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This evergreen shrub or small tree is found in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, southern Oman, Sudan and in southeast Egypt and is a member of the torchwood family, Burseraceae, that also includes fankincense and myrrh.  It is also known as Balm of Gilead but shares that common name with several other plants.  Plants may be shrubs or trees, erect or prostrate, depending on the site and may grow up to 12′ tall with spreading branches.  The leaves are pinately compound with 3-5 oblong leaflets .2-1.5″ long.  In summer small male and female flowers are produced  singly or in small clusters of 2-5 on short side shoots  along the banches of different plants.  The male flowers are cream colored at first but quickly change to yellow then red, attracting  bees, ants and other pollinators. The fertilized female flowers give way to dull red  one seeded edible fruits with 4 longitudinal white strips.  The plants are valued for their sap, bark, wood and seeds and have been used since ancient times for perfume and medicinal compounds.  The bark is cut to allow the sap to run out and dry for use as incense.  The genus name Commiphora, comes from the Greek kommi meaning gum and phoros meaning bearing and refers to the resin.  The specific epithet, gileadensis, honors Gilead, the  the mountainous area east of the Jordan River,rernowned for its balm.

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Plants of the Bible: Henna (Lawsonia inermis)

Native to semi-arid and tropical areas of  Africa, Asia, and northern Australia, this slender, much branched, evergreen shrub or small tree is also known as mignonette tree and Egyptian privet.  It  is in the  loosestrife family, Lythraceae, that also includes crepe myrtle and pomgranate, and is the only species  in the genus Lawsonia.  The shrub grows up to 25′ tall and has  spine tiped branchlets.  The elliptical to lanceolate leaves are .5 to 2″ long and have pointed tips and depressed veins on the upperside. Although considered evergreen, the plant will lose leaves during periods of prolonged dryness or cool temperatures.   Small  very fragrant white flowers appear from spring to fall and give way to small brownish capsules containing 32 to 49 seeds. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons [click to continue…]

Native to Madagascar, this evergreen semi-succulent shrub is a member of the spurge family, Euphorbaceae, that also includes pointsettia, croton, and castor oil plant.  The plants grow up to 6′ tall and have thick fleshy grayish-brown  stems that are branched, 3-5 angled, and covered with 1″ long spines/thorns.  The obobate , bright green to gray-green leaves are up to 6″ong,  arranged sprirally, and are tend to be just on the branch tips. The inconspicuous flowers are 1″ wide, have showy yellow or red bracts, and may bloom all year.  Plants are useful in containers and hedges as well as for xeriscaping  in rock gardens and seaside gardens.  All parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested and the milky sap from the stems may irritate the skin.  The plant is considered to be sacred in the Bathouist religion of the Bodo people of Assam, West Bengal, Nagaland and Nepal and symbolises the supreme deity, Bathoubwrai (Master of the Five Elements). The genus name, Euphorbia, honors Euphorbus, the ancient Greek herbalist and personal physician of Juba II, King of Mauretania, an area in North Africa.  The specific epithet, milii,  honors  M. le baron Milius, Governor of Île Bourbon, present-day Île de la Réunion (Reunion Island) who may have introduced the plant into France in 1821.  The varietal name, splendens, comes from the Latin word splendeo meaning shine. [click to continue…]

Oriental Lily and Japanese Silver Grass combinationThis grass and lily combination combines a strong echo of color and strong contrast of form, size and texture. Japanese silver grass ‘Cosmopolitan’ is a tall grass with white variegation that echoes the white flowers of Oriental lily ‘Casablanca. The large mound of grass and the fine texture of its slender blades contrast with the much shorter, coarser texture of Oriental lily ‘Casablanca’ and the trumpet form of its flowers. Japanese silver grass provides interest even after the lily has faded and on into fall and winter. Its reddish tassels appear in fall turning fawn as they mature. The seed heads persist into winter along with the foliage that turns tan after the first frost. Grow in medium moist, well-drained soil and full sun with the lily roots in the shade of the grass. [click to continue…]

Known by many names including holy thistle, milk thistle and our Lady’s thistle, this  annual or biennial is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, tht also includes daisy, sunflower, and lettuce.  It is native to the Mediterranean area where it grows in shrubland, woodland, mountains, and deserts.  Plants grow 12-79″ tall and have a deep taproot and fleshy grooved stems which may be hollow and/or covered with soft hairs.  The shiny green  leaves form a basal rosette and are oblong to lanceolate, 6-24″ long, and pinnately lobed with conspicuous white veins and spiny margins. The red-purple flowerheads are 1.5-5″ across and appear from late spring to summer.  Each flowerhead is surrounded by hairless, triangular bracts that have spine-edged appendages and a stout yellow spine on its tip.  The fruit is a black achene with a large white pappus.  Although a possible choice for a Marian garden because its association with the tears of the Virgin Mary, the plant is generally  considered an invasive weed rather than an ornamental.  Plants have been grown since ancient times as a medicinal herb and used to treat several problems including liver diseases.  The genus name, Silybum, is from the Greek word silybon that referred to some thistle-like plant. The specific epithet, marianum, honors the Virgin Mary and the legend that the leaf coloration was caused by the Virgin’s Mary’s milk as it ran down the leaves. [click to continue…]

