PLANTS IN THE BIBLE     F. Nigel Hepper


By plants we include all plant life such as wild and cultivated trees, shrubs, and herbs.

LILY and Rose Red lips of Song of Solomon 5:13 indicate a red-flowered "lily," such as scarlet tulip or anemone. Other references, such as Song of Solomon 2:1-2, may refer to the actual white madonna lily (Lilium candidum), now very rare in the area, or wild hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) wild crocus (Croccus species), the rose of Isaiah 35:1-2 (see NASB). It is impossible to be sure to which "lilies" Jesus referred (Matt. 6:28; Luke 12:27): it may have been the anemone or any of the conspicuous wild flowers such as crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium).

The biblical "ROSE" is similarly difficult to identify. The "rose of Sharon" (Song of Sol. 2:1) has been equated with anemone, rockrose, narcissus, tulip, and crocus.

REEDS Certain water plants may be distinguished from the several Hebrew words used. The following species are likely to be the ones referred to:

COMMON REED (Phragmites communis) forms great stands in shallow water or wet salty sand. The plumed flower head may have been given to Jesus in mockery (Matt. 27:29). Pens (3 John 13) were made from the bamboolike stems.

PAPYRUS SEDGE (Cyperus papyrus) also grows in shallow water in hot places such as in Lake Huleh and along the Nile, but it is now extinct in Egypt except in cultivation. Its tall, triangular, spongy stems were used for rafts (Isa. 18:1-2) and for making baskets (Ex. 2:3) and papyrus paper, on which much of the Bible may have been written.

CATTAIL or reed mace (Typha domingensis) is often associated with the above-mentioned reeds, and it seems to have been the one among which Moses was hidden (Ex. 2:3). This is often referred to as bulrush, but the tree bulrush (Scirpus lacustris) is a sedge with slender stems, which also occurs in lakes and pools.

THORNS Jesus' crown of thorns has led to two shrubs known as christthorn (Ziziphus spina-christ, Paliurus spina-christi). The former grows near the Dead Sea not far from Jerusalem (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:5), while the latter does not grow nearer than Syria. However, it may have occurred on the Judean hills in biblical times. Some authors consider the common spiny burnet (Poterium or Sarcopoterium spinosum) to be the species concerned.

Even today nobody can walk far in the Holy Land without seeing prickly weeds. The ground is cursed with them (Gen. 3:18; Num. 33:55). Many different Hebrew words have been used to distinguish them, and some are identifiable. Thorns are usually woody plants, such as Acacia, Lycium, Ononis, Prosopis, Rubus, Sarcopoterium, while thistles are herbaceous, such as Centaurea, Notobasis, Silybum. The latter could have been the 'thorns' that suffocated the grain in Jesus' parable (Matt. 13:7).

FRAGRANT PLANTS In biblical times strong smelling plants included the following kinds:

1. CASSIA AND CINNAMON are traditionally identified with the Far Eastern trees Cinnamomum cassia and C. zeylanicum. The ground bark was used in the holy anointing oil for priests (Ex. 30:24), and cinnamon was used for perfumery (Prov. 7:17; Rev. 18:13).

2. CALAMUS OR SWEET CANE (Acorus calamus) was the dry rhizome of this water plant imported from temperate Asia used for perfume (Isa. 43:24 NRSV).

3. GALBANUM, a very strong-smelling resin burnt as incense (Ex. 30:34), was obtained from the stem of Ferula galbaniflua, a relative of parsley growing on dry hills in Iran.

4. HENNA (Lawsonia inermis) leaves were crushed and used both as a perfume (Song of Sol. 1:14 NIV) and as a yellow dye for skin, nails, and hair. It is a subtropical shrub with white flowers.

5. HYSSOP used for ritual cleansing (Lev. 14:4,49) and sprinkling of blood in the tabernacle (Ex.12:22) was the white marjoram (Origanum syriacum or Majorana syriacu) which grows commonly in rocky places and is related to the mint.

