, letting the lead through our life solely to them, hardly results in a fulfilled life. Same here.

Tree gathering; photo by krapow

See, I have no idea how this information about people “naturally ” preferring big canopies will be implemented to your life. Any landscape designers who learnt something new out of this? Or someone who is thinking about planting a tree in their back yard? It’s not very likely you need anyone to tell you what you’ll perceive as a beautiful tree.

Central Park Runners; photo by paulmcdee

However, I’m sharing these findings because  it makes me think about my attitude towards (natural) environment beyond admiration of what’s obviously pretty or undeniably spectacular. Beyond Ayers rock, Niagara falls or Pulpit rock. Just to be sure you know what I mean, take a look at it:

Pulpit rock, Norway; photo by Today is a good day

Without much explaining you can see how this is breathtaking and how nature does quite impressive things. But I still feel like we’re often missing the point. I think that our attitude towards environment isn’t much different from our attitude towards our bodies. We often don’t see the value that lies beyond the surface, even though there is something truly magnificent.

Unconventional tree beauties, Baobab avenue, Madagascar; photo by mfavez

My intention is not to don’t condemn the need to prettfy our bodies or “our” trees, or the environment in general. I just feel that by focusing too much on good-looking things in our environment we’re missing out a lot. We pay a great deal of attention to the fact that our lawn is mown, the trees are pruned, and that the evidence of how we harm the nature are out of our sight, our neighbourhood and our country. Sometimes we just forget to add value to our environment by loving it and living in harmony with it.


1. Falk, J. H.&  Balling, J. D. (2010) Evolutionary Influence on Human Landscape Preference. Environment and Behavior, 42(4), 479–493.

2. Lohr, V.I. and  Pearson-Mims, C. H. (2006) Responses to Scenes with Spreading, Rounded, and Conical Tree Forms. Environment and Behavior 38: 667

3. Summit, J. &  Sommer, R. (1999) Further Studies of Preferred Tree Shapes. Environment and Behavior 31: 550

4 Responses to “On Beauty, Ethics and the Nature – The Story of Tree Shape Preferences”

  1. Hey Zeljka,

    I don’t know whether I mentioned it before, but I think you like the research of Yannick Joye involving fractals, nature and architecture.


    Kind regards


  2. You didn’t mention it before, but it sounds very interesting – I came across research on fractals but usually focused only on natural landscapes and rarely involving architecture. I also noticed that the author works at philosophy department in Belgium – maybe a new and fresh perspective is to be expected:) Thank you!


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