Plants of the Bible: Myrtle (Myrtus communis)

This upright evergreen shrub grown in the Mediterranean area since ancient times is a member of the Myrtaceae family that also includes clove and eucalyptus.  It  grows up to 30′ tall in Palestine and is bushy and fine-textured with  small lustrous bright green leaves  are aromatic when crushed. and branches of the plants have been used by Jews for centuries in the construction of the booths at the Feast of Tabernacles. In late spring to early summer fragrant white to pinkish white flowers with numerous stamens are produced followed  by small blue-black edible berries. [click to continue…]

Also known as eggs and bacon and birdsfoot deervetch this herbaceous perennial is native to the grasslands of Eurasia and North Africa but has naturalized in the US and is considered an invasive weed in the Midwest where it forms dense mats that shade out the native vegetation. AIt is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae, that also includes beans, lupines, and mimosa.  Plants grow up to 2′ tall from a long taproot with branched underground roots and above ground stolons and rhizomes. They have well-branched stems and alternate compound leaves with 3 leaftlets about .5″ long, the central 3 of which extend above the others giving rise to the trefoil part of the common name. From spring until mid summer,  rounded clusters of 2-8 bright yellow to orange flowers appear. Each pea-like flower is up to 2/3″ long, has petals sometimes streaked with red, and resembles a slipper.  The brown cylindrical seed pods are 1/4-1 3/4″ long, contain numerous seeds,  and look like bird’s toes giving rise to the common name bird’s f00t trefoil/deervetch Like other members of the pea family, it fixes nitrogen in the soil and is highly nutritious to cattle without causing bloating.  The flowers attract a large range of pollinators inclung bumble bees and butterflies making it a possible choice for a butterfly or wildlife garden.  The genus name, Lotus, is from the Greek word lotos, a name given to a variety of plants including clover and fenugreek, and melilot.  The specific epithet, corniculatus, is the diminutive  from the Latin words cornus meaning horn and ferre to bear. [click to continue…]

Japanese wisteria is a deciduous flowering vine native to Japan but was introduced into the US in the 1830s and has become invasive from new Jersey to Indiana, south to Florida and Louisiana.  The vine grows up to 35’ or more and climbs by twining clock-wise.  It can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree or on an arbor or wall.  The bright green leaves are 12-16” long and pinnately compound with 9-19 leaflets ¾” to 2.4” long. In early to mid spring, pendent racemes of flowers  1.5’-3’ long appear.  The pea-like flowers are fragrant and may be blue, violet, pink, or white.  They  give way to brown velvety  6” long seed pods that mature in summer and may persist into winter.  Japanese wisteria has longer racemes than any other wisteria and is admired for its spectacular appearance when in full flower.  USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9 [click to continue…]

Also called citrus wood by the ancient Romans, this evergreen shrub or small tree is native to the Atlas Mountains of North Africa and is a member of the cypress family, Cupressaceae, that also includes juniper, arborvitae, and redwood.  The multistemmed plants grow 20-50′ tall but rarely exceeds 30′ and have a pyramidal habit when young.    The bark is grayish brown and scaly, cinnamon beneath if exposed by exfoliation.  The branches form flat open sprays and carry whorls of small scale-like leaves. Male and female cones appear on the same tree; the female cones are about 1/2″ long, have 2 opposite pairs of thick scales, and sometimes bear a white blume.  The  male cones are  only .16″ long.  Sandarac gum tree responds positively to coppicing, can be clipped into a hedge as well as  used as a windbreak, screen or bonsai.  The dark colored fragrant wood  takes a high polish and has been valued since antiquity for making furniture. The genus name, Tetraclinis, is from the Greek words tetra meaning four and kline meaning bed and refers the fact that the leaves grow in groups of 4. The specific epithet, articulata, is the classical Latin word meaning jointed. [click to continue…]

Plants of the Bible: Calamus (Acornus calamus)

This aquatic perennial goes by many name including beewort,  flag root, gladdon, myrtle flag, sweet flag, pine root, sea sedge and  sweet cane.  It is native to Asia and Europe where it grows at the edges of small lakes, ponds and rivers, marshes, swamps, and wetlands.  Acornus calamus is one of only two species in the family, Acornaceae.  Plants have a root system of branching rhizomes and form clumps of basal, sword-like leaves that resembles those of iris.  They are up to 30″ long, are flattened, and have one wavy margin and a conspicuous midrib. A 2-4″ long spadix  of inconspicuous greenish flowers appear in a diamond pattern in late spring to early summer. The fruit is a tiny fleshy berry.  [click to continue…]