6. MYRTLE (Myrtus communis) is a shrub with fragrant leaves and white flowers frequent in bushy places. It was especially favored for temporary shelters in the fields at the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:40; Neh. 8:15).

7. RUE (Ruta chalepensis) grows on the hills of the Holy Land as a low straggling shrub with pungent smelling leaves. Jesus referred to it being tithed (Luke 11:42).

8. SPIKENARD or nard, an expensive perfumed oil (Song of Sol. 4:13-14; John 12:3), obtained either from the leaves of a desert grass (Cymbopogon schoenanthus) or, traditionally, the valerian relative Nardostachys jatamansi from the Himalayas.

9. STACTE, one of the spices referred to in Exodus 30:34 to be used in the incense, may be the resin of the balm-of-Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis) from southern Arabia.

CULINARY HERBS Bitter herbs for Passover are certain wild plants with sharp-tasting leaves. The desert plant wormwood (Artemisia) was also bitter and depicted sorrow and suffering (Prov. 5:4 Lam. 3:15,19).

CORIANDER (Coriandrum sativum) provides both salad leaves and spicy seeds (Ex. 16:31) which were likened by the Israelites to the manna in the desert.

CUMMIN (Cuminum cyminum) and dill (Anethum graveolens), like coriander, are members of the parsley family with spicy seeds (Isa. 28:25-27; Matt. 23:23).

FITCHES OR BLACK CUMMIN (Nigella sativa) is an annual plant with black oily seeds easily damaged in harvesting (Isa. 28:25-27).

MINT (Mentha longifolia), a popular seasoning herb, was tithed by Jewish leaders (Luke 11:42).

MUSTARD (Brassica nigra) well known for its hot-flavored seeds is referred to by Jesus for having small seeds which grow into a tree (Matt. 13:31-32).

SAFFRON (Crocus sativus), a yellow powder prepared from the stigmas, is used as a subtle flavor (Song of Sol. 4:14) and also as a food coloring and a medicine.

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH are resins produced by certain trees that grow in dry country in southern Arabia and northern Africa.

FRANKINCENSE is a white or colorless resin yielded by several species of Boswellia, chiefly B. sacra, which is a shrub or small tree growing on both sides of the Red Sea. The resin is obtained by cutting the branches and collecting the exuding 'tears' which are burnt as incense in religious rites or as a personal fumigant. In the Bible, frankincense was prescribed for holy incense mixture (Ex. 30:31,34; Luke 1:9). It was also brought by the wise men to the infant Jesus, together with gold and myrrh (Matt. 2:11).

MYRRH is a reddish-colored resin obtained from a spiny shrub, Commiphora myrrha in a similar manner to frankincense. This resin was not usually burnt but dissolved in oil and either eaten or used as a medicine and cosmetically (Ps. 45:8; Matt. 2:11).

MEDICINAL PLANTS Many medicinal herbs were gathered from the hills and valleys where the wild plants grew. Local people were well-versed in plant lore, but these common weeds are not specially mentioned in the Bible. Some special imported medicines are referred to. See Frankincense and Myrrh above.

ALOES of the New Testament (Aloe vera) were succulent plants with long swordlike leaves with serrations and erect flower heads up to three feet high imported from Yemen. The bitter pith was used as a medicine and for embalming (John 19:39). In the Old Testament, aloes refers to an expensive fragrant timber obtained from a tropical Indian eaglewood tree (Aquilaria agallocha).

BALM (Gen. 37:25) is a general term for medicinal ointment prepared from resin-bearing plants such as the rockrose Cistus laurifolius, which produces ladanum. The balm of Gilead or opobalsam is yielded by Commiphora gileadensis, a non-spiny shrub of dry country in Southern Arabia and said to have been cultivated by Solomon at En-Gedi near the Dead Sea (Song of Sol. 5:1, "spice"). Gum was imported with balm by the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:25). It is extruded from cut roots of a spiny undershrub (Astragalus tragacanth) grown on dry Iranian hillsides.

Some plants, such as the gourd Citrullus colocynthis, could be medicinal purges in very small quantities but bitter poisons otherwise (2 Kings 4:39-40).

