EASTER HAS MANY PLANTS

by Whit Gibbons

March 27, 2005


Easter sends many messages to people throughout the world. Of particular interest from an ecological standpoint are the many trees and flowers that are associated with the season. Flowering dogwood, redbud and palm trees, lilies, and many other plants have connections with Easter, some well known, others less so.

One of the best known stories involves the flowering dogwood tree. According to the legend, dogwoods once grew to be the size of oaks and were used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. One version is that Jesus saw the dogwood as suffering because of its having been used for such a purpose and avowed that the tree would never again grow to a size that could be used to make a cross, hence the small, crooked branches. Other symbolic features of the dogwood tree are white "flowers" that take the shape of a cross, with a brownish red spot in the center of each, signifying Jesus' blood. The cluster of tiny flowers in the center resembles a crown of thorns.

The reason for "flowers" being in quotes is that botany students are fond of pointing out that the true flowers of a dogwood are indeed the tiny ones in the middle. The obvious "petals" that have earned the tree the name flowering dogwood are actually bracts. In most plants, bracts are small leaves from which the flowers arise. In the dogwood they have taken on a more prominent appearance. Incidentally, the popular dogwood familiar to everyone from New England to Florida is one of 10 species in this country. Ironically, as far as I am aware, dogwood is not one of the more than 80 kinds of plants mentioned in the Bible.

One type of tree mentioned prominently in many parts of both testaments is the palm. Preceding Easter is Palm Sunday, which refers to the date palm fronds that were placed in front of Jesus' donkey when he entered Jerusalem, as was done for a victorious ruler. I do not know of any other special significance to palms, other than that some churches pass palm fronds out to members of the congregation on Palm Sunday. Although native to the Mediterranean region, date palms made their way to Mexico via Spanish explorers and eventually arrived in California in the 1700s. Today more than a quarter of a million date palm trees bear fruit in California and Arizona. Like many trees, date palms are unisexual, which means an individual tree is either male or female. Since only the females bear fruit, people who plant palm trees as a commercial product want mostly females and only a few males for fertilization. The sex of a tree can be assured by planting small shoots that grow from the base of the palm trees.

The crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus is assumed to have been a particular type of shrub, a member of the rose family, called thorny burnet. The plant is and was abundant around Jerusalem and other parts of the Mediterranean. The wooden branches are flexible enough to bend, and the thorns at the end also branch. Other types of plants with briars and spines are found in the region, but the thorny burnet is most likely the one that was used for the crown of thorns.

One plant associated with Easter is purely a commercial venture, albeit an agreeable one. The original species of Easter lily is native to the Ryukyu Islands, halfway between Japan and Taiwan, and had nothing to do with the Middle East. Today, the vast majority of Easter lilies come from agricultural lands from Oregon to California and show up in churches across the nation. They may be symbolic of the season in people's minds, but I know of no true biblical connection.

Finally, another tree not mentioned in the Bible is the redbud tree, also called the Judas tree. The Mediterranean species of redbud tree is said to be the one on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself. According to legend, redbud trees turn red in the spring, either from blushing for shame at the Crucifixion of Christ or from weeping tears of blood at the fate of Judas.



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