Flora Biblia

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).

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.'

"This passage mirrors the whole Exodus experience," she says. "In other words, they used the bitter herbs as a teaching device to remind people of the Exodus experience. All five plants start life the same, as sweet herbs close to the ground. In the Middle East, this would be in winter after the rains come. But by Passover, they're all transformed in appearance; they all have the beginning of a central hard stalk and the leaves are inedible [because] they're so bitter. This is when you're supposed to eat them fresh [as part of the Passover commemoration]. They're only edible if you cook them, but you're commanded to eat them fresh.... So the idea was that [Jews] would be reminded of this experience not only through taste but also through appearance.

"Some people have called this 'teaching Torah in the field.' This was the rabbinic teaching method," she notes. In the New Testament, Jesus used the same method in the parable of the mustard seed or the example of the lilies of the field - taking "common phenomena - it could be plants, it could be the weather; something ordinary people knew from everyday life - and invest it with moral significance to teach a lesson," Gardner explains.

For many gardeners, much of the appeal of a biblical garden is the close connection between these well-known "lessons" and a plant that can be grown in their own yards.

Hudson-Knapp planted his first Bible plants after returning from a visit to the Holy Land. "It was a really powerful experience," the Congregational minister says of his reaction to the trip. "There was something about being there, with the plants and people, the water and the desert, that connected with a very deep part of me."

After he returned home, a member of the congregation passed away, and trees and shrubs were installed on the church grounds in his memory. But some of them didn't survive. When thinking about replacements, Hudson-Knapp and the widow, Cele Phillips, decided to start a garden of Bible plants.

Like Gardner, Hudson-Knapp began hunting through books to find out about plants that are mentioned in Scriptures. Two especially useful references were "Plants of the Bible" by Harold and Alma Moldenke and another book of the same name by Michael Zohary. The latter is out of print, he notes. "Many books on biblical plants come and go out of print very quickly, which makes it hard for people trying to do their own research."

That was one reason he decided to set up a website last year that features his church's biblical gardens, lists of resources, and what he's learned about the subject in 17 years. See box at right.

A biblical garden needn't be big, Hudson-Knapp stresses. Over the years, he and his volunteer helpers have planted two general biblical gardens, a children's Bible garden, and a water garden in the 12- to 20-foot border around the church. They've managed to pack more than 100 plants into this relatively small space by choosing carefully.

"The biblical plant in its original form may have been too big to fit in, so we looked for dwarf versions," he says. They also grow many cold-sensitive plants in pots and move them indoors in winter.

His wife, Cindy, the gardens' designer, has tried to select plants so that there's always something in bloom during the growing season, particularly in front of the church.

You wouldn't think that many plants native to the Middle East would grow well in Vermont and other cold climates, but "actually, there's a tremendous diversity of climates in what was Israel at various times," Hudson-Knapp says. And sometimes, even plants that clearly are meant for a warmer zone may thrive, if placed in a protected area.

Near a large pine tree on the church's grounds, "there's a sheltered area that gets the morning sun, and we're able to grow tamarisk (Tamarix pentendra), which is an edge-of-the-desert plant. It may have been the source for the manna in the wilderness [Ex. 16:15]. The bugs get at it, poke holes in the flesh of the bush, and the sap runs out and crystallizes and makes little gummy balls like Sugar Frosted Flakes.

"That bush, which has grown into a tree," he adds, "is supposed to grow in a semi-desert area, and here we are in Vermont, and it [survived]."

One of the most gratifying aspects of his Bible plants project has been the way people have responded to it. Children turn out with rakes and trowels to plant in spring. The small water garden has become a popular community gathering place from morning until evening. And people from far and wide have gotten in touch as a result of the website.

"About six months ago, we had an e-mail from a lady in central Africa," he reports. "She and her husband had bought 10 acres of land and had been dreaming that somehow op11s1.xmlr another they could plant biblical plants as a way of sharing with people in their area the faith that was so important to them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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