Herbs & Plants of the Bible

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Anemone

anemone
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. —Luke 12: 27- 28

Most authorities now regard the Palestine anemone, Anemone cornaria, as the famous "lily of the fields." The anemone still blankets the Mount of Olives with its brilliant colors from January to April—and can bring bright spring color to your garden. The plants are useful in the border or in clumps, where their bright green parsley-like foliage is an attractive background for the single and double flowers that grow 6"-18" high. The plant, also called "windflower," is said to bloom when the first gentle winds of spring blow. The Romans used the anemone as a cure for malaria, and scattered its blossoms over their dead.


Apricot

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit therof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. —Genesis 3:6

It has long been known that the familiar apple was not introduced into the Holy Land until comparatively recently. Because of the heat there, it produces fruit only with difficulty. Most Biblical botanists now agree that the "apple" named in the Bible was the apricot, which along with the fig was the most abundant fruit of the country. The apricot has a delicious perfume, the tree provides a welcome shade, and the colors are similar to the "apples of gold" mentioned in Proverbs 25:11. Apricots in Cyprus are still known as "golden apples," which is the literal translation of their modern Greek name. The apricot is a round-topped, reddish-barked tree growing to 30 feet tall. The early pink blossoms enhance the beauty of the tree's silvery foliage. It would make a lovely addition to your Scriptural garden.


Bay Laurel

bay
I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. —Psalms 37:35

The sweet bay, which grew in dense thickets in the Palestinian mountains, retains its leathery, aromatic leaves and looks green and prosperous all year long. For the Psalmist, the "green bay tree" was a symbol of prosperity and power. It was also a mark of distinction for high office and political functions, and Greek and Roman generals sent reports of their succesful campaigns wrapped in laurel leaves. (Our word "baccalaureate" means "laurel berries," and alludes to the wearing of bay wreaths by those who receive an academic degree.) The bay tree—not to be confused with our poisonous native laurel—is a beautiful tub plant that may be trimmed into a topiary. Bay leaves have long been used as a seasoning, and the berries, leaves, roots, and barks have been employed medicinally. "Neither witch nor devil, nor thunder nor lightning will hurt a man in a place where a Bay Tree is," said Nicholas Culpeper, 17th century herbalist.


Bitter Herbs

bitter herb
And they shall eat flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. —Exodus 12:8

Biblical scholars believe that the "bitter herbs" of Exodus were plants such as lettuce, endive, chicory, dandelion, watercress, and sorrel, which were eaten as a salad with the Paschal lamb and unleavened bread at Passover. These plants were common to Egypt and western Asia at the time, and are still eaten by Arabic people. The ancient Egyptians used to place various kinds of green herbs mixed with mustard on the table, and dipped bits of bread into this mixture. Spring lettuces, along with chicory, dandelion, watercress, and sorrel, would be attractive and appropriate additions to your Scripture garden.


Castor Bean

And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. —Jonah 4:6-7

The plant that grew up to shelter Jonah is most likely the plant we know as the castor bean (Ricinus communis). It grows rapidly to twelve feet (forty or more in the tropics). It has large, umbrella-like leaves up to three feet across that are purple when young, green as they grow older. The dark, shiny seeds are poisonous if swallowed, but can easily be removed from the plant when they first begin to form. The Hebrews used castor bean oil in their ceremonial rites, and it is mentioned as one of the five kinds of oil approved by rabbinical tradition for ritual use. The oil has also been used as a laxative, and for skin ailments such as ringworm and itching, and the Chinese use it in the treatment of stomach cancer. The plant is highly decorative, easily grown from seed and readily transplanted. Because it is very fast growing, you can use it in new plantings, where it will provide foliage while slower plants are getting started. The castor bean prefers clay or sandy loam, with good drainage.


Coriander

coriander
...and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. —Exodus 16:31

And the manna was as coriander seed, and the color thereof as the color of bdellium. —Numbers 11:7

These verses refer to the common coriander plant, Coriandrum sativum. Coriander is a white- or reddish-flowered annual herb 16-20" tall, with aromatic pearl-like seeds that were used in cookies and cakes, as well as medicinally. The leaves are also aromatic (the scent is something like sage and lemon peel) and were used in soups and to flavor puddings, curries, and wines. A favorite drink was made by steeping the leaves in wine. In the Bible, the plant is mentioned only in connection with manna, which was said to resemble coriander seeds in size, shape, and color. Plant the seeds in warm, dry soil, where you want it to grow. Coriander attracts pollinating insects to the garden.


