the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

"Holy Land" Spring 1997

We will now consider some of the more important and spectacular flowers, as it is of little value to detail what numerous authors have suggested for the identity of the biblical rose and lily (Song of Solomon 2:1; 4:5; 6:2; Isaiah 35:1). It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word shushan, usually rendered `lily', may be derived from a root meaning six, which fits well with the petal number of the Madonna lily (lilium candidum). This well-known garden bulb with fragrant white flowers occurs very rarely in the Mediterrnean type of vegetation of Carmel and Galilee. It is doubtful whether it was ever very common in Palestine, although in Crete it was the most frequent floral motif of Minoan art, where it is depicted in the murals at the palace of Knossos. It symbolized purity and grace for the Greeks and Romans from early days, and perhaps for the same reason it was grown and applauded by the Hebrews.

Other wild monocotyledons (with flower parts in sixes) are the blue hyacinh (Hyacinthus orientalis), the ancestor of the cultivated bulb, and the equally popular polyanthus narcissus (Narcissus tazetta). The latter is common in the hills and moister parts of the Sharon Plain and could be the `rose of Sharon'. Flowering during the winter months, its white petals contrast with the short orange cup (corona) in each of the clustered flowers. Garlands of these flowers have been found in Egyptian tombs of the Graeco-Romano period. Various species of Crocus also flower during the winter in Palestine, even with the onset of rain, yet the sand lily (Pancratium maritimum) produces its fragrant white flowers in the heat of summer. The latter is also known as the sea daffodil, as it occurs in coastal sand dunes where its twisted leaves can be seen long after flowering time.

Turning to the New Testament, the well-known reference to lilies of the field is no clearer than those in the Old Testament:

`And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies [Gk. crina] of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven will He not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?` (Matthew 6: 28-30).

Why should not any decorative and well-known plant be this lily of the field? The wonderful succession of scarlet produced by anemones, tulips, Asiatic ranunculi, and poppies, in that order, spans the whole of spring, and M. Zohary considers these to be the spring flowers (Heb. nitzanim) of Song of Solomon 2:12. So similar are they in form and colour that from a distance they may easily be confused.

The anemone (A. coronaria) is traditionally identified as the `lily of the field'. It is widespread in the Mediterranean region and its flowers can be found in several colours. Recent research in Israel has shown that there is a genetic basis for this variation which accounts for the dominance of a certain colour in a particular region. Around Jerusalem, for instance, the scarlet form is more frequent than the blue, while on the basalt slopes near Capernaum one sees the hillside flecked with the blue and white flowers. I have been impressed by some of the wild plants having a particularly brilliant scarlet colour which does not appear in cultivated ones. The Asiatic ranunculus, or buttercup (Ranunculus asiaticus), is also scarlet-flowered, but is distinguishable from the anemone by the presence of reflexed sepals.

Quite different from either of these, but also a scarlet flower, is the mountain tulip (Tulipa agenensis, also called T. montana and T. Sharonensis). When I saw one growing through a spiny burnet plant, where it was protected from animals, it reminded me of `a lily among brambles' (Song of Solomon 2:2). Its narrow, grey-green leaves are usually crinkled along the edges.

Corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas, P. subpiriforme etc.) are annuals inhabiting disturbed ground and their seeds are in capsules, unlike the anemone and ranunculus, which are perennials and have their seeds in separate nutlets. Pheasant's eye (Adonis cupaniana, A. aleppica) are also annuals with scarlet flowers, but with nutlets like the anemone.

It is quite impossible to deal adequately with the enormous number of different species of flowering plants to be found on the hillsides. As already mentioned, some 2,780 species of plants have been recorded from Palestine alone -- which is a large number for such a small region -- and most of them are herbaceous. The greater proportion occur in the Mediterranean zone where the diversity of habitats provides many ecological niches. Of these spectacular flowers I am most impressed by the combination of the showy pink hairy flax (Linum pubescens), the pale yellow scabious (Scabiosa prolifera) and the deep blue pimpernel (Anagallis caerulea) trailing about their roots. In grassy places and in abandoned fields several species of the daisy family form conspicuous blocks of yellow or white according to the season. The crown daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium) and the corn marigold (C. segetum ) have bright yellow flowers which appear in early spring, while the various species of white chamomile (Anthemis) take over later.

Many members of the wallflower family (Cruciferae) are conspicuous, too, growing in masses as weeds of cultivation.The white wall rocket (Diplotaxis erucoides) is a noxious weed of allluvial soil, flowering early in the year and similar to the garden rocket (Eruca sativa), one of the cultivated and gathered herbs (2 Kings 4:39; Heb. oroth). They are followed by the yellow flowers of charlock (Sinapis arvensis) and white mustard (S. alba). The black-mustard (Brassica nigra) occurs along roadsides and in fields, especially in Galilee, yet many writers have been puzzled as to why this plant, if it is really the mustard (Gk. sinapi) of Matthew 13:31-32, should have been selected by Jesus as a tree in which birds perch, for it grows as a tall herb. The hoary mustard (Hirschfeldia incana) also makes yellow large areas of waste ground.

Members of the pea family (Leguminosae) are so abundant that they deserve special mention. At all altitudes one finds the clovers, especially the carmine-red reversed clover (Trifolium resupinatum) and the pinkish-white clover (T. clypeatum) Birds-foot trefoils (Lotus) and milk vetches (Astragalus) are as common in the Mediterranean region as they are in the desert. Roadsides and margins of fields often provide a sanctuary for a varied collection of decorative plants. Mallows (Malva nicaeensis, Malva sylvestris, Alcea setosa) and members of the parsley family, such as the wild carrot (Daucus carota), are typical of this habitat. Often there are prickly plants such as the spotted golden thistle (Scolymus maculatus) and the field prosopis (Prosopis farcta), and especially huge stands of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and Syrian thistle (Notobasis syriacum), which are also a feature of rubbish heaps where there is a high nitrogen content. Excavations and tips of soil often have their own plants, especially various species of orache (Atriplex) and goosefoot (Chenopodium). A typical and amusing plant of waste places around the Mediterranean is the squirting cucumber (Echallium elaterium) which jet-propels its seeds with considerable force when the fruits reach maturity.

Many of the grasses (Genesis 1:11; Heb. deshe; 1 Peter 1:2; Gk. chortos) are short-lived annuals such as the wild oat (Avena sterilis) and home grass (Bromus scoparius), but there are some perennials like the three-awned grass (Aristida coerulescens) and cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata). Grass mown for hay as fodder during summer is referred to in Psalm 72:6 and Proverbs 27:25. The ancient practice of putting grass sods on house roofs, which is still to be seen in such diverse places as Syria, Iceland and Sweden, is mentioned by Isaiah (37:27), and in Psalms (129:6), and reference made to the lack of moisture in such situations preventing the grass from growing. The most conspicuous grass occurring as a weed of cultivation is the bulbous barley (Hordeum bulbosum), which has long bearded ears carried at least 1m (3 ft) high. Near Mount Hermon this barley is particularly abundant, and it was there that wild wheat was first found by botanists.

© copyright 1997

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