Plants in the Bible—Numbers 13:23

For such a small land, Israel contains a wide array of Mediterranean ecosystems. If you travel from coastal Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea by way of Jerusalem, you would see most of the country’s natural geographical regions and its vegetation.

While the varied regions of Israel were home to many types of plants, the Bible does not always use specific plant names. A Hebrew or Greek name may lump several plants together (as it does with reeds or cedar) or refer to a whole category (“thorns”). The modern reader cannot always determine what specific plant the text has in mind. However, accurate knowledge of what grows in Israel, what plant or seed remains archaeologists find in their excavations, a close reading of the Bible references, scholars have come up with some certainties and many educated guesses.

From west to east, the land of Israel consists of coastal plains, the Shephalah (an area of low hills), mountains, the Rift Valley, and the Transjordan, with desert-wilderness on the eastern slopes of the mountains and in the Negev. Also, plants in similar topography could vary somewhat from Dan (north) to Beersheba (south).

Along the Mediterranean, shifting sand dunes created swamplands in the coastal plains in which grew reeds (Hebrew kaneh—a general category word) such as the common reed and the giant reed, rushes (agmon, general term for water or swamp plants that look like rushes—Isa. 58:5), cattails (suf), and some papyrus (gomeh). Further inland, the coastal plains, as well as valleys, sustained perennial grasses, and the fertile soil, made cultivated crops possible. Deciduous oak forests grew along the coast from Jaffa to Haifa.

The limestone Shephelah (foothills) was home to orchards on the slopes and cultivated crops on the flat land. Pine forests, evergreen oak, and maquis (evergreen thickets with occasional trees) covered the mountains of Judah. Mountain slopes also held fruit orchards and terraced dry-farming (no irrigation) agriculture, producing crops both summer and winter.

East of Jerusalem rainfall rapidly decreases, and the vegetation becomes dwarf shrubs and desert plants. Around the Dead Sea and to the south (the Negev) is a real desert containing plants similar to those in the Sahara. Fresh-water springs support small oases where tropical plants grow, including the date palm and the Euphrates Poplar. In the desert hills, a kind of terrace agriculture was possible, supported by sparse run-off water. Near the woodlands, the Judean Desert and some of the Negev had enough grass and herbs (including wormwood) for sheep and goats to graze.

In the Rift Valley along the Jordan, as well as other brooks and springs, such plants as the Oleander bush, white poplar tree, willows (aravah), the Euphrates Poplar (tzaftzafah), and the Oriental Plane (armon) thrived. The Transjordan plateau received reasonable rainfall and was known for its ability to support grazing cattle.

Up in the north, the Dan Valley was a fertile plain with numerous springs and brooks. Farther south, in the upper Jordan Valley, was the largest source of papyrus (gomeh) in Israel, some of which also grew on coastal riverbanks. Israel is the northern limit for the plant. Tabor oak forests spread all through the area. Still farther south, fertile agricultural plains bordered the Sea of Galilee.

Although the Bible mentions thorns and brambles, it is not possible to determine what specific species the text has in mind. The Hebrew terms appear to refer to the category of prickly vegetation and must have included plants and bushes such as the Christ Thorn and the Thorny Burnet (either of which could have been the thorns placed on Jesus’ head), the Bramble (with its edible fruit), thistles, darnel, nettle, and Boxthorn. Some of them are desert plants found in the Sinai Desert.

Wild herbs and “bitter herbs” were collective terms for edible wild plants. Individual species might be found either in lush areas or deserts. Examples include Syrian Hyssop (thought to be the plant used to sprinkle blood on doorposts and lintels during Passover, cf. Exod. 12:22), Caperbush, Hollyhock, Mallow, Dwarf Chicory, Reichardia, and Garden Rocket. People used most of these types of plants like salad greens, and a few had fruit.


Hepper, Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants.

Zohary, Plants of the Bible.