Explore the garden of the Bible

In the Bible story of Adam and Eve, who took the first bite of the apple? Before you answer, be warned that this is a trick question. The story in the book of Genesis never mentions an apple at all. It only talks about the "fruit of the tree." A later artist or storyteller must have decided that an apple was a good fruit to put in there, and now the apple is commonly part of the story.

When scholars translated the Bible, they weren't always familiar with plants that grew in Bible lands. Or which plants with names in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) were the same as plants they knew. Experts don't agree on the identities of all the plants mentioned in the Bible.

Here are a few of the plants mentioned in the Bible, and what scholars have to say about them.

Apple

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."

(Proverbs 25:11)

Not many apples grow in biblical lands, and the ones that do are of poor quality. Some scholars suggest that the word translated as "apple" refers to a type of crab apple or quince. Others say the apricot best fits Bible references to apples. Apricots were cultivated in China 4,000 years ago, and were brought to Palestine from Armenia. The trees grow up to 30 feet high and thrive in a mild climate. Besides being good to eat, the apricot has a strong perfume that was thought to be revitalizing. So Solomon wrote "... comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love." (Song of Solomon 2:5)

Frankincense & Myrrh

"... and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh."

(Matthew 2:11)

Herbs used as spices and incense were highly valued and often used in trade. They were so prized that they were considered as valuable as gold when presented as gifts at Jesus' birth.

Resin (sap) from the frankincense tree dries to create a highly valued incense that has been a part of worship services since ancient times. It is also used to flavor candies and baked goods. Most frankincense is still brought by camel caravan from the Arabian peninsula and North Africa.

Myrrh is believed to be the dried resin of several small commiphora shrubs that grow well even in sandy and rocky areas. They also grow on mountain ridges and in the plains. It was brought from the Arabian peninsula to the land of Israel by caravans along the incense route that also brought frankincense and other herbs and spices. The gum is wiped from the shrubs and formed into balls, then pressed into cakes. It was used for perfume and was also an important ingredient in anointing oil.

Tares & wheat

"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way."

(Matthew 13:24, 25)

Tares are thought to be what we would call darnel today. Darnel looks very similar to wheat when the plants are young. Wheat was then - and still is today - a very important crop. The seeds were ground to make flour for bread. Wheat stalks were used as fodder (food) and bedding for animals. The stalks could also be woven into baskets and mixed with mud to make bricks. (The stalks made the bricks stronger.) After cutting the wheat with scythes and gathering up the harvest, farmers turned their animals into the fields to graze on the stubble and fertilize the field for next year's crop.

Tare seeds can sometimes be poisonous, so tares cannot be grown for food. Tares can be distinguished from the wheat by the time the seed pods develop, but the plants are usually left to grow together until harvest. The wheat might be uprooted if you tried to pull up the tares.

There's another way to get rid of the tares.

After the wheat has been cut, the stalks are threshed - pounded - in order to separate the grain from the stalks. Then the seeds are winnowed - separated from the inedible parts, called chaff. Sometimes this was done with a fan. The lighter tare seeds are blown away, along with other chaff.

Today, some primitive farmers still winnow their wheat crops by tossing the seeds into the air and letting the wind blow away the lighter chaff - including any darnel seeds.

Lilies of the Field

"Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not: and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

(Luke 12:27)

Many people associate these lilies with the white Madonna lily, which has become a traditional Easter flower. But others say Jesus was referring to the wide variety of flowers that bloomed in abundance in Israel in the spring.

These "lilies of the field" would have included anemones, daisies, and poppies. Anemones (uh-NEM-uh-nees) grow to be about six inches high and range in color from red to purple. They can fill an entire hillside with color or decorate roadsides.

Scholars note that Jesus spoke these words at a site near Gennesaret, an area that has masses of colorful flowers. Such flowers could certainly be considered more beautiful than King Solomon in all his fine clothes.

Mustard

"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which ... indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof."

(Matthew 13:31, 32)

Jesus often taught by parables - stories with a lesson in them. He used the mustard seed as an example because the seeds of some kinds of mustard are tiny. Seeds of black mustard are 2mm in diameter (8/100ths of an inch), yet it can grow to be 10 feet high and provide a good perch for small birds. Mustard seeds also germinate (start growing) very quickly. A seed placed in the ground one day may be growing by the next. The mustard we spread on our hotdogs is made from the ground-up seeds, but the leaves of the plant can also be used for food.

Plan your own biblical garden

This isn't the best time to plant a garden, but it's a good time to plan one - especially if you'd like to create a biblical garden.

A biblical garden has plants thought to have grown in the Middle East thousands of years ago. These might include apricots, coriander, daisies, dill, fig trees, garlic, grapes, iris, leeks, lilies, marjoram, melons, mint, myrtle, oak, olive trees, onions, pomegranate trees, poppies, and roses.

There are 128 plants mentioned in the Bible, and many of these will grow in your area. You might choose plants mentioned in some of your favorite Bible stories, or ones that can add spice to your dinner table.

You might include varieties of flowers that bloom at different times of the year, so that your garden will be colorful all spring, summer, and fall.

Not all Bible scholars agree on what some of the plants named in the Bible would be called today, but a number of biblical gardens have websites that can help you select the plants you want. You can even get free seeds from www.biblicalgardens.org/index.htm. (This nondenominational site is a labor of love by Shirley Sidell, a California-based consultant. It also features a Kids Corner with jigsaw puzzles, coloring books you can print out, an art gallery, and a list of biblical garden websites.)

For an example of a biblical garden, visit the website of First Congregational Church of Fair Haven, Vt., at: www.sover.net/~hkfamily/Pages/Gardens.html. Here you can also submit gardening questions.

For photos and descriptions of Bible plants, check out Prof. Lytton John Musselman's website at: web.odu.edu/webroot/instr/sci/plant.nsf/pages/allbibleplantslist. He has traveled throughout Bible lands studying plants and farming techniques.

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