Plants of the Bible: The Original Food Forests

Reader Contribution by Joshua Burman Thayer and Native Sun Gardens
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Photo byTib

The Mediterranean Basin and California share similar climate, in part because both sit in the range of 30 to 39 degrees north latitude. This latitude is considered a sub-tropical belt that can accommodate some tropical plants with less threat of frost than areas farther from the equator.   In Biblical times, the Eastern Mediterranean was wetter then at present — more like here where I live in the East Bay of California.

From the Atlas Mountains of Morocco down to the mouth of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and continuing from the Zagros Mountains down into the Iraqi lowlands, much can be compared to our mighty Bay Area as the terminus of the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ many watersheds.

In each case, upland plants make their way down the rocky slopes of hills and mountains, converging at creek confluences to move down the mountain in riverine green belts. Such “key points” of the upland watershed were crucial for ancestral people to take advantage of the fresh and episodic water before it gave way to the fertile river valleys down below and on into the marshes and wetlands. The historic “Garden of Eden” was most likely in such a dryland, upland river valley.

Plants of the Bible and the Original Food Forests

The following plants made their way into human cultivation from a region of the Old World where life sprouts in dryland hotspots for biodiversity. In the mountains of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Isreal, an abundance of life happens at the confluence of two creek drainages. Such meeting grounds allow for dry places, at times, to have enough water to foster more biotic growth: an oasis.

Oasis gardens. Early people would gather in such places to browse, to process, to rest and to gather water. Over eons, such places would continue to deposit and build up seeds and sprouts from human visits. Over time, such casual encounters led to the propagating, fostering and protecting of crops that inhabitants could consume for their edible qualities. Some see this tendency as the trend that began modern agriculture and the cultivation and co-evolution of many domesticated plants.

Bustan gardens. In a drylands region, gardens were able to thrive in oasis of water.  The Farsi term bustan is referred to as “the place that smells”, meaning the area which fruits, herbs, and vegetables are raised in a cohabitational symbiosis. These “bustan gardens” are protected from the harsh summer sun by palm trees overhead. The palms act as the nursery trees, creating shade pockets where more fragile species can live. Little by little, such systems diversify over time to create a thriving, multi-storied food forest.

Food forestry in California mission history. When the Spanish Franciscan missionaries came into “Alta California”, they brought with them from the Old World the Biblical plants, known for their ability to propagate readily and grow in a semi-arid region. Since these plants evolved in the dry Middle East, they are ruggedly tolerant of the California summer-dry, winter-wet climate we have here. Thus, they are great candidates to add to your East Bay home gardens — and those in similar climates across North America — to foster a food forest system that is appropriate to this region’s climate.

Photo bySimon

Plants from Song of Solomon

The plants mentioned in Song of Solomon harken back to hunter-gatherer humans.

Date palm. (Phoenix dactylifera) Originally found in lowlands Mediterranean, an over-story plant in cultivation since 7,000 BCE in Pakistan. Rare fruit grower and permaculture consultant John Valenzuela recommends growers in Northern California to try the variety: hybrid Phoenix dactylifera X Phoenix canariensis. Grow from seed.

Pomegranate. (Punica Granatum) Originally from upland Caucus Mountains, this mid-story plant has been in cultivation for 7,000 years in Israel and Egypt. More than 500 cultivars of this hearty plant com from the Myrtle family. Propagate from cuttings.

Plants from Genesis

These plants mentioned in Genesis denote the beginnings of human-plant co-evolution, otherwise referred to as horticulture.

Apple. (Malus domestica) Originally from bottomland Central Asia, a mid-story plant with more than 7,500 known cultivars. Try one early-season apple, one mid-season apple, one late-season apple, and one crab apple variety. A few of my favorites are ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Pippin’, and ‘Braeburn’.

Grape. (Vitus vinifera) Originally from upland Caucus Mountains, a climbing vine with more than 5,000 varieties. Grapes were cultivated from 6,000 BCE in Georgia and wine jugs 7,000 years old have been discovered in Persia. Propagate from cuttings, and grapes perform wonderfully on fences. For growers seeking faster growth over larger grapes, try the California native grape Vitus californica.

Photo byulleo

Other Plants of the Bible

These plants speak to the time of the silk route, where plants were exchanged from all over Europe, the Mediterranean region, Africa, and Central and East Asia.

Olive. (Olea europea) With origins in Greece and Asia Minor, this mid-sized tree is believed to be between 20 and 40 million years old in its present, edible form. Seven thousand years of cultivation has provided humanity with skin protection and protein. Propagate from cuttings and plant production trees with at least one other type to foster pollination. I recommend planting three ‘Black Mission’ and one ‘Manzanillo’ olive together.

Fig.(Ficus carica) Originating in upland and lowland Caucus Mountains, fig is a mid-sized tree, cultivated for 4,000 years in Turkey. Propagate from cutting.

Carob. (Ceratonia siliqua) Originated in Northern Africa, an over-story tree that provides protein, fixes nitrogen, and provides nutritious animal feed. Propagate from cutting.

Jujube. (Ziziphus jujube) Originated in Western Asia, productive in dry conditions with more than 400 cultivars grown in China for more than 4,000 years. Jujube was domesticated in South Asia by 9,000 BCE. Propagate from cuttings.

Understory plants and herbs from the Bible

Lentils (Lens esculenta), cucumber (Cucumis melo), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), marjoram (Origanum majora), and garlic (Allium sativum) all come to us from Biblical places and times. Each provides various understory benefits that include winter blossoms, aroma, and soil-building and rodent-preventing properties.


I interviewed John Valenzuela for this article. He is a wealth of knowledge on organic orcharding an food forests. The MOTHER EARTH NEWS community can find him at Cornucopia Food Forest Gardens. California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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