Plants of the Bible and the Quran

Plants of the Bible and the Quran 


ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL shrubs in the pine forests of the Middle East are species of Cisius, the source of the resin known as ladanum (or labdanum). This resin has an ancient heritage, being cited in the first book of the Bible, and it has a long history of use: "Then their father Israel [Jacob] said to them [Joseph's brothers), 'If it [the trip to Egypt) must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift— a little balm and a little honev, some spices and myrrh [lote], some pistachio nuts and almonds' " (Genesis 43:11, ΝIV); and, "As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and mvrrh [lote] and they were on their were to take them down to Egypt" (Genesis 37:25, NIV). The Hebrew lote should not be confused with the Arabic lore (see "Thornbush"). 

The cargo of the Ishmaelites is of special interest to the edmobotanist. It is unfortunate that the Hebrew word lote is translated as "mvrrh" in these two verses, while in the remaining 11 occurrences in both KJ V and ΝIV, mvrrh is more accurately used for the Hebrew mor. 

What is lote? One possibility is the resin of species of Cisrus, a shrub common in the region east of the Jordan River known as Gilead. The meaning of the word in Hebrew implies something sticky, characteristic of this product. 
Pink cistus,showing the abundant glandular hairs that cover the plant. These produce a sticky, fragrant resin that is the basis of ladanun

Although a small area, Gilead is geologically and ccologically diverse, stretching from the margins of the Jordan Valley and the peaks along the Great Rift Valley to the edge of the badia (Arabic for steppe). In ancient times, parts of Gilead were covered with forests. These forests were the southernmost extension of the Mediterranean woodlands and the southern edge of the range of the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). Two species of Cistus are common in the pine forest, C. crericus and C. salvifolius. They are easily distinguished by their flower color. The large pink flowers of C. creticus and the slightly smaller but equally beautiful white flowers of C. salvifolius appear in May. On a hot day, the fragrant resin of the plants is noticeable. On close examination, you can see the numerous hairs that cover the leaves and young stems of both species. The resinous ladanum will stick to your hands if you collect leaves (Langenheim 2003). The fragrant resin of Cisrus has been used for millennia to produce incense. The resin of related species is still collected in parts of Greece. It can be harvested in a variety of ways. One ancient method is to comb the hair of goats that graze in plant communities where Cistus is abundant. Another is by dragging a rake with long, leather tines across the shrubs at the hottest time of day, and when the resin is dry, removing it from the rake tines (Baumann 1993).

Like many other plants used for incense, ladanum has medicinal value. The resin is used as a balm to reduce inflammation of the skin. 

Recent research on the biochemistry of the plant has shown the efficacy of compounds in the plant for dermatological disorders (Danne et al. 1993), which may be due in part to the antimicrobial activity of compounds in the leaf (Demetzos et al. 1997, 1999). Research in Turkey shows that of the seven plants used as folk remedies for ulcers, the one with the greatest efficacy was C. salvifolius (Yesilada et al. 1999). Jacob's choice of ladanum, therefore, indicates the value placed by people of that time on this plant and its products and possibly reflects on the healing value of the resin. To my knowledge, ladanum docs not have any widespread use among modern Arabs. 
Dibbeen National Forest, Jordan, in May. The dominant tree in the forest is the Aleppo pine, with conspicuous white cistus in the understory.

I have not found any local familiarity with the plants. When I encountered some Bedouin near Anjara, Jordan, feeding their sheep on Cistus, I asked how they used the plant. They simply replied that it was good forage for sheep and goats, and therefore the shrub is absent in heavily grazed areas. 

White cistus flowers in May, Dibbeen National Forest, Jordan. While both the white and pink ι Cistus of the .Middle East can produce resin, the highest quality comes from species in Greece.

Still used to compound incense in the Greek Orthodox Church, ladanum is a little-known product of an attractive flowering shrub of pine woodlands of the Middle East. While it is being examined for its diverse medicinal applications, local people generally are unaware of this or its use as incense. Ladanum bears no relation to laudanum, a tincture of opium that was a popular medicine in Victorian times.


About labdanum from Cistus Creticus Incanus.

In prehistoric (neolithic) North Africa there lived, amongst many peoples, a tribe of nomadic goat-herders. Occasionally, these people noticed that their goats acquired a blackish, sticky substance on their fleeces and eventually they realised that if this substance were removed and burned, it provided a very fragrant smoke.

As a brief aside it is worth mentioning that the use of aromatic materials as incense is the origin of perfumery and of aromatherapy. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin words per fumum, meaning through smoke.

Having lived in North Africa, not far from the Nile delta, I can appreciate what kind of impact a pleasant smell had on the people who lived there at that time. Even living with the benefits of hot water and soap one starts to smell like a cheese one or two hours after a shower. In summer the coolest time of day is in the middle of the night. Even then, with all windows open and movement restricted as near as possible to nil, the perspiration pours off as if one were in a sauna.

The value of a fragrant substance was apparent to our nomads and they isolated the origin of the black sticky stuff. The goats ‘collected’ it as they grazed among the rock roses (labdanum). It can’t have been long before the goats were removed from the equation. The invention of the ladanesterion, a flail with leather thongs later named after the plant by the Greeks, may have been the first technology to be related to aromatics. With it the nomads could flail the plants, the resin sticking to the thongs. From these it could be more conveniently squeeged off than it could from goats’ fleeces. (They actually used sand to separate the labdanum from the ladanesterion, the sand being easily removed later).

Naturally enough, the labdanum resin so collected was much in demand and the nomads eventually gave up goat herding to become labdanum traders. They were so successful in this that they became the first dynasty of Egypt. If you examine pictures of pharoahs or of Osiris (the imagery is largely interchangeable) you will see that the arms are crossed over the chest, one hand bearing a crook (a legacy of the goat-herding days), the other hand bearing a flail (ladanesterion). The pharoah wears a false beard (even if female!) actually made from goat hair which was evidently stuck to the chin using labdanum.

The importance of aromatics in antiquity is thrown into sharp relief when it is realised that that the humble rock rose is responsible for the iconic imagery so well known to us five thousand years later even if we have largely forgotten that the roots of this imagery are in incense (per fumum).

The oleoresin is obtained from various species of cistus , principally Cistus Creticus Incanus, the best material being collected between May and July. It was Dioscorides who first mentioned the ladanesterion method of collection but the first written mention of labdanum as a modern medicine occurred in 1589 when it was listed in Dispensatorium Noricum. Its use as a medicine does seem to stretch back into antiquity though, because, although its principal uses were in incense and in the mummification process (along with the much better known frankincense and myrrh) there are ancient references to its use for liver and stomach problems as well as a remedy for breathing difficulties and for the loss of the hair.

The essential oil has a specific gravity of 0.925 and its boiling point can be as high as 280 deg., one of the reasons why it is an excellent fixative. Another reason is that, in the right proportion, it imparts an ambergris* note which is invaluable in some types of fine fragrances and lavender compounds.

*Ambergris is a pathological secretion of the sperm whale and was extensively used in former times as a fixer and toner for perfumes. While whaling is still carried out by Norwegian and Japanese barbarians it is very important for us not to use it. When whaling is a thing of the past, all ambergris appearing on the market will be ‘found’ and consequently usable.