Dill

dill
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law. —Matthew 23:23

The word "anise" in this verse refers to dill (Anethum graveolens), which like coriander, is a member of the Parsley family. The plant is widely cultivated for its seeds, and in ancient times, was prized for its warm and stimulating properties. It was used in Biblical times as it is now, in cookery and in medicine, and was taxed under Talmudic law. Dill tea has been a popular remedy for upset stomach and the seeds were once used to stimulate the appetite. You can grow dill either as an annual or a biennial. Sow the seed in moist, sandy soil where the plants will receive plenty of sun, and where you want them to grow, for the spindly tap root makes transplanting difficult. Dill has traditionally been a tall plant that requires staking, but more recent cultivars ("Fern-Leaf" dill, for instance) are short. The plant is prolific, and if you fail to harvest the seeds, you will be rewarded with plenty of volunteers next year.


Flax

flax
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands...she layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. —Proverbs 31:13

Flax (Linum usitatissimum) is the oldest known of textile fibers. It was used in the Holy Land for clothing, towels (John 13:4-5), napkins (John 11:44), girdles and undergarments (Isaiah 3:23 and Mark 14:51), nets (Isaiah 19:9), and many other items. Flax was an important crop in Egypt and was known and used in Canaan before the arrival of the Israelites. Stalks of flax were laid on the flat roofs of the houses (Joshua 2:6), where the sun dried and blanched them. They were beaten to separate and soften the fibers, which were spun into thread (Prov 31:13, 19) and woven into cloth. Flax has long been a favorite in herb and flower gardens. Its delicate blue (sometimes white) flowers have five petals, and the slender stems grow to four feet. Start seeds indoors, or outside where the plants are to grow. In full sun, flax will bloom until frost.


Garlic, Leeks, Onions

garlic
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. —Numbers 11:5

The virtues of the three most familiar of the Allium family—onions, garlic, and leeks—were well known in Biblical days. Onions and leeks were said to grow wild in the deserts around Cairo, and all peoples of the Middle East remain fond to this day of the strong flavors of all three plants. The bulb of the leek is different from that of the onion and garlic: it is slender, and more than six inches in length. Both leaves and bulb are eaten. The onions known to the Hebrews were probably the Egyptian onion, which produces many off-setting bulbs at the root and forms bulblets at the tip of the flowering stalk.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is probably the most common seasoning in all Mediterranean countries, where it is often eaten raw with bread. The plant was valued as a form of currency and provided to slaves building the pyramids as an incentive to good work. The first recorded work stoppage in history is said to have occurred in Egypt when there was not enough garlic for the workers! Garlic has traditionally been used as a health aid, to regulate blood pressure and cholesterol.


Mint and Cumin

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law. —Matthew 23:23

The ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans used mint far more often than we do, both in their cooking and as a medicine (chiefly as a digestive aid). In Hebrew synagogues, fragrant mint stems and leaves were scattered across the floors, yielding their fragrance as they were stepped on. Several mints are common in Palestine, but the horse mint (Mentha longifolia) is probably the one referred to in Matthew. It is a much larger plant than the ordinary garden mints, and can grow up to three feet. Our common garden mint (Mentha viridis) is believed to have derived from the wild horsemint, and may have been introduced into northern Europe by the Romans. The "anise" referred to here is actually dill (see the section on dill). Cumin (Cuminum cyminum), however, is the same plant that many people grow in their gardens today. It is an annual member of the Parsley family, and is easily grown from seed. Plant it where it is to grow, and when the seeds are brown, harvest and let them dry. The seeds are used in curry powder and for flavoring. Cumin (like mint and dill) was an important economic crop in the Middle East, and those who grew it were supposed to pay a tax (a tithe) on the yield.


Mustard

mustard
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove from hence to yonder place. —Matthew 17:20

It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. —Luke 13:9

Most commentators agree that the mustard Jesus refers to is the ordinary black mustard (Brassica nigra). The plant was cultivated in Palestine, probably for its oil. Mustards usually grow only three to four feet high, but fifteen-foot plants have been found in the Mid-East, with stems as thick as a man's arm, in which birds built their nests. Black mustard is a hardy annual that grows well even in poor soil. Sow it in spring in a sunny spot. The young leaves may be added to salads or cooked and served as a potherb. Pick the seed pods before they are entirely ripe, or they will shatter and the seeds be lost. Mustard may have been among the "bitter herbs" eaten at Passover.


