Gardening: Sacred spices

Mystery surrounds the identity of the 11 spices that comprised the incense mixture of heavenly fragrance that was burned twice a day in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

incense 88 (photo credit: )
incense 88
(photo credit: )
Mystery surrounds the identity of the 11 spices that comprised the incense mixture of heavenly fragrance that was burned twice a day in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Among classic rabbinical sources, however, the identity of at least one of these spices left no room for doubt. The Talmud refers to it as kosht. It is appropriate that, among the sages, there should be agreement concerning the identity of kosht, since kosht is also a Hebrew word for truth. The three letter root of the word kosht consists of kuf, shin and tet, from which the Hebrew word for ornamentation or adornment (kishut) is also derived. It would seem that truth and ornamentation or external beauty have nothing to do with each other. What does truth, often described as "elemental" or "unvarnished," have to do with beauty, which is typically "superficial" or "only skin deep?" The Talmud relates that it was customary for women, after leaving the mikve, to gaze at the handsome visage of Rabbi Yohanan before having relations with their husbands. Rabbi Yohanan encouraged this behavior, declaring that "when the daughters of Israel come up from bathing, they look at me and have children as handsome as I." Clearly, the external beauty of Rabbi Yohanan was of a rare, seldom seen variety, a reflection of the holiness within. It was the type of beauty the women of Israel wanted for their children since it represented closeness to God which, for a Jew, is the single qualification needed to access truth. Although our sages had no doubt as to the identity of the spice plant they called kosht, we lack their certainty. Zohar Amar, in his carefully researched Sefer HaKetoret, suggests two possibilities for the identity of kosht: a Malaysian ginger and a Himalayan daisy. Both have aromatic roots. Most, if not all, of the Temple incense spices were produced from plants that grew outside the borders of ancient Israel. Due to their tropical nature, most of them could not be cultivated in the drier and cooler climate of the Holy Land. Kosht, however, whether ginger or daisy, could have survived, and even thrived, in gardens from the Galilee to the Negev. Malaysian or crepe ginger (Costus speciosus) owes its hardiness to its rhizomes or thickened, fleshy, underground stems, from which it can rejuvenate itself if winter damaged, surviving temperatures down to zero degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18 degrees Celsius). It can be grown in full sun on the coast, but requires some shade when planted inland. Crepe ginger is a highly ornamental perennial, reaching six to 10 feet in height. The more tropical the weather, the taller it grows. It would thus get larger in Ashkelon or Netanya than in Beersheba or Jerusalem. Its fragrant white, crepe textured flowers appear on bright, brick red, cone-shaped bracts. Bracts are modified leaves which, in a variety of plants, are more attractive and noticeable than the flowers themselves. The colorful displays of bougainvillea and poinsettia, for example, are created by bracts, whereas their flowers are insignificant. Even without its unusual bracts and fragrant blooms, crepe ginger would still be a delight to behold on account of its foliage. It is associated with a group called spiral gingers since its narrow, foot-long leaves develop in a spiral, clockwise pattern and then hang, umbrella like, around the bracts. In the garden, ginger lilies (Hedychium species) are the most commonly encountered and easily grown members of the ginger family, as long as they are protected from hot sun. Kahili ginger (Hedichium gardnerianum) has distinctive yellow flower spikes more than a foot long that are accented with scarlet stamens. White ginger (Hedychium coronarium) has highly fragrant white blooms that are useful in cut flower arrangements. The related tropical ginger root of common culinary use, which is too tropical to grow in our gardens, can be turned into an indoor plant simply enough. Suspend the lower third of a ginger root (rhizome) piece in water, holding it in place with toothpicks balanced on the rim of a glass or Styrofoam cup. Roots will soon start to appear in the water as green shoots develop on top. The Himalayan daisy (Saussurea lappa), the other kosht candidate, grows in sunny or lightly shaded garden locations where soil drainage is good. It produces clusters of purple flowers and its roots are not only fragrant, but famously medicinal, used in curing ailments ranging from bronchitis to skin rashes. It is a valuable crop in Kashmir, India and Pakistan.