A bit faded
Trapped inside the house too long
She inched her way across the screen.
I flicked her into my palm
Carried her outside
To a pot of geraniums
She flew away.
A bit faded
Trapped inside the house too long
She inched her way across the screen.
I flicked her into my palm
Carried her outside
To a pot of geraniums
She flew away.
All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; from palaces adorned with ivory the music of the strings makes you glad. ~ Psalm 45:8
Have you ever considered where your favorite scented bath oils and room fragrances originated? Or, like me, did you just take for granted these luxurious little pleasures?
Just as the culinary and medicinal herbs I’ve talked about in recent posts began in ancient history, so did all the natural elements that go into creating and blending various fragrances and ointments to soothe aching muscles and tired bodies. Here’s a primer of spices found in the biblical literature.
Myrrh (Commipora myrrha) is an oil extracted from the gum resin of the myrrh tree, pictured below. The pale yellow liquid turns dark as it solidifies.
Aloes (Aloe succatrina Lam), a member of the lily family, bears clusters of thick basal leaves. Numbers 24:6 describes God’s dwelling places “like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord . . .” The ancients dissolved aloes in water and mixed it with myrrh for use in the embalming arts. Aloe and myrrh, for example, were used to embalm the crucified body of Jesus before it was wrapped in linen; according to John 19:39, “Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight.”
Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia Blume), as its Latin indicates, resembles the Ceylon cinnamon tree (cinnamomum zeylanicum). However, the cassia bark is less delicate and sweet. Sometimes called a “Chinese cassia,” the tree is an evergreen that originated in Burma and China but is cultivated also in southern and eastern Asia. It’s the aromatic bark that’s used as a fragrance and a spice, although the whole tree — flowers, fruits, leaves, roots — exudes a spicy aroma.
All three of these spices were combined with others in a base of olive oil to create the “oil of gladness” for anointing. Certain priests in Temple times specialized in following the formulas for making the oils, as well as incense, used in worship.
The wealthy used fragrant powders for scenting their houses, garments, beds, and bodies. “I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let us drink our fill of love until morning; Let us delight ourselves with caresses,” Solomon wrote in Proverbs 7:17-18. The Song of Solomon describes the marriage procession as “perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant” (Song of Songs 3:6) and compares the features of Solomon’s bride to “an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices.”
Nard or Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) is a fragrant amber colored ointment made from dried roots and wooly stems of the spikenard plant–a flowering plant of the Valerian family–that is native to the Himalyan mountains of China, Nepal, and India. The Chinese refer to spikenard as Gan Song, translated to “Sweet Pine,” a good indicator of its scent. The precious ointment was and still is imported from northern India and, therefore, quite expensive. As in Bible times, nard still is stored in alabaster jars to preserve its fragrance.
Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, poured out very expensive “perfumed oil, pure nard,” on Jesus’ hair and feet. The small jar of “genuine nard” filled the house with the fragrance, according to John 12:1-3.
Frankincense (Boswellia rhurifera Roxb) tree is native in India and Arabia. In ancient times, 2500 years before Christ, the Egyptians used frankincense for mummification of pharaohs as well as in their religious rituals. We are perhaps most familiar with the word from the Christmas/Epiphany story of the astronomers, or Magi from Persia and Arabia, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-2, 11). Frankincense is a component of holy incense (Exodus 30) derived from smoking the small yellow beads of hardened clear yellow resin of the tree.
HERBS OF THE BIBLE
Almost every conceivable herb we grow in our own gardens today were available in ancient times, cultivated in the hot climate of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They were grown for both culinary and medicinal use. Since I’ve written in previous blog posts about these herbs, I’ll only describe those I’ve not mentioned; namely, Anise, the six Bitter Herbs, and Wormwood.
Anise (Anethum Graveolens L.) grows like dill, fennel and parsley. Only Matthew 23:23 mentions anise.
Bitter Herbs were gathered fresh and eaten as a salad at the Passover, according to Exodus 12:8 and Number 9:11. These are Common Chicory, Dandelion, Endive, Garden Lettuce, Sorrel, and Water Cress, all of which are familiar greens today. (Note: I do NOT eat dandelions!)
Wormwood (Artemisia judaica L.) or Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is related to the American western sagebrush. Its dried leaves yield the liqueur Absinthe. The word “wormwood” is translated from the Hebrew la’ana, meaning “curse” or bitterness. Jeremiah 23:15 and Lamentations 3:15 and 19 refer to “. . . the bitterness and the gall.” Artemisia vulgaris is a known biblical metaphor for unpalatably bitter things or events. Interesting enough, the Ukrainian word is чорнобиль or “Chornobyl” which we recognize as the town of Chernobyl.