CEREAL GRAINS for Bread Well-to-do citizens made bread primarily from wheat, but the poor man had to make do with coarse barley (2 Kings 4:42; John 6:9). No other cereals were grown, these being the Old Testament "corn." About New Testament times, however, sorghum was introduced. Rice came later still, and maize, not until America was opened up.

WHEAT (emmer wheat Triticum dicoccum; bread wheat T. aestivum) is an annual crop which grows about three feet, though the primitive varieties were taller in rich soil, and with bearded ears.

Grains of wheat are hard and dry and easily kept in storehouses as Joseph did in Egypt before the time of famine (Gen. 41:49; KJV "corn"). It was important to retain seed for sowing (Gen. 47:24), but ancient tomb grain will not germinate. See Bread.

BARLEY (Hordeum vulgare) tolerates poorer soil than wheat, is shorter, has bearded ears, and ripens sooner (Ex. 9:31,32). It was also used for brewing beer and as horse and cattle fodder (1 Kings 4:28). Sometimes barley was eaten roasted as parched grain (Ruth 2:14).

Wheat and barley straw remaining after threshing was used for fuel (Isa. 47:14), and the fine chaff for instant heat in the oven.

FRUITS.... OLIVE TREES (Olea europaea) are small rounded orchard trees with narrow gray-green leaves and small cream-colored flowers in May. The stone fruits ripen toward the end of summer and are pickled in brine either unripe as green olives or ripe as black olives. However, the bulk of the crop was gathered for the sake of the olive oil. See Oil.

GRAPE VINES (Vitis vinifera), grown either in vineyards or singly as shady bowers around houses and courtyards, have long flexible stems with tendrils and lobed leaves. Short flower heads grow among the new leaves in early summer, and the numerous tiny flowers develop into a cluster of round sweet grapes which ripen either as green or black fruits. The fruits are eaten fresh as grapes, or dried and stored as raisins (1 Sam. 30:12). Wine was prepared from the fermented juice. See Wine.

The common FIG TREE (Ficus carica) has a short stout trunk and thick branches and twigs bearing coarsely lobed rough leaves (Gen. 3:7). Rounded fruits ripen during the summer. These sweet fig fruits have numerous small seeds in their interior cavity. Fresh figs were favored as first fruits (Isa. 28:4; Jer. 24:2). Figs dry very well and were stored as cakes for future use (1 Sam. 25:18; 30:12). Jesus referred to figs and fig trees several times (Matt. 7:16; Luke 21:29-31).

Another kind of fig tree, the sycomore (Ficus sycomorus) grew in Egypt and in the warmer areas of the Holy Land. This large tree usually has low-growing branches such as would have enabled the short Zacchaeus to climb one to see Jesus passing along the streets of Jericho (Luke 19:4).

The juicy fruit of the POMEGRANATE (Punica granatum), about the size of a tennis ball, is full of seeds and sweet pulp. It develops from beautiful scarlet flowers that cover the twiggy bush in spring. Pomegranate bushes were often grown in gardens and beside houses (Deut. 8:8; Song of Sol. 6:11). Moses was instructed to embroider pomegranate fruits on the hem of the priests' robes (Ex. 28:33), and their form ornamented the columns of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:18; 2 Chron. 3:16).

Only one palm, the DATE-PALM (Phoenix dac tylifera), yielded fruit in biblical times. This very tall tree with a rough unbranched trunk bearing a terminal tuft of huge feather leaves, fruits best in hot conditions of the Dead Sea oases. Hence, Jericho was known as the city of palm trees (Judg. 1:16). The wandering Israelites reached Elim where there were seventy palm trees (Ex. 15:27). The psalmist considered it to be such a fine tree that he compared the righteous flourishing to one (Ps. 92:12). Revelation 7:9 refers to the symbolic use of palm leaves (as "branches") denoting victory, as when Jesus entered Jerusalem and the people strewed the way with leaves (John 12:13).

