Gardening: Pious plants

Although certain Biblical plants have overwhelmingly positive associations, no special status - much less holiness - automatically adheres to any one of them.

pistachio tree 88 (photo credit: )
pistachio tree 88
(photo credit: )
The Torah teaches that every object in the universe has the potential for holiness; otherwise, God would not have created it. Aromatic flowers, buds or leaves may be used for the havdala blessing over spices, palm shoots can be turned into lulavs, and plants of all kinds, no matter how weedy or insignificant they seem to be, may serve a lofty purpose in covering a succa. Although certain Biblical plants have overwhelmingly positive associations, no special status - much less holiness - automatically adheres to any one of them. Micha assures us that in time, each of us will sit contentedly under a grapevine and fig tree, yet it was after drinking too much wine that Noah fell prey to an immoral act, and through consumption of the fig (according to Rashi), which grew from the Tree of Knowledge, that Adam committed the first sin. Another case in point is the terebinth (Pistacia atlantica) or elah. It was under this tree that an angel of God appeared to Gideon and told him of his mission to become a warrior leader. It was also through a valley of terebinths - the beautiful Emek HaElah - that David walked on the way to his successful confrontation with Goliath. It is suitable, then, that the elah tree should have been associated with strength in battle, since it is derived from the world el, which has the connotation of powerful. El is also a shortened form of Elohim, a word that, wherever it appears in the Torah, is understood as "God of justice." Absalom, King David's rebellious son, was trapped by a terebinth tree when his hair became entangled in its long branches, and right then and there was executed by the king's troops. But aside from its associations with strength and strict justice, the terebinth was also a favorite site for idol worship, no doubt because of its physical beauty, and the prophets spoke of it disparagingly. With the possible exception of the cedar, the terebinth must have been the most majestic tree in ancient Israel. Next to the olive, the terebinth probably had the longest life span. Today at Tel Dan, there is a terebinth tree estimated to be 1000 years old, with a trunk whose circumference is nearly 20 feet. Terebinth, incidentally, is cognate to turpentine, whose powerful scent is prevalent in the sap of this and related species. The mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), a terebinth cousin, is actually a drought-tolerant shrub that can be trained into a small tree. It is used in landscapes and gardens throughout Israel and makes a wonderful subject for a patio or balcony container. The mastic tree has a compact growth habit and tightly-held evergreen leaves. Even in the hottest weather, it should not require watering more than once or twice a month. According to botanist Yehuda Feliks, the famous "Valley of Tears" (Emek Habacha) in Psalm 84:7 should be rendered "Valley of Mastic," since the bacha mentioned in the verse is, in fact, the mastic tree. Bacha, derived from the Hebrew word for crying, is an appropriate name for the mastic tree, which produces a clear, gummy exudation, the botanical equivalent of tears. It is even theorized that the balsam used in the Holy Temple incense may have come from the mastic tree. Because of its mildly medicinal properties, the rabbis prohibited chewing the sap of the mastic tree on Shabbat (it is prohibited to take non-essential medications on Shabbat). One of the most beautiful trees this time of year is another terebinth relative, the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis). Its leaves turn gold, orange, scarlet, burgundy and crimson during the fall season. It has red fruit that change to black when ripe and an attractive domed canopy. Once established, this species is extremely drought-tolerant and should do fine with a single monthly soaking. The edible pistachio (Pistacia vera) is native to the high deserts of Southwest Asia. Its requirements for growth are a hot, dry summer and a cold winter, during which there are at least 1000 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. In Israel, pistachios are grown at Sde Boker, Avdat and throughout the Har HaNegev region. Keep in mind that pistachios are dioecious, which means that male and female flowers grow on separate trees, and you must have both kinds of trees in order to produce a crop of nuts. If you want to start a small pistachio orchard, plant three rows of three trees. Place a male tree in the center and surround it with eight female trees.