Plants of the Bible

‘The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden … And a river went out of Eden to water the garden . . . And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’ Thus the first garden and the first gardener are described in Genesis 2. 8,10, 15.

The Old Testament provides a good picture of the methods of cultivation and the plants grown in Biblical times.

Flower gardens were then a luxury and only for the wealthy: most people grew plants for strictly utilitarian purposes.

All the gardens of the Bible are set against the harsh and arid conditions of the Middle East; the need for water is constantly referred to, as is also the need for careful dressing, or tending, to preserve the gardens against the ever encroaching wilderness of thorns, nettles and brambles (Isaiah 34. 13). ‘Doth the ploughman plow all day to sow? Doth he open and break the clods of his ground?’ (Isaiah 28.24) is one of the many references made to ploughing. It appears that harrowing was common in the days of David (2 Samuel 12. 31 and Job 39. 10), and that the composting of vegetable waste was also practised (Isaiah 25.10).

Then, as now, there were many pests to contend with. Among them were beetles, grasshoppers and locusts (Leviticus 11.22), flies (Psalm 78. 45), hornets (Deuteronomy 7. 20) and snails (Leviticus 11. 30), as well as mildews and caterpillars (2 Chronicles 6. 28).

The magnificence of royal gardens is described in the first chapter of Esther. They were probably laid out like courtyards with pavements of red, blue and white marble. The beds are described as gold and silver—doubtless they were planted with herbaceous plants that had silver- and golden-coloured flowers.

In the days of the Bible it seems that most plants were fragrant and even the flowers of the vine had exquisite scent. Solomon planted vineyards, gardens and orchards and constructed pools to water them (Ecclesiastes 2. 4-6) and, although his gardens have long since vanished, the Song of Solomon 4. 12-15 recalls their beauty: ‘A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.’

Trees, vegetables and spices are mentioned more frequently in the Bible than flowering plants.

Trees, which provide both shade and blossom and eventually fruit, were the outstanding feature of Bible gardens, and 30 different kinds are referred to. The translators of the Bible were theologians and not botanists, so that a number of plants were wrongly named in translation. The tree of knowledge in Genesis 2.17, which is usually depicted as an apple tree, was probably an orange tree. The word ‘apricot’ has also often been wrongly translated as apple, for true apples were of a poor quality in ancient

Palestine and they cannot therefore have been the ‘apples of gold’ referred to in Proverbs 25. 11, nor sweet to the taste as those in the Song of Solomon 2.3.

The olive tree appears for the first time in Genesis 8. II, and is mentioned over 50 times more. Its long, grey-green leaves provided shade; its unripe, green fruits were eaten with bread; and the ripe fruits were crushed to extract the oil which was used for cooking, soap and lamp fuel.

Christ spent His last night of freedom in the Garden of Gethsemane—’the garden with the olive press’.

Figs were grown in the earliest days and in Genesis 3. 7 Adam and Eve ‘sewed fig leaves together’ to cover their nakedness. The species of palm tree that bear fruits were also popular. Dates, like figs, were eaten either fresh or dried, the sap of the date palm was used as a drink and the strong leaves were used for weaving into mats. In St. John 12.13, the crowd that greeted Jesus for the Passover cut down palm fronds and strewed them in His way, crying ‘Hosanna’. Another tree grown in large quantities was the pomegranate. Its juicy fruits made not only a refreshing drink but also a spiced wine—’I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate’ (Song of Solomon 8.2).

Almond trees are mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12.5; and in the Song of Solomon 6. 11, Solomon speaks of his nut garden, which probably contained walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts and pistachio nuts. The ‘green bay tree’ of Psalm 37.35 is the shrub grown today whose dark green leaves are often used for flavouring. Cinnamon was obtained from the inner rind of the bark of the cinnamon tree, which has leathery, smooth leaves and yellowish-white flowers.

The locust tree, or carob, was also grown at that time—the husks that the prodigal son in St. Luke 15.16 was hoping to eat were undoubtedly dried locust beans. The word husks means ‘little horns’ and derives from the fact that when children were playing they held the dried reddish beans on either side of their .foreheads to make themselves look like goats.

The oak is first mentioned in Genesis 35. 4 and again in 20 other places. Isaiah 60. 13 refers to ‘the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together’, the box being of the same family as the wild box trees on Box Hill in Surrey.

The wood of some trees was used for building. Gopher wood was used by Noah to construct the ark, and fir was used to build rafters (Song of Solomon 1. 17), but sycamore was the favourite building material until Solomon chose the wood of the cedar of Lebanon for his temple: ‘And he built the walls of the house within with boards of cedar; both the floor of the house and the walls of the ceiling:’ (I Kings 6. 15). The wood of the olive was used for the doors of the Temple (I Kings 6. 32).

Other trees were grown for the scents and oils they yielded. The frankincense tree, with its clear green leaves and attractive, star-shaped, pink flowers, came originally from the Himalayas and northern Arabia and produces the finest burning incense in the world. The gum resin of the myrrh tree, found growing along the coasts of the Red Sea, was an ingredient of the holy anointing oil used in the Tabernacle and, with the resin of the aloe, of the salve for the purification of the dead (St. John 19. 39, 40). The resinous product of the balm or balsam tree contained great healing properties, and according to Josephus, the Jewish historian, was among the spices first brought to the Holy Land by the Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10. 10).

The vine, one of the most important plants mentioned in both the Old and the New Testaments, was cultivated from the earliest days, ‘And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard’ (Genesis 9.20). Instructions on vine growing are given in Ezekiel 17, stress being laid on the need for good irrigation. That some vineyards at least were closely guarded is apparent from the account in St. Matthew 21. 33 of a householder who built a vineyard and ‘hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower’; and the respect in which the vine was held is made clear in St. John 15. l when Jesus said at the Last Supper: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.’