It is doubtful whether THE BLACK MULBERRY (Morus niger) was present in the Holy Land until New Testament times as it originated in the Caspian Sea region. The only probable reference to it is (as "sycamine") when Jesus spoke of believers having enough faith to destroy one (Luke 17:6)--perhaps because old trees are stout, gnarled, and long-lived.

Another questionable fruit is that referred to as "apple" (Song of Sol. 2:3,5; 7:8), although some versions translate the word as "APRICOT." Either could be possible, but it is unlikely that fine varieties of apples were available so early.

NUTS are popularly considered to be hard dry fruits and seeds, as distinct from the more succulent fruits described above.

The most important biblical nut was THE Almond (prunus dulcis) (Prunus dulcis), which is a small tree with delightful whitish flowers in early spring before the leaves have sprouted. The nuts are well-known today either fresh or as marzipan; the kernel is contained in a very hard thick casing. Almond (prunus dulcis) nuts were carried to Egypt by Joseph's brothers (Gen. 43:11). Aaron's walking stick budded and produced Almond (prunus dulcis)s overnight and proved that Aaron was God's man to assist Moses (Num. 17:8). The holy lampstand had cups like Almond (prunus dulcis) flowers (Ex. 25:33; 37:19).

THE WALNUT TREE (Juglans regia) originated in the Caspian region and may not have been commonly planted in the Eastern Mediterranean region until after the biblical period. However, it is possible that Solomon grew it in his garden (Song of Sol. 6:11). The tree grows to a considerable size. The leaves are compound, and the oily edible nuts look like a miniature brain--hence the ancient name Jovis glans and the scientific adaptation Juglans.

True PISTACIO NUTS (Pistacia vera) also arrived late. The pistache nuts referred to in the Bible (Gen. 43:11 NIV) would be from the native terebinth trees (Pistachia terebinthus, P. atlantica) of the hillsides. One is a small shrubby tree, while the other is as large as an oak. Both yield small round edible fruits.

VEGETABLES The wandering Israelites longed for vegetables in the desert after they had left Egypt (Num. 11:5). Onions, leeks, and garlic are mentioned, as well as cucumbers and melons. Elsewhere, we read of lentils and other pulses (2 Sam. 17:28; Dan. 1:12).

ONIONS (Allium cepa) are the bulbs familiar to us nowadays. They are white or purple and grow quickly from seeds in one season. Leeks (Allium porrum) do not form such a distinct bulb. They are cooked, or the leaves were chopped up. Garlic (Allium sativum) is a strongly flavored onion that produces a bulb composed of separate scales.

The CUCUMBERS of biblical Egypt were most likely the snake- or muskmelon Cucumis melo, which has longitudinal lines on its exterior. The melons were the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) and not the squash or honeydew melon which are of American origin and now widely grown in the Middle East.

Several BEANS or pulses were grown in biblical times, especially lentils (Lens culinaris) in the more arid areas. The red pottage or soup made of lentils enabled Jacob to obtain Esau's birthright (Gen. 25:29-34). Lentil plants are small and slender with pealike flowers and small flat pods containing two seeds.

Of the other pulses the broad bean (Vicia faba) and the chick pea (Cicer arietinum) were important and may have been the vegetables Daniel and his friends ate in Babylon (Dan. 1:12).

TREES From Genesis to Revelation trees have a special place, both factually and symbolically. We can divide them into groups according to their natural habitats.

1. Trees of dry and desert areas Rainfall is erratic and trees may be restricted to dry water courses where residual water remains.

Several species of ACACIA (KJV shittim, using the Hebrew word) occur in Sinai. Their timber was used for the construction of the tabernacle, the tent of meeting (Ex. 25). Acacias are usually flat-topped trees which possess strong thorns.

TAMARISK (Tamarix species) is a shrub or small tree with fine branchlets, scale leaves, and pink or white flowers, inhabiting salty places in the desert. Abraham planted one at Beersheba (Gen. 21:33 NIV).

