You can plant your own Eden in your backyard

By | September 22, 2012

Interest in the plants of that original garden, or of the land where Jesus lived and walked in the Garden of Olives, have led many people to grow what are called “biblical gardens.”

 

There are even biblical gardens in Israel such as Neot Kedumim, near the modern city of Tel Aviv. Meaning “the beauty of ancient times” this 625-acre nature reserve was begun in 1964 to recreate the setting of biblical times. However biblical gardens can be found in London (in Kew Gardens), in Japan (Seinan Gakuin University Biblical Botanical Garden) and there are many in the United States. They vary in size from hundreds of acres to a three-quarter acre garden in Warsaw, Ind., that still manages to contain forest, brook, meadow, desert and herb gardens along with a grape arbor.

Biblical gardens traditionally contain plants listed in the Bible. Most commonly included are “the Seven Species” (Shiv’at HaMinim in Hebrew) listed as being found in the Promised Land: “For the Lord, your God, is bringing you into a good country … a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey…” (Dt 8:7-8).

These seven species then include two grains and five fruits. (Honey, in this listing, refers to dates.) They are served at major Jewish harvest festivals and, by law, only the first fruits of these species could be presented at the Temple.

However, biblical gardens contain more than seven types of plants. No, there can be broom trees (various types of shrub related to the gorse) which sheltered Elijah, lilies (for the lilies of the field) and cedars as a reminder of the cedars of Lebanon, which are today all but an endangered species in Israel. Biblical gardens not only illustrate plants native to Israel, but also illustrate biblical stories — such as the parable of the mustard seed — or show how people lived in ancient times, such as a working olive orchard complete with a press.

A favorite childhood memory for me was the “Biblical Gardens” that was located in a Wisconsin Dells ravine for several decades. These illustrated New Testament stories of Jesus’ life. The 47 statues that made up the 34 scenes were sold in 2000 to a Lutheran youth group.

An endless variety of plants can be used in biblical gardens. As “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, while only 130 types of plants are mentioned in the Bible, the climate and topography of the Holy Land offers habitats for 3,000 different species. This includes the tropical climate around the Mediterranean and the desert area of the Dead Sea. Mount Hermon in the north can have snow and alpine growth, while palm groves dot the Jezreel Valley.

While interest in plants of the Holy Land can be traced back to the first century historian Flavius Josephus, real botanical records can only be accurately traced to the 16th century, according to Herman and Anna Moldenke of the department of horticulture and landscape architecture at Purdue University.

The Moldenkes note that, since true botany is a young science, linking biblical plants to modern ones is riddled with problems. “One of the most frequent errors into which the non-botanically trained preachers and theological writers have fallen in the past … is that of identifying the plants of the Scriptures with plants growing naturally in the regions in which these men or women happen to be living — France, Germany, England, Scotland, the United States, Canada,” they wrote.

Only belatedly did botanists and horticulturists realize that what we call an apple in England might really have been a pomegranate in ancient Israel. Or “corn” might not be a variant of North American maize, but a kernel of emmer wheat (one of the most ancient cultivated grains) in Jesus’ day.

The Moldenkes also blame the 1611 King James Bible with adding some confusion that has lasted for 400 years. In it, they note, “aspens are called ‘mulberries’, mulberries are called ‘sycamine,’ a species of fig is called ‘sycamore,’ … the terebinth becomes an ‘elm,’ and the planetree becomes a ‘chestnut.’”

Does all the confusion mean that our biblical gardens — ranging from a Wisconsin ravine to a fig tree in Japan — have little link with the reality we seek of Eden, the Promised Land or the garden of Jesus’ tomb? No, any attempt to recreate these places is part of our life-long search for God and one way God touches our lives. If understanding can come from a flower or a mustard seed, why not?

After all, gardens are part of the original plan for us. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gn 2:15).

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; biblicalgardens.com; warsawbiblicalgardens.org; the Biblical Botanical Gardens Society at bbgusa.org; Israel Antiquities Authority at antiquities.org.il; and the department of horticulture and landscape architecture, Purdue University, at hort.purdue.edu.

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