The Holy Land has a rich variety of plant life, and plants figure prominently in the scriptures. The prophets used plants often as symbols in their teachings—in analogies, in prophecies, and in parables. In this sampler, some of the more important biblical plants are represented, with examples of how they are used in specific scriptural passages.
There grew in the land of the Bible a formidable abundance of thistles and thorns. As sources of affliction and annoyance, they often served a symbolic role in the Savior’s teachings and in those of his prophets. The parable of the four kinds of soil, for example, has seeds falling among thorns, which sprang up and choked the seeds. (See Matt. 13:7.) Those thorns represented worldly cares and pleasures and the deceitfulness of riches. (See Matt. 13:22; Luke 8:14.) Thorns seem never to symbolize anything good or positive. In short, “that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.” (Heb. 6:8.)
While mocking Jesus, Roman soldiers wove thorns together in the shape of a crown and placed it on his head. (See Matt. 27:29.) The thorns, or thorn branches, could have been woven together only if flexible. The traditional candidate is Ziziphus spina-christi, otherwise called the Christ-thorn. The etrog tree is also a producer of stout, tough thorns that could have been used.
In the psalms and the writings of the prophet Isaiah, we see grass used as a symbol—a symbol that persists through the end of both Testaments:
“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
“For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Ps. 103:15–16.)
“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” (Isa. 40:6–8.)
Grass represented the transitoriness of man. With the heavy rains of wintertime, grass flourishes and spreads its velvety green carpet even over the barren wilderness, but with a blast of the transitional khamsin (the desert wind), it is gone. The blades are vivacious and vigorous one week—gone the next. So is the life of man.
With such a transitory life on earth, we can be comforted by the permanence of an unchangeable and never-ending Providence: “If God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30.)
The prophets also used grass symbolically in decrying the instability of riches and the emptiness of pursuing them: “The rich … is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
“For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.” (James 1:10–11.)
This line from the parable of the prodigal son refers to the carob, or locust tree. The Greek word kepatia (keratia), which means “little horns” (apparently from the shape of the fruit), is variously translated husks or pods. The carob tree, caratonia siliqua, produces leathery brown pods containing pea-like seeds or beans that are used today as a chocolate substitute. The seeds are remarkably consistent in weight, being used anciently to measure gem stones (the origin of our word carat). Carob pods were a staple fodder for cattle throughout eastern Mediterranean countries and were sometimes eaten by poor people.
Some suppose that John the Baptist ate the pods of the carob tree, rather than locusts. Thus, the pods are called St. John’s Bread.
The Biblical sycomore tree (not the English/American sycamore) is known scientifically as Ficus sycomorus (thus the spelling in the Bible). It is not found in the Near East more than 1,000 feet above sea level. In addition to his work as a sheep breeder, the prophet Amos was described as a cultivator or dresser of sycomores. Since the sycomore tree does not grow near Tekoa, Amos’s hometown, which is more than 2,000 feet above sea level, the prophet’s work with sycomore figs must have taken him to the oases in the Jordan Valley or into the lowlands of Judah.
Ficus sycomorus is a species of fig, or fig-mulberry, the fruit being like a fig and the leaf like the mulberry. The tree can grow to great size, sometimes attaining more than fifty feet in circumference, and is evergreen. Reproduction takes place only through the planting of cuttings, and the existence of the species, in Israel, at least, is totally dependent on cultivation. The fruit shoots forth on all parts of the stem, several figs on each leafless twig. The fruit is smaller than the regular fig and, though edible, is nearly tasteless. The fruit has to be pierced to ripen.
The Israelites prized the wood for construction. Beams made from the tree are light and impervious to rot for many years. When chopped down, the trunk will regenerate itself. David considered the sycomore valuable enough that he appointed a special overseer “over the olive trees and the sycomore trees that were in the low plains [the Shephelah].” (1 Chr. 27:28.) Three times the Old Testament mentions that Solomon made cedars as plentiful as the sycomores of the Shephelah. (See 1 Kgs. 10:27; 2 Chr. 1:15; 2 Chr. 9:27.)
The hyssop (Heb. ezov; Arabic za’atar) is a small tree (though we would call it a shrub or a bush). It is used as a food, a spice, and a medicine, and the woody stem and branches are often used for kindling. Its appearance is unimposing and unpretentious, and biblical writers often contrasted it to the lofty and mighty cedar: Solomon “spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall.” (1 Kgs. 4:33.)