2. Trees of streams, rivers and lakes Water is usually available throughout the year in these habitats.

OLEANDER (Nerium oleander) is an erect shrub with long, narrow poisonous evergreen leaves and beautiful pink flowers in summer. Although it may be found in stream beds in dry country, it is also in the marshes and streams such as those of Mount Carmel. It may be the "roses" at Jericho and the "roses" planted by the brook (Ecclesiasticus 24:14; 39:13). Even some of the references to willow trees may mean oleanders.

PLANE (Platanus orientalis) is a large tree with flaking bark and digitate leaves. Its minute flowers are clustered in several hanging balls. The Plane tree inhabits rocky stream beds. It was one of the rods Jacob peeled (Gen. 30:37; also Ezek. 31:8, KJV, "chesnut").

POPLAR (Populus euphratica) is another of the trees Jacob peeled (Gen. 30:37). It grows beside water, especially the rivers Euphrates and Jordan. It is a tall tree with shaking leaves and numerous suckering shoots around its base. The white poplar (P. alba) or the storax (Styrax officinalis) were more likely to be the trees upon the mountains (Hos. 4:13).

WILLOW (Salix acynophylla) Like poplars, willows root easily in wet places, but they are not as tall and usually have long narrow leaves (Job 40:22; Isa. 44:4; Ezek. 17:5).

3. Trees of hills and plains In biblical times, certainly before the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the hills of the Holy Land were well wooded, while Lebanon was famous for its dense forests. Agriculture, terracing, sheep and goat grazing, and the constant demand for fuel and timber has left little woodland at the present day. Only isolated trees remain in many places. Even the plains between the Mediterranean and the hills were covered with oaks until recent times.

CYPRESS (Cupressus sempervirens) is a dense coniferous forest tree typically with spreading branches, although often seen as a tall narrow tree planted beside cemeteries. References in the Bible to coniferous trees are confusing, but the cypress is evidently intended in Isaiah 40:20; 60:13, among others.

CEDAR (Cedrus libani), the famous cedar of Lebanon, grew in extensive coniferous forests which are now sadly depleted. The stout flat-topped trees provide excellent timber which was used for David's house (2 Sam. 5:11) and Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 5:6-10), as well as the later one (Ezra 3:7).

OAK (Quercus species) trees provide excellent timber for ships (Ezek. 27:6) and other construction, although the evergreen kermes oak often grows no more than a shrub. The deciduous oak still forms woodland on some hills of Palestine, such as Carmel, Naphtali, and Bashan (Isa. 2:13). Oaks were used to mark graves (Gen. 35:8) or as landmarks (1 Sam. 10:3) or for sacrilegious ceremonies (Hos. 4:13).

PINE (Pinus halepensis), especially the Aleppo pine, is a tall coniferous tree with long needle-leaves and cones containing winged seeds. Its timber is workable and used for construction; probably the tree referred to in Isaiah 44:14 (KJV, ash; NRSV, cedar).

TEREBINTH (Pistacia terebinthus, P. atlantica) produced fruits used as nuts, but the timber of the large oaklike P. atlantica is also useful. The shade of terebinths was used for pagan sacrifices and offerings (Hos. 4:13 NIV).

4. Foreign trees Expeditions brought back rare timbers during the Old Testament period, and, in New Testament times, foreign timbers entered through normal trade routes.

ALMUG WOOD, traditionally identified as sandal wood (Pterocarpus santalinus), was imported from Ophir to Judah by Hiram's fleet for Solomon (1 Kings 10:10-11). Whether algum and almug are synonymous is a matter of dispute, since algum is clearly stated to be from Lebanon (2 Chron. 2:8), in which case it could have been the Cilician fir (Abies cilicia) or the Grecian juniper (Juniperus excelsa).

Ezekiel 27:15 links EBONY with imported ivory tusks. The black-red ebony of Ancient Egypt was an African leguminous tree Dalbergia melanoxylon, while later the name was transferred to the tropical Asian Diospyros ebenum which has jet black timber.

THYINE WOOD is timber from the North African sanderac tree (Tetraclinis articulata), a coniferlike cypress, which was used by the Greeks and Romans for cabinetmaking. It is dark, hard, and fragrant (Rev. 18:12).

F. Nigel Hepper