FIGS, DATES LAUREL AND MYRRH
Plants of the Bible and the Quran
LYTTON JOHN MUSSELMAN
Foreword by GARRISON KEILLOR
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.