Did you know there are more than 10 aromatic plants mentioned in the Bible?

As the holiday season unfolds, you may be putting up a Christmas tree in your living room, or filling your home with the perfumey scents of the season. Many trees, herbs and spices are related to Christmas time around the world, some of which stem from biblical stories and verses, and some go even farther back. 

Sacred texts are a fascinating way to peer into our historic relationships with plants. For instance, the Bible mentions multiple aromatic botanicals which are still used today, and have been throughout lifetimes, for various medicinal and spiritual purposes.

Though it’s not common in the Bible to relate plants to their medicinal qualities, plants are mentioned for various reasons, including as offerings, traditions, foods, or occasionally to be used for healing purposes [1]. 

Our intimate bond with the botanical kingdom can be traced back through time, as plants have been utilized for spiritual practices, traditions, medicine, cooking, rituals, healing balms, incense, tea, perfumery, as well as for preservation and wine making. 

One example is an aromatic ointment called Nard, which was made from Spikenard, a very costly and precious substance at the time, and still is today. It was often prepared as an oil and is described in the Bible as a pleasant, fragrant perfume. It was offered to Jesus multiple times from disciples, sometimes along with fruits, henna, Saffron, Calamus, Cinnamon and other herbs [4].

Origins of the Christmas Tree

Some holiday traditions still carried out today are mentioned in the Bible. For example, the Christmas tree is a centerpiece of the festive season. In the Bible, it is said a tree is cut from the forest by craftsmen, and people decorate it with silver and gold, then fasten it with a hammer and nails so that it can’t move [3].

The Christmas tree tradition, although mentioned in the Bible, actually predates Christianity altogether. It originated in Paganism, but many different traditional peoples also celebrated evergreen trees. To many ancient cultures, evergreen trees served as a symbol of eternal life, and bringing a tree into the home represented the energy of resiliency and strength during cold, dark winter months, and its presence and aroma was uplifting and brightened the home.

People would use plants such as Cedar, Spruce, Pine, Yew, Fir, and Hemlock as incense, or steep them in water on the stove to fill their homes with a pleasant aroma, which also benefited the immune system. The aromatic qualities of evergreens was thought to be helpful in cleansing the home, bringing good health, and protecting against negative energies or spirits.

10 Biblical Aromatic Plants and Their Traditional Uses

It’s worth noting that through the transcription process of the Bible, it is possible that some plants originally mentioned could have been mistranslated. As well, the plant species mentioned could potentially be of a different species compared to the species that exists today. Further, the name of a plant could refer to more than one species, or the same plant could have been mentioned using different names. 

Cedar (Cedrus)

The fresh scent of Cedar is fragrant and forest-like. When used as an incense or essential oil, its aroma cleanses the air of a space. Cedar is also used for clearing in the Bible. A quote from Leviticus 14:52 says, “And for the cleansing of the house he shall take two small birds, with Cedarwood and scarlet yarn and Hyssop [3].”

Cedar has historically been utilized by humans for a wide range of reasons. As an incense or essential oil, it has a woodsy, citrusy aroma, and a clearing effect on the mind. Cedar also has an affinity for the lungs, and in folk medicine, is said to be helpful in supporting the respiratory tract with colds and flus. 

Cedar and other evergreen trees have adapted in order to thrive in wet, mold-prone conditions such as in the Pacific Northwest with special antimicrobial properties. These can be found in the volatile oils produced by the plants and can help to neutralize unwanted pathogens in the respiratory tract. 

In the Bible, Cedar is also noted to be used for building structures, such as homes and sanctuaries. It was said to be the wood used to build Solomon’s temple.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)

Cinnamon seems to be as commonly revered in the Bible as it is today. With a sweet, warming, citrusy taste and smell, it makes for a fantastic addition to incense, perfume, or drinks.

In the Bible, Cinnamon is mentioned multiple times as an offering, along with other herbs and spices. It’s also often said to be used as, or included in a perfume. One quote says, “I have perfumed my bed with Myrrh, Aloes, and Cinnamon [3].”

In ancient Egypt, Cinnamon was also used in perfumes, ceremonies and embalming rituals [2]. Cinnamon has warming, antibacterial qualities, and has traditionally been used in topical medicinal oil preparations. It’s warming properties can help relieve bodily aches and pains [7]. As an incense, Cinnamon has an enlivening effect, and can be used to enhance spiritual practices. 