The word wormwood appears in Revelation 8:10-11 and used as a metaphor for calamity and sorrow. “The third angel sounded his trumpet and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water — the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.”
All symbolism aside, wormwood really is an herb. The above-ground plant parts and oil were used for various digestion problems such as loss of appetite, upset stomach, gall bladder disease, and intestinal spasms. Moreover, a couple of alcoholic beverages are made with extract of wormwood, such as Vermouth. Absinthe, distilled in the late 18th century, is an emerald-green spirit — not a liqueur — prepared from the oil of wormwood, along with dried herbs such as anise and fennel. Its herbal complexity makes it taste somewhat like licorice candy with an alcohol content up to 70 percent by volume! By the way, the sale of absinthe is illegal in the United States, so don’t both looking for it.
Which are your favorite herbs and spices, whether for culinary or medicinal purposes? Mine is anything lavender. Send me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and start a conversation.
In 1985, when I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, my best friend Lucy and I would become obsessed by what we read. We belted out Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” for a full semester. We tried to memorize the first chapter of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. We fell in love with many short stories. I was there to learn how to write short stories so there was a whole raft of them I obsessed over, but none were as close to me as “The Ideal Bakery” by Donald Hall. Hall was a famous poet, and so he had a knack for condensing the turning points of life into a few words. This short story was short, yet it seemed to contain the entirety of life itself. The book, a collection of stories also called The Ideal Bakery, later went out of print. I kept my battered paperback close at hand and read it again and again. I think the DNA of that story could probably be found in everything I’ve written since.
As the earth brings forth its plants
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord God make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations. ~ Isaiah 61:11
In the beginning God planted a garden. In it he planted trees by flowing waters – fruit trees and shade trees and aromatic shrubbery. He included roses and lilies for pleasure, herbs and vegetables for food and medicine. In the evenings He walked among these growing things beside the rivers and pronounced the garden “Good,” according to the Genesis accounts.
All cultural traditions tell of the primitive innocence of aboriginal peoples in this garden paradise somewhere “East of Eden,” in the “Land of Shinar” in the Mesopotamian tract of Babylonia. The earth itself produced in abundance all the fruits and vegetables that aboriginal peoples needed for physical nourishment. Moreover, mankind was intended to be a righteous tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth good fruit in his season (Psalm 1:3). But mankind became disobedient and lost its innocence.
Ever since the expulsion of these aboriginal peoples from this paradise, human beings have struggled to return to their ancestral roots by creating a garden in the desert. They erected enclosures of mud brick walls to protect their gardens from desert marauders, not to mention wind and sand storms. (You can read about these gardens in my blog “The Persian Parisaiza” posted on May 31, 2018.)
Biblical references to various gardens and their symbolism abound. As the Israelites wandered the desert, they bewailed the herbs and onions left behind in Egypt and complained of having to resort to manna, a sort of coriander. Before leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, Moses sent Joshua and Caleb on a secret spy mission. They brought back grapes, pomegranates, and figs on a long pole balanced on their shoulders.
In the Hebrew language, any garden referred to enclosures on the outskirts of town, planted with cultivated herbs and vegetables for table use. These enclosures were made with mud brick walls, as I mention above, or thorn hedges.
The Wisdom of Solomon refers to flowers and aromatic shrubs such as myrtle, as well as olives, fig tree, walnuts, pomegranates.
The rose garden inside the city walls of Jerusalem, situated west of the Temple Mount, was one of the few such gardens existing inside the city. It would have been furnished with seating areas for quiet prayer and meditation, or even a small pavilion. A family tomb was often prepared in a garden.
Lodges or watchtowers in unenclosed fields and groves housed a watchman to guard against robbers and wild beasts). A large level tract of land surrounding a small hut lodge would include spreading vines of fruits and vegetable such as melons and cucumbers. Groves were planted with six type of fruit trees: apple, date, fig, grape, olive, pomegranate.
He who tends to a fig tree will enjoy its fruit.” ~ Proverbs 27:18
NEXT WEEK: Herbs in the Bible
The first time I saw city streets hung with abundant flower baskets was on my first visit to Victoria, British Columbia, about 1980. June in Canada that year was a bit chilly and damp still, but those abundant flower balls were up everywhere I walked, from the Inner Harbor up to the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Building.
