Plants played important role in Jesus' life

By Larry Sagers

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Dec. 25 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

Cedars have largely disappeared from Lebanon, but they are an attractive tree for our area.

Larry Sagers

Gold, frankincense and myrrh; most everyone has heard of these three gifts delivered to the infant Jesus sometime after he was born.

The first gift is a precious metal, but the last two are costly plant extracts that were gifts befitting the promised king.

As we remember the birth of Jesus Christ during this holiday season, it seems appropriate to remember some of the plants he might have known during his mortal sojourn.

Jesus was very familiar with and used many plants in his life and in his teaching to the people who lived where he taught.

He ate the plants, built furniture out of them with his earthly father, Joseph the carpenter, and he used them to help those he taught understand his parables.

Sharing a few insights of these biblical plants helps us know more of his life and the customs of the day.

Palestine has a Mediterranean climate, so it is similar to certain other regions of the world, including coastal areas of South America, South Africa, California and Australia. Familiar plants that dotted the landscape were date palms, grapes, figs and mulberries.

Many of these plants thrive in a warmer climate but are not cold hardy along the Wasatch Front.

Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is a white resin extracted from the Boswellia tree. It is used as incense and for household and personal fumigation. It is collected by cutting the bark of the tree and then letting the sap form into balls, which are collected and then sold.

Myrrh grows on a small, scrubby tree similar to the one that produces the frankincense and is extracted and harvested in a similar way. It is never burned but is a valuable product that is used by the cosmetic and medical community in perfumes and medicines.

As a young man, Jesus undoubtedly helped Joseph in the carpenter shop. While the kinds of wood they crafted are not mentioned by name, they likely used both native and imported woods to make furniture and other products.

Archaeological discoveries of furniture from the period show pieces constructed from willow, tamarisk and a wood resembling cherry. Coffins have been found made from cypress and sycamine, which is wood from the mulberry tree. Some of these tree species would grow in local gardens.

The first miracle Jesus performed was plant-related as he turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Capernaum. Grape vineyards were cultivated extensively and were the subject of some of the New Testament parables. These grapes were European types that would thrive in warmer climates.

Edible vegetables mentioned in the Bible were onions, garlic, leeks, cucumbers, citron, lentils and fava beans. Seasonings included dill, oregano, fennel, marjoram and cumin. These tasty treats are easily grown locally.

The mainstays of the common people's diet were the grains. While it was called corn, it was not the maize that came from the Americas but it was wheat. Barley was a coarser, cheaper grain that was not as palatable to humans as wheat. Both of these grains are commonly grown in Utah.

Plants with more utilitarian functions included cotton and flax, which were woven into cloth. Papyrus was used for making writing paper, and various reeds and other plant stems were used to make baskets. None of these are grown commercially in Utah, but various reeds and willow stems are used for weaving.

Edible fruits and nuts were also grown. Pistachios, jujubes, pomegranates, figs, almonds, apples and walnuts were all grown in various areas. The pistachios, pomegranates, figs and jujubes might not thrive in northern Utah, but the other crops will grow. Bramble fruits, probably blackberries, were also a common crop.

Numerous larger trees would thrive in the Holy Land, but I will mention only a few you can grow here. Junipers, plane trees or sycamores, oaks, mulberry and various kinds of pine trees were included in the native flora.

The famous cedars of Lebanon were cut and hauled to Jerusalem to help construct Solomon's temple. These magnificent trees have largely disappeared from the forests in Lebanon but are an attractive tree for our area.

Last but certainly not least were the olive trees that provided oil for ointments, food and lamps, preserved fruits for eating and even valuable wood, although the wood was never cut just for lumber. Some of the roots of these trees are thought to be many centuries old.

Plants were crucial parts of the great events, the teaching and even the food and drink of Jesus Christ. Perhaps some of them would be appropriate additions to your personal garden in the upcoming year.

Garden tips, events

Thanksgiving Point is offering a landscape design class Jan. 17, 24 and 31, 10 a.m-12:30 p.m. Cost is $40.

Thanksgiving Point is also offering a solar hobby greenhouse class Jan. 17, 24, 31, 2-4:30 p.m. or 6-8:30 p.m. Cost is $40.

For more information or to register, call 801-768-4971 or visit www.thanksgivingpoint .com.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

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