Calamus (Acorus calamus)

Calamus has been widely traded among nations for thousands of years. In the Bible, it is said to be traded as a good by merchants, and in Song of Solomon, is noted as part of a garden with other precious plants [4]. Calamus is mentioned in Exodus 3 for the ceremonial oil applied to priests and objects in the tabernacle [4]. 

Calamus is revered in oriental medical systems for its effects on consciousness, as it is said to promote mental clarity and wisdom. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Calamus has been used to regain the ability of speech following a stroke [6]. In Ayurveda, Calamus root can be combined with Gotu Kola as a tea, essential oil, powder, or in tincture form to restore the nervous system, enhance memory, and improve concentration [6]. Various Native American tribes chew on Calamus root to strengthen or repair their voice after lengthy periods of ceremonial singing. 

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

Coriander – particularly its seeds – are briefly mentioned in the Bible. A verse from Exodus 16 says, “Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like Coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey [4].”

Reports of Coriander date back to ancient Egypt, said to be growing beside the Nile River [8]. The first reports of Coriander being used for medicinal purposes is by the Egyptians, but can also be noted in classical Greek and Latin literature [8]. The essential and fatty oils from the fruits and seeds of Coriander have traditionally been extracted for healing purposes [8].

According to Ayurveda, Coriander seeds and leaves have an affinity for the bladder, blood, muscle, and stomach, and are especially indicated for supporting the urinary tract [6]. Coriander in the form of juice or a balm can be used externally to aid with skin irritation and inflammation. It is also a key ingredient in Indian cooking, along with Cumin and Turmeric.

Frankincense (Boswellia sp.)

When referred to in the Bible, Frankincense is a sacred and revered plant. It is described as a pleasant perfume and is often used as a sacrament to the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, Frankincense is typically said to be offered with grain, or alongside other aromatic herbs such as Myrrh and Cinnamon. It was even said to have been one of the handful of holy plants that Adam took from the Garden of Eden and brought back as a fragrant treasure for all mankind. 

Aside from its famous appearance in the biblical story of the three wise men as one of three gifts to baby Jesus, Frankincense is also mentioned in the Bible to be carried by merchants, along with gold and other goods for trade. 

Frankincense is an aromatic resin that comes from Boswellia trees. For thousands of years, it has been widely used in ancient spiritual traditions, and is typically prepared as perfume, oil or incense. 

As an incense, Frankincense is considered clearing and calming for the mind. Practitioners of Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Tibetan medicine have been using Frankincense incense and essential oil to relax the nervous system and help with disorders such as depression, insomnia, and anxiety [6]. The melted resin is also used topically or in ointment form for its ability to relieve bodily aches and pains, such as muscle tension, joint stiffness, menstruation, and various injuries [6]. With antiseptic properties, ancient cultures also used Frankincense externally to help heal wounds, abscesses, bruises and to prevent infection [6]. 

Balm of Gilead 

Unlike many of the aromatic plants talked about in the Bible, Balm of Gilead is particularly referred to in a medicinal context. Balm is a term that generally refers to a medicinal oil or resin. In Jeremiah 8:22, it is asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” 

Balm of Gilead is considered sacred in many ancient Eastern cultures, and is popularly mentioned in old texts, stories and myths throughout time. There is a long history of the tree being harvested for its gum resin during the time of Solomon, and used for spiritual practices or medicinal purposes. The true species of plant often referred to, also known as Judaean Balsam, was said to have grown around the Dead Sea, but has been extinct from the region for centuries. Today, Commiphora gileadensis has become naturalized in parts of Somalia, Yemen, and Israel. 

In ancient times, Balm of Gilead was burned in sacred ceremonies, where the rising smoke was thought to carry prayers to the heavens. Smoke from Balm of Gilead is said to be rejuvenating for the soul, heal past traumas and bring about a stronger connection to the spirit realm. 

Myrrh (Commiphora sp.)

Myrrh is mentioned quite a few times in the Bible, and used in multiple forms. One verse talks about women using Myrrh oil along with other perfumes during their beauty rituals. Another verse talks about Myrrh being used as a fragrance for robes and a bed, and other times it is mentioned to be part of a garden [2].

Myrrh is a golden-red colored resin extracted from trees of the genus Commiphora. It is similar to Guggul sap, and the two resins have been used interchangeably in Ayurveda [6]. Myrrh is paired nicely with Frankincense, as also noted in the Bible, and has been used throughout history in perfumes and incense. Myrrh is thought to be a life partner of Frankincense, the two often growing near each other– Myrrh holding the feminine, or yin energies, and Frankincense being its masculine, or yang counterpart. Along with Frankincense, it was one of three gifts presented after the birth of Jesus by the three wise men.

