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Flora Biblia

By Judy Lowe Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2001

The Bible abounds with plant imagery and references, from the fig leaf in the story of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:7) to Jesus' parable of the tares and the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30).

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So it's natural that gardeners might consider creating a garden of plants mentioned in the Bible.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as leafing through the Old and New Testaments, writing down the names of plants, and buying them, says the Rev. Marsh Hudson-Knapp, who, in 1984, first began to create a biblical garden at First Congregational Church in Fair Haven, Vt.

The reason? "Biblical translators weren't botanists," he explains. Most translators, trained as theologians, renamed plants based on those they knew and which grew in their region, whether it was England, Scotland, or Europe. In the days when the first English translations of Scripture took place, it wasn't generally recognized that flora differed from place to place.

Over the past hundred years, a great deal of botanical detective work has been done to discover the true identity of plants mentioned in the Bible.

Researchers have looked at the origins of plants currently growing in the Holy Land, many of which have been introduced from other parts of the world and wouldn't have been there in biblical times. They have investigated which plants probably were in the region in biblical times, but may not be there now. They also have gone back to the linguistic roots of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic words.

Explaining the technique of Israeli botanist Michael Zohary, Mr. Hudson-Knapp gives as an example his study of the phrase "flower of the field" (Isa. 40:6).

"He went back and looked at the plants that would be growing in biblical times that would flower, and then he put [this knowledge] into context," Hudson-Knapp says.

"Like where Isaiah talks about the flowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow. So he looked at things that would come and go, like the common poppy. It grew in biblical times; it still grows in Israel. It flowers, but very quickly it's gone again. So he used a contextual framework to evaluate some [plant choices]."

Not all botanists reach the same conclusions, however. They often disagree. There has been much speculation about the Bible's lilies, for instance. Some say the white Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), or another true lily, is meant. Most biblical botanists nowadays think that poppy anemones (Anemone coronaria), which cover fields and hillsides of the Holy Land with their brilliant red flowers, were "the lilies of the field" (Matt. 6:28). Others argue that the various mentions from Nehemiah to Luke probably cover five or six different species, while a few experts translate "lilies of the field" as "wildflowers."

The same disagreements hold true with the "gall" that was offered Jesus when he was on the cross (Matt. 27:34). Some speculate it was made from wild gourds; many feel it was a pain-killing solution steeped from poppies. Noting that the version in Mark (15:23) mentions "wine mingled with myrrh" instead of vinegar mingled with gall, some experts contend that the gall was an ordinary beverage of the Romans, while others think it was simply symbolic of the bitterness of the experience.

"We can't know 100 percent [about the identity of every plant mentioned in the Bible]," says author Jo Ann Gardner, who gives talks on biblical plants. She became interested in the flora of the Bible about 15 years ago when she decided to practice Judaism again.

"It was spring, and Passover was coming up, and I wanted to have a Passover seder," she says. "I remembered that we always used to have horseradish for the 'bitter herbs' [that were to be part of the keeping of Passover, Ex. 12:8]."

But as an experienced herb grower, she felt that horseradish - although used almost universally by Jews from Europe - couldn't be one of the bitter herbs: "It's pungent, not bitter, and it's not really an herb."

Intrigued, Gardner began asking experts their opinions and reading everything she could find on the subject. "One thing led to another," she says. "I kept gathering names, but they were all different, and they didn't hang together. It was very unsatisfying."

Finally, she wrote a letter to the botany department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, inquiring about the identity of the bitter herbs. The answer she received from Professor Avinoam Danin: "They're five common weeds [bitter lettuce, chicory, centaurea, eryngo, and sow-thistle]. These are the ones that are thought to be the most likely candidates for this phrase in the Talmud: 'See this bitter herb whose beginning is sweet, whose end is bitter. Thus were the Egyptians.'