Narcissus

narcissus
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. —Isaiah 35:1

The desert "rose" of Isaiah 35:1, according to Biblical scholars, is most likely the narcissus. (The original text uses the Hebrew word for "bulb.") Known to botanists as Narcissus tazetta, this is the original type from which our familiar narcissus derives. The narcissus grows abundantly on the plain of Sharon as well as in Jerusalem, Jerocho, and other Biblical cities. During its flowering season, the people gather bouquets to scent and brighten their homes. Today, a large number of varieties are available for your Scriptural garden. You may also want to force some for early spring bloom indoors. Plant narcissus, daffodils, and jonquils in early autumn. Leave the bulbs in the ground for four to five years before lifting, dividing, and replanting.


Nigella

...Doth he not cast abroad the fitches and scatter the cummin?...For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. —Isaiah 28:25 & 27

There has been a great deal of confusion about the identity of "fitches." Now, Biblical botanists agree that the plant described above is nigella (Nigella sativa), once called the "nutmeg flower." It is an annual plant related to our very pretty Love-in-a-Mist. It has finely-cut green leaves, delicate blue or white flowers that resemble cornflowers, and dainty five-celled seed pods that contain tiny black seeds, once valued for their peppery pungency. The seeds were sprinkled over bread and cakes, and were used for flavoring curries and other dishes in the Mid-East, where they were often called .black cumin.. Nigella grows wild throughout the Mediterranean area. Its seeds were harvested by spreading cloths under the plants and, as Isaiah tells us, by striking the fragile dried pods with a stick to dislodge their seeds. Nigella is grown as an annual in all parts of North America. It reseeds readily, so plant it where you would like to have more of it! The blue flowers are a delicate accent in the spring, and the pinkish-purple seed pods may be used in dried bouquets and wreaths.


Rue

rue
But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs. —Luke 11:42

Ordinary garden rue (Ruta graveolens) is the plant referred to in Luke. This shrubby, multi-stemmed perennial grows two-three feet high. Its deeply cut leaves are an unusual blue-green color, and it has small yellow flowers. The plant is native to the Mediterranean area and grows wild in the Holy Land, where it is common on the hillsides. By New Testament times, the plant was tithed, which indicates that it was cultivated and subject to taxation under Talmudic law. Rue has a peppery, bitter taste and was used for seasoning. The early Greeks considered it medicinal, and it has been regarded through the ages as an antiseptic and a preventative against contagious illnesses. In your Scriptural garden, rue will be a striking accent plant, particularly if you use it as a low hedge. But be wary. The leaves contain photoactive chemicals. If you brush them against your skin and then expose that area to sunlight, you may be badly burned. You can propogate rue by dividing an existing plant or by seeding it in the spring. It prefers a limey soil.


Saffron

saffron
Spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense... —Song of Solomon 4:14

Today, we recognize Solomon's saffron as our own familiar fall-blooming crocus (Crocus sativus). In spring, much of the Holy Land is bright with the white, pink, purple, blue, or orange-yellow flowers of over a dozen different kinds of crocus, several of which yield the valuable saffron. This product consists of the stigma and upper portions of the style (parts of the blossom), which are collected just as the flower opens. One ounce of saffron requires four thousand crocus blooms! Saffron is used for coloring curries and stews and as a yellow dye. (The Arabic word "zafran" means yellow.) The ancients scattered the precious saffron on the floors of sacred spaces, used it in wedding ceremonies, and mixed it with wine in rituals. In the Orient, it was used as a perfume and sprinkled on the shoulders of guests as they entered a home.


Thistles, Thorns, and Nettles

Those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your side. —Numbers 33:55

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. —Isaiah 34:13

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? —Matthew 7:16

Thistles—thorny weeds that thrive in uncultivated places—are symbolic in the Scriptures of slothfulness, lack of productivity, and irritation. Modern travelers in the Holy Land are well acquainted with the many kinds of prickly plants (over 125) that grow there now. There were many in Biblical days, too, and every wayfarer must have been familiar with the thorns that often obstructed the way. Biblical botanists believe that the common star thistle (Centaurea calcitrapa) was one of the most prominent of these irritating plants. An appropriate substitute in a Scriptural garden is the beautiful Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) sometimes called Holy Thistle or St. Benedict Thistle. It earned its name not because of an association with Scripture (it is a European plant) but because of its reputation as a healall. But be careful—like all thistles, Blessed Thistle reseeds freely.

