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Plants of the Bible
Nature Bulletin No. 188-A   April 16, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

When Jesus suffered on the cross, we are told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (27:48) that at the ninth hour he thirsted and a sponge, filled with vinegar and put upon a reed, was raised to His lips. It is so related in St. Mark (15:36) but according to St. John (19:29), "they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it into his mouth. " What was hyssop.

The plant is mentioned frequently in the Bible. The hyssop of our herb gardens is not native to Palestine, Syria or Egypt, but there is evidence that when Solomon "spoke of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall" (I Kings 4:23), he spoke of the herb we call marjoram. The hyssop dipped in the blood of a sacrificial lamb and used by the Israelites in Egypt to mark their doorways (Exodus 12:22), and the hyssop referred to by St. John but called a reed by St. Matthew and St. Mark, was probably sorghum, a tall cereal plant grown by the Jews for food and also used for brushes and brooms.

Mint, rue, coriander, cummin and wormwood are all herbs of the Bible which are grown in our herb gardens today and called by their Biblical names. We grow several of the vegetables mentioned in the Bible, including lentils and those wistfully remembered by the Children of Israel as they wandered thru the wilderness and complained to Moses: "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 11:15.

The manna which "fell from heaven" and which they complained about, may have been either of two lichens which grow upon vast barren areas in western Asia today. Sometimes they are lifted by strong winds and carried great distances. In 1854 a shower of these lichens fell in Persia during a great famine, much to the grateful joy of the people, because such lichens can be cooked or made into bread. However, part of the manna may have been an alga which will grow with great rapidity during a night with heavy dew. Being soft and jelly-like, it dries up and disappears under a hot sun, and in Exodus 16:21, where this manna is discussed at length, it says: "and when the sun waxed hot, it melted. .

The most frequently mentioned plants of the Bible, so important to the people that they were used as symbols by the writers of the Scriptures, are the fig, the olive and the vine. We grow them in America today, and also the almond, palm tree and pomegranate. However, the apple referred to in the Song of Solomon and elsewhere, including what Eve persuaded Adam to eat, was probably the apricot. The "lily of the field" was probably the poppy anemone which grows in great profusion in Palestine, with regal tints of scarlet, purple, blue and gold. The "rose" was not the rose we know but may have been the narcissus, the oleander, the crocus, or a mallow -- all native to Palestine.

The King James version of the Bible was responsible for much confusion and numerous controversies by misnaming many plants, including the oaks, firs, juniper, mulberries, sycamores, chestnuts, poplars and willows. But there is no argument about the magnificent Cedar of Lebanon. Such mighty trees were scarce in Palestine, and for 20 years Solomon had thousands of men cutting these cedars to build his palace and his temple. At an early period the Egyptians, who had only scrubby native trees, began importing cedars, firs, pines, cypress and oaks from the forests of Lebanon, in fleets of cargo ships. For centuries these forests were plundered by Kings and devastated by fire.

Today those barren hills supply only a ghastly demonstration of the need for conservation.

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