Victoria’s tradition of hanging baskets began in 1937 to commemorate the city’s 75th anniversary of incorporation. Since then, beginning in April of each year, city work crews grow the plants in city-owned greenhouses at Beacon Hill Park. Plant selection has varied only slightly since the 1960s, but trials of new varietals and introductions of new plant material continue. Over 1,600 baskets, each weighing from 50 to 60 pounds, are hung the second week of every June!
In 1984, Seattle, Washington, followed Victoria’s custom by installing a dozen or so hanging flower baskets in the Pioneer Square historic district and, later on, added the Pike and Pine shopping corridor. Some 20 years later, so did my hometown of Yakima in Central Washington, as well as towns and cities across the United States.
Plants are chosen on the basis of their imperviousness to toxic fumes of vehicle exhaust and their ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide. They not only help purify the air but also beautify downtown streets, adding charm to sometimes drab environments.
HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN HANGING GARDENS
The secret is to choose cascading varieties among drought-tolerant plants, but do plan to water daily and fertilize weekly. For high visual appeal, especially from street views, choose contrasting combinations. Choose colors according to your personal taste, whether the hot pinks and bold yellows and golds, or the genteel pinks and blues and purples, or attention-drawing red-white-blue combinations.
Geraniums are always a winner, supplemented with lobelia, sweet alyssum, vinca and ivy. Petunias add volume. The vines add long trailing grace notes, and the white sweet alyssum hum like warm honey in the sunshine.
Suggested Plant List for Sun
Bacopa (blue or white or both)
Suggested Plant List for Shade
Creeping Charlie trailer
Fushsia (for cool damp climates)
Silver Bells (Browallia)
Suggested Plant List for Porches
My all-time favorite hanging porch fern is the classic Boston fern with its long full fronds that sway in summer breezes. The Dallas fern is similar but its fronds are shorter with smaller leaves that those of the Boston fern; it’s a charming little table top plant. Tiger fern is a variegated Boston fern introduced in 2004.
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum) is the classic Southern house plant that Mama Nedley (my maternal grandmother) grew on her front porch in Apalachicola, Florida. Delicate pendulous foliage gives the plant a lacy effect. Since its natural habitat is humus-rich forests and woodlands in the Deep South, it requires high humidity. Plant Maidenhair fern in a clay pot and set on fine pebbles in a water saucer.
A variety of Maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-venerus) bears fan-shaped leaflets on delicate wiry black stems. Keep both these varieties sheltered, with only early morning sun, if any, but plenty of bright light, and keep moist in organic matter potting soil. More about that in a moment.
Asparagus setaceus fern, sometimes called “lace fern” or “Christmas tree fern” because of its delicate flattened spruce tree shape, climbed Mama Nedley’s south-facing front porch screen. Obviously, then, it requires bright sunlight, whether climbing or trailing.
Asparagus Densiflorous Sprengeri fern has needle-like leaves on arching branches, making this fern a graceful hanging plant related to garden asparagus. It’s native to the southern African continent from Mozambique to South Africa. But beware the somewhat confusing name! According to my research, Sprengeri now is regarded as a separate species entirely.
HOW TO PLANT HANGING BASKETS
Always begin with proper soil preparation or, as I prefer to do, purchase potting soil appropriate for hanging pots. A coco blend potting mix is moisture rich for heat tolerance and water retention without compromising proper drainage, such as those trade-marked under “ Black Gold” or Miracle-Gro” names. Be sure to read the label before choosing.
Select containers that are at least 14 inches diameter to allow for root growth expansion. A suspended wire framework lined with fibrous material, then filled with potting mix, allows optimal drainage. However, in a really arid climate like mine in Yakima, this option allows the roots to dry out too much, especially during heat waves. Another option is sphagnum moss linings but only for cool, moist climates. Personally, I prefer lightweight fiberglass containers with a plugged hole.
These same principles and planting directions apply also to window boxes. Include a variety of trailing plants for that hanging garden effect, and add volume with petunias and geraniums, for example. Fill in gaps with bacopa for contrast and sweet alyssum for honey fragrance, especially if the box faces the sun most of the day.
For further information regarding plant material most pertinent to your climate zone, consult with your local garden center or Master Gardeners (ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/master-gardeners).
Who wouldn’t like to live in this garden, so long as you had a landscaping staff to keep it up. This is another artist’s conception of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Nineveh (yeah, not Babylon as we used to think — read my previous post).