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Plants of the Bible: Bitter Apple (Solanum incanum)

Known by many common names including thorn apple, bitter tomato, apple of Sodom, and bitterball,  this tropical perennial is native to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, eastwards to India and is a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, that also includes peppers, potatoes, and eggplant.  It is an erect or spreading shrub or small tree growing up to 6′ tall, occasionally more, and has pale yellow to brown, stout. recurved spines on the stem, branches, and sepals with velvet hairs on the leaves.  The densely white hairy, ovate leaves are .4-12″ long, have slightly wavy margins, and are gray-green  on top with green-white below.  Nodding or pendent flowers are borne from late fall into winter singly or in clusters in the leaf axils and have a fused yellow or white caylx and blue to  purple bell- or wheel- shaped corolla with 5 stamens. The  1′ wide flowers may be bisexual or functionally male, with the latter more numerous.  The globose fruits are about .8″ across and are mottled or striped green, yellow, orange, or brown  when ripe.  They contain many lentil- to kidney-shaped pale yellow to brown seeds.  Photo Credit: James Steakley Wikipedia

Bitter apple is one of several plants that scholars have proposed as being the briars mentioned in the Bible.  It is abundant in the lower Jordan valley and in areas around the Dead Sea.  Other possible plants that might be intended include Utrica spp.,  and Citrullus colocynthis .  Bitter apple is probably not the “hedge of thorns” (Hebrew: מְשֻׂכַת חָדֶק‎) as suggested by some scholars, however, as Rhamnus palaestina (buckthorn) is abundant in  the area, and is described by many observes as used for hedges.

Isaiah 10:17 (NKJV) After decrying the arrogance of Assyria, God says He will puish the king of Assyria.

“So the Light of Israel will be for a fire, And his Holy One for a flame; It will burn and devour His thorns and his briers in one day.

Isaiah 55:13 (NKJV) The prophet describes the joys that come when the people listen to God.

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree, And instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree; And it shall be to the LORD for a name, For an everlasting signthat shall not be cut off.”

Micah 7:4 (NKJV) The Prophet Micah confesses the sin of God’s people.

“The best of them is like a brier; The most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge; The day of your watchman and your punishment comes; Now shall be their perplexity.”

Hebrews 6:8 (NKJV) The author gives an illustration of the consequences of not abiding in Jesus.

“but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.”

 

Bitter apple likes full sun and fertile, organic rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil in USDA Hardiness Zone 13 but tolerates drought, infertile soil, and saline soil. Information on damage by insects and disease is scanty but authorities believe to potential from harm is great. Propogation is by seed.   Plants may become invasive;  all parts of the plant are poisonous, but selected  plants are used as food and medicinally for pain relief.  The ancient Indians domesticated the plant into eggplant (Solanum melongena).

The genus name, Solanum, is the classical Latin name for nightshade.  The specific epithet, incanum, is the Latin word meaning hoary and refers to the hairs all over the plant.