Biblical commentators agree that the plant we call "Crown of Thorns" (Euphorbia splendens) is not the plant from which the soldiers fashioned a crown for Jesus. Crown of Thorns is a native of Madagascar and did not grow in Palestine in Biblical times. Most likely, the crown was made of Paliurus spina-Christi—Christ's Thorn (sometimes called Jerusalem Thorn)—a small tree or spiny shrub. The young branches of this plant are pliable and might easily be shaped into a wreath or crown. Christ's Thorn enjoys a warm, sunny spot and should be pot-grown north of Virginia.

nettle The nettle found in the Holy Land (Urtica dioica) is the same stinging plant that has become naturalized throughout the northern part of our country. If you unwittingly walk through a patch of nettle, it is a painful irritatant. But the plant is a rich source of iron, magnesium, and other valuable nutrients. The dried herb has a pleasant saline taste and makes an interesting addition to soups and stews, and the young leaves can be cooked as a potherb. Nettle has been used as a medicinal and as a source of fiber. The plant prefers a damp, rich soil in full sun or part shade. Grow it from seed, cuttings, or root divisions.


Wormwood

wormwood
But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. —Proverbs 5:4

He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood... —Lamentations 3:15

Bitter-tasting wormwood appears frequently in Scripture as a symbol of repentence, punishment, and suffering. The general term "wormwood" refers to a number of plants belonging to the Artemisia family that have been used over the centuries in medicines and liquers. Most are bitter or have a strong scent. The wormwood that appears in the Bible is thought to be Artemisia arborescens or Artemisia judaica, while the verse in Lamentations is thought to refer to Artemisia absinthium. This plant has been used to make the intoxicating drink absinthe, which can also be poisonous. You might grow any of the wormwoods in your Scriptural garden, from mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) to the highly decorative "Silver King," which has a striking gray foliage. You might also try southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) as a lovely, fragrant border. Dried, the plant can be used as a moth repellent or air freshener.


Other Herbs and Plants of the Bible

Plant Name/Latin Binomial   Biblical Reference
Almond (Frunus amygdalus)   Exodus 37:17-24
Aloe (Aloe succotrina)   John 19:38-42
Broad Bean (Fava vulgaris)   Ezekiel 4:9
Caper (Capparis spinosa)   I Kings 4:33, Ecclesiastes 12:5
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)   Isaiah 1:8
Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum)   Luke 12:27
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)   Numbers 33:9, John 12:12-13
Fig (Ficus carica)   Genesis 3:7, Matthew 24:32
Grape (Vitis vinifera)   Genesis 9:20-21, Jonah 15:1-6
Henna (Lawsonia inermis)   Song of Solomon 1:14
Lentil (Lens esculenta)   Genesis 25:29-34
Madder (Rubia tinctorium)   Judges 10:1
Olive (Olea europaca)   I Samuel 10:1, Romans 11:17-18
Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)   Isaiah 40:6-8, I Peter 1:24-25
Pomegranate (Punica granatum)   Deuteronomy 8:7-8
Rock Rose (Cistus incannis)   Genesis 43:11
Sage—lampstand (Salvia judaica)   Exodus 37:17-23
Saltworth (Atriplex halimus)   Job 30:4
Sea Daffodil (Pancratium maritimum)   Ecclesiastes 50:8
Sternbergia (Sternbergia lutea)   Isaiah 40:6-8
Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus)   I Kings 10:10, Ezekiel 27:19
Tamerisk (Tamarix parviflora)   Genesis 21:33
Turk's Cap Lily (Lillium chalcedonicum)   Song of Solomon 5:13
Watermelon (Citrullus vulgaris)   Numbers 11:5-6


Resources for Further Study


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Last Chance Olive Ranch Blood Orange Bittersweet Death Come Quickly Widow's Tears Cat's Claw Mourning Gloria Holly Blues Wormwood
Nightshade Spanish Dagger Bleeding Hearts Dead Man's Bones A Dilly of a Death Indigo Dying Bloodroot Mistletoe Man Lavender Lies
Chile Death Love Lies Bleeding Rueful Death Rosemary Remembered Hangman's Root Witches' Bane Thyme of Death Book of Days An Unthymely Death



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