The cedar represented pride and haughtiness, whereas the hyssop symbolized modesty, humility, and purity. Leviticus 14 details its use in the cleansing process for a leper. A hyssop branch was used in applying the blood to the doorposts of Israelite houses in Egypt on the night that the angel of death passed over. (See Ex. 12:22–23.) Later, Moses used hyssop in sprinkling the blood of the testament on the scriptures and on the people. (See Ex. 24:8; Heb. 9:19–20.) David, aching to be cleansed, pleaded, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” (Ps. 51:7.)
The above title passage recalls the scene of a crucified Jesus still hanging on the cross and crying out that he was thirsty. Some soldiers attending him lifted a vinegar-filled sponge to his lips on a hyssop branch. The vinegar was a kind of cheap, sour wine commonly drunk by poorer people and soldiers. Use of the hyssop branch may have had some symbolic relation to the saving blood spread on the houses of Israel during that first Passover night, or to the blood of remission that Moses applied to the people. (Paul noted that the Mosaic practices were “patterns,” “figures,” “shadows,” and “images” of things to come. See Heb. 9 and Heb. 10.) It may also be a symbol of humility involved in the fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy, “In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Ps. 69:21.)
There is only partial consensus among botanists who have studied biblical plants about which member of the mustard family could be the plant or “tree” Jesus referred to. The most likely candidate is Brassica nigra, from whose seeds the condiment black mustard is derived.
Jesus loved a contrast, even a hyperbolic contrast, to teach a lesson. He called the mustard seed “less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” (See Mark 4:31.) But he likened it to the kingdom of God, “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 13:19.) Though the mustard seed is tiny, mustard plants can grow to a height of fifteen feet.
Thus, the seed can denote the strength and power inherent in even the smallest particle: “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matt. 17:20.)
That the glorious kingdom of God would begin in such a small and obscure way was a very un-Jewish teaching—that the kingdom would be “the least” of all kingdoms was near heresy. Most Jews in the days of Jesus expected the Messiah to come and champion their cause, overthrow the Romans (as Judas Maccabaeus had overthrown the Greeks), and reestablish a mighty kingdom with the Anointed One ruling as king. Jesus, however, implanted a different concept of greatness arising out of something small.
A practical lesson from nature was taught at the end of each winter season: the fig tree was a harbinger of hot weather, a signal of summertime. Jesus observed, “When [the fig tree’s] branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh.” (Matt. 24:32.)
The fig tree and the vine together were tokens, or types, of prosperity and secure living. From the Old Testament, we have the following examples:
“Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beer-sheba.” (1 Kgs. 4:25.)
“In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.” (Zech. 3:10.)
“Every man under his vine and under his fig tree” became a figurative, formulaic expression of living comfortably and securely. Just after Philip had encouraged his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus of Nazareth, the following conversation ensued:
“Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
“Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.” (John 1:45–48.)
The statement was not only literal—Nathanael probably was meditating under a fig tree—but may also have been figurative. Some rabbinical sources suggest that “under a fig tree” is the proper place for personal scripture study and that the phrase may be idiomatic, synonymous with “in search of truth.” Thus, the reference to Nathanael being “under the fig tree” could also have meant that he was living comfortably and contentedly, having no reason to make any changes in his life. However, by meeting Jesus, the course of his life changed dramatically.
The most memorable encounter with a fig tree in the New Testament occurred during Jesus’ walk one morning from Bethany to Jerusalem, during the last week of his earthly life. He became hungry, “and when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.” (Matt. 21:18–19.) Mark added, “for the time of figs was not yet.” (Mark 11:13.) The New Testament contains no other instance of Jesus using his divine power to destroy, but he deemed the life of the fig tree a necessary teaching tool to illustrate, in an unforgettable way, the religious history of Israel.
Luke’s gospel contains this related parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.
“Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
“And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it.
“And if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” (Luke 13:6–9.)
The fig tree was common in Jewish teaching as a symbol of the nation of Israel. Jesus, too, used the symbolism in this parable. The fig tree, or the people of Israel, had been planted in that part of God’s vineyard, in the land of Israel. The Lord of the vineyard, through his earthly husbandmen, had watered and nourished the tree—he expected it to bear fruit.
When Jesus cursed the fig tree, it was Passover time in Jerusalem, half a year before figs would normally appear and ripen. He must have been referring to previous years’ unfruitfulness. In the parable, the tree had produced a showy flush of leaves but was perennially barren and fruitless. For centuries, Judaism had been aggressive in maintaining the finer points of the law and the traditions, but it had neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith. In the parable, the fig tree representing Israel was not cut down in that generation. But the warning was clear. If, after another season or generation of growth, it still bore no fruit, the Lord would remove it and scatter its pieces.