Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on the ancient plants and herbs of the Bible.
Personally, I believe that God gives every herb and plant for humankind’s benefit. Whether you believe in a God, a Creator, gods, or have no belief at all, plants are living organisms, just like us humans. Plants and herbs have healing powers beyond human comprehension. As humans, we are connected to the soil of the Earth. We are soil, when you really think about it, because our bodies fertilize the Earth when we die. In fact, all living organisms, including plants, fertilize the Earth’s ecosystem.
As we are connected to the soil physically, so are we to plants that sustain our bodies nutritionally. Believe me, we can live without eating meat. Without plants, we can’t. Thus, plants and herbs are part of human existence. This drummer of plants and herbs plays out in the lives of people in the Bible culturally, naturally and in their religious beliefs. Mustard (Brassica nugra) is one of the popular herbs in the modern world. In ancient times, it was used metaphorically to describe man’s spiritual realm of life.
“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” Matthew 13:31-32. You can also find references to mustard in Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19, Luke 17:6, and Matthew 17:6. There are two species of mustard. Black (B. nigra) and White mustard (Sinapis alba), which both occur in Israel. The Black mustard was mentioned in the Bible. It was cultivated for its flavor in food and medicine.
Black mustard grows wild in North Africa, the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. White mustard can be found growing wild at the foothills of the Himalayas. In ancient times, mustard was used as a food preservative. For example, whole fruits such as figs and apricots were preserved in a sugar syrup substance and flavoured with oil, garlic and mustard. Medicinally, this herb is still important today. One medicinal use of mustard was as an emetic cure of people that were poisoned. In other words, they make a person vomit if they were poisoned.
Although we don’t grow olives (Olea europaea) in the Virgin Islands, the use of its oil is common in these islands. Olive is significant religiously, culturally, and medicinally. “And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth” Genesis 8:11. Since Noah’s flood, the olive leaf was used as a symbol of hope, peace and reconciliation. For example, the United Nations’ flag has olive branches as part of its symbol for peace among the nations of the Earth.
For ancient Greece, the olive symbolized wisdom. In ancient times, olive oil was used to anoint a person’s head or forehead when fasting and praying. In the Bible, the tree, its fruit and oil are frequently poetic and symbolic in the Holy Scripture. “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; they children like olive plants round about thy table.” Psalm 128:3. When it comes to food, olive oil is a major part of the world food industry. Where can I start? There is so much to say about olive oil in cookery.
Medicinally, the olive is significant. Arabs take olive oil internally and externally. They say you would enjoy a long, healthy life. The bark, leaves and fruits of the olive tree have been used as a decoction for hypertension. According to Wilma Paterson, if you can’t tolerate alcohol and insist you are drinking it anyway, take a spoonful of olive oil beforehand. He claimed that it would line your stomach so that the alcohol would take a much longer process to pass through the bloodstream and have time to be broken down by your liver.
Olive is native to the Mediterranean region, tropical Central Asia, and certain parts of Africa. It is among the oldest cultivated trees in the world.
This is the only passage in the Bible that mentions anise: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Matthew 23:23.
Bible scholars now generally accept that anise (Pimpinella anisum) was mistranslated in the Bible and the plant in question is really dill (Anethum graveolens). However, these two herbs have similarities and both plants have been used in ancient times. Locally, dill is one of the herbs used to make maubi. It also is used in these islands for relieving gas pains, to help with digestion, and it is a stimulant for the brain. Anise is native to the Middle East region. It is used for flavouring cakes and biscuits and to help digestion after large meals.
In the old days of the Virgin Islands, mint (Mentha longifolia) was a popular bush tea. “But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye title mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone.” Luke 11:42. Several species of mint grow wild in the Holy Land. Mint got its name from a tale of Roman mythology. Minthe, who was the daughter of the river-god Cocytus, fell in love with Pluto, thus the name mint came about.
According to colonial history, the Pilgrim fathers who made the first permanent settlement in America in 1620 brought mint with them. Apart from using mint for flavoring toothpaste, mouthwashes, and chewing gums, food, etc., the herb has a laundry list of medicinal uses. Mint is good for headaches, nausea, digestive disorders, dispelling gas, etc. There are some 25 species of mint. Most mint is native to Asia and Europe. Others are native to North, South America, and Australia. In biblical times, the Pharisees paid taxes with mint.
Read Part 1 of this series here, and Part 2, here.
— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.