Many of the fruits and vegetables grown in Palestine were brought by the Jews from Egypt after their captivity. They were cultivated in considerable quantities in the Holy Land, where the gardens were laid out like chessboards so that water could run between the square beds of melons, leeks and cucumbers. The melons in Numbers 11. 5 were probably the same kind of water melon that is grown in Israel today. They are cool and juicy and will grow in a dry soil, for their leaves absorb moisture from the heavy night dew that falls there. The gourd in Jonah 4. 6 is obviously a quick-growing climber: ‘And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head.’ Gourds are closely related to cucumbers, and a garden of cucumbers is referred to in Isaiah 1. 8.

Although leeks are mentioned only once (Numbers 11. 5), they were probably the main vegetable. Onions are mentioned in the same verse and were highly valued as thirst quenchers. Garlic was another of the plants the Jews missed when they left Egypt (Numbers 11.5). It is a close relation of the shallot and is still popular in Israel today. The bean in 2 Samuel 18. 28 and Ezekiel 4. 9 was probably the kidney bean, which could be dried or eaten fresh.

The mandrake, a member of the potato family, was also grown, and its fruits, which were called devil’s apples, were thought to induce fertility. This is referred to in Genesis 30. 14, 17: ‘Then, Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I pray thee, of thy son’s mandrakes … And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son.’

The Jews knew how to make the best of their land, and grew the red-seeded lentil on the rocky ground of the olive groves. This small pea-like plant was pulled up and threshed like wheat; its seeds were used for the red pottage made by Jacob in Genesis 26.34.

Most present-day cereals, such as wheat, barley and rye, were cultivated, and millet was also used in the making of bread (Ezekiel 4. 9).

The sugar cane, referred to in Jeremiah 6. 20, was treated as a great delicacy.

Numerous spices and herbs, in addition to the bay leaves and cinnamon already mentioned, were used to give flavour to food. Solomon refers to calamus, a sweet cane-like plant, and to saffron, a spice prepared from the bright orange-coloured stigmas of Crocus salivus. Fitches, a kind of ranunculus, which produce pungent black seeds used to flavour cakes, are mentioned in Ezekiel 4. 9, and a description of the coriander, which bears aromatic seeds and is an umbelliferous plant with leaves like parsley, is given in Exodus 16. 31. The Jews were also familiar with mustard (St. Matthew 13.3l), and the plant named ‘desire’ in Ecclesiastes 12. 5 was probably the caper, which flowers in May and whose buds are bottled in vinegar even today. ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin’, says Jesus in St. Matthew 23. 23. Mint, one of the bitter herbs of the Paschal Feast, was grown not only for its young shoots but because its leaves could be dried and used in winter; anise, or dill as it is now known to have been, is a dainty annual plant whose juice was added to washes to cleanse wounds; and cummin (now spelt cumin) is a small plant whose seeds when crushed were mixed with bread, cake and meat.

But not all the spices were used in the kitchen. Spikenard, originally from Nepal and Tibet, was praised by Solomon for its fragrance (Song of Solomon l. 12) and its ointment was one of the most precious perfumes. The small, oval leaves of the camphire, or henna flower, which looks rather like a privet and is also highly scented, are still used in many parts of the East to produce a dye to redden hair, hands and feet.

Rue, mentioned in St. Luke 11. 42, is a hardy evergreen shrub whose leaves give off a strong odour and are acrid to the taste. Four species are found in Israel. It was thought to possess powerful medicinal qualities and was frequently used in prescriptions. Wormwood is frequently mentioned in the Bible, although often metaphorically, as in Revelation 8. 11. This plant bears yellow flowers and is known for its extremely bitter taste. It was recognized as a valuable tonic and stimulant.

The plant hyssop is referred to eleven times, but it is difficult to discover what the plant really is. It may be the plant that the Arabs call ‘zatar’ which has a scent like that of thyme, for this plant has long, slender stems which could have been made into a bunch to sprinkle the sacrificial blood as in Hebrews 9. 19. But Augustine said that hyssop was a short-stemmed rock plant whose roots would penetrate deeply into rocks, and this may be correct because ‘the hyssop that springeth out of the wall’ is mentioned in I Kings 4.33.

It is difficult when studying the flowers referred to in the Bible to be sure that the translators have really understood the original word—the word ‘flower’ itself has been used in the Old Testament to express a number of Hebrew words. The lily is mentioned again and again. Probably the plant in The Song of Solomon 2. 2 is the madonna lily whose bulbs were eaten as a delicacy, but the lilies in St. Matthew 6. 28 and St. Luke 12. 27 may have been anemones or merely beautiful wild flowers. There are differences of opinion about the translation of the word ‘rose’, and while it is agreed that the roses in Isaiah 35. 1 were probably narcissi, the ‘rose of Sharon’ in The Song of Solomon 2. 1 may have been either a narcissus or a tulip.

Confusion arises also over the plant called desire, which has already been mentioned, and over the onycha in Exodus 30. 34, which may have been the rock rose, for the Greek for fingernail is onycha and the petals of the rock rose have a fingernail marking on them.

Among the flower names that do not appear to have been mistranslated are Crocus sativus (saffron crocus) and the opium poppy. The juice, or gall, of this poppy was mingled with vinegar and offered to Jesus at Golgotha (St. Matthew 27. 34).

Many of the tulips and hyacinths grown in Great Britain today are descendants of the plants the Crusaders brought back from Palestine—the flowers seen by the Jewish spies when they penetrated into the Promised Land and reported it to be ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.

16. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Garden Management, Gardening Calendar | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Plants of the Bible


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