In both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, Myrrh and Guggul are considered to be helpful in moving chi or prana (our vital life force) throughout the body, and as a potent remedy for clearing thickened mucus and toxins from our system [6]. Myrrh is also used in traditional medicine as an oil, which is said to help alleviate disorders of the nervous system, and be rejuvenative for the body [6]. 

Saffron (Crocus sativus)

Saffron is only briefly mentioned in a Song of Solomon verse. It isn’t said to be used in a particular way, and is simply noted as part of a garden, included with plants such as Calamus, Cinnamon, Frankincense and Myrrh.

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, and is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus. In a culinary sense, a little of this plant goes a long way, as Saffron contains a powerful yellow pigment which has often been used in cooking to color rice dishes [6]. 

Traditionally, Saffron has also been used medicinally and in spiritual practices. Ayurveda considers saffron to be sattvic in quality, which essentially means to enhance the energy of love and compassion [6]. This has made Saffron a well utilized companion throughout history for those on the devotional spiritual path. 

According to Ayurveda, Saffron has an affinity for the blood, heart, spleen, liver and kidneys, and is considered stimulating and rejuvenative [6]. When combined with food, it is said to help with the assimilation of nutrients into the deeper bodily tissues. Saffron is also valued in teas, medicated oils, and is popularly prepared in a drink with warm milk, ghee and honey [4].

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)

Fascinatingly enough, Wormwood is depicted in the Bible as particularly bitter, and isn’t always referred to in the most positive light. A verse from Revelation says, “The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became Wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter [4].”

In traditional forms of medicine, Wormwood’s extreme bitter quality is what makes it medicinal. Ayurveda says Wormwood clears parasites from the gastrointestinal tract, restores the sense of taste, creates tightness of skin and muscles, and aids in digestion [7]. 

Wormwood has a distinctive, savory aroma and is also commonly used as an incense. Before one uses Wormwood as a tea or tincture, they should speak with a healthcare professional first, as it is considered mildly toxic. Perhaps this is partially what is reflected in the Bible. 

The bitter taste of Wormwood is helpful in reducing fevers, is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and can help to cleanse blood [7]. Wormwood is popularly known for its use in Absinth, an alcoholic beverage which originated in Switzerland in the 18th century. 

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi)

Spikenard is referred to in the Bible as “Nard” and is mentioned to be used as an ointment and an oil. In one verse, Mary of Bethany applies Nard ointment to Jesus’s feet as a form of offering. The pure Nard oil was recognized for its pleasant fragrance, and is noted in the Bible to be particularly expensive [4]. 

Spikenard is traditionally used as an essential oil, which is derived from the currently endangered species Nardostachys jatamansi, a flowering plant which grows in the Himalayas. It is closely related to Valerian, and both plants have calming effects on the nervous system. However, Spikenard is thought to be more uplifting for the mind [9]. Spikenard is said to be indicated for pain relief, as well as to help with stress, depression or healing trauma [9]. 

Though Spikenard offers many health benefits, the issue of sustainability is one to keep in mind before choosing to use it. Spikenard populations have been immensely challenged due to over-harvesting, forest fires, deforestation, and excessive animal grazing [10]. Efforts to sustainably manage Spikenard populations have been implemented, but the plant is still at risk. In 2015, Spikenard was listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [11].

It is important to check labels before purchasing any herbal product, to know where and how the plant was sourced. For at-risk plants, never buy ones that have been wild-harvested, even if they claim to do so sustainably. Prioritize purchasing organically cultivated at-risk plants. Spikenard is unfortunately one of many plant species put at risk due to exploitation. 

Conclusion

For many, the holiday season brings a nostalgic feeling, returning us to our families and reminding us of our ancestral past. Every year, we keep the flame of tradition alive, but may not always know the origins of which it was birthed. It is enlightening to peer back, not only at our history as humans, but also at our connection with plants in ancient eras. The Bible is one of many sacred texts that sheds a sliver of light on our intimate bond with the botanical world.

Our interdependence with plant life is ongoing and everlasting. And though our relationship evolves as we travel throughout time, there are many parallels to how plants were used in ancient times compared to how they are used today. 

Plants embody the universal creative energy to heal. Perhaps this underlying, sacred and mysterious quality that plants hold within, is what the Bible implies when it says that God is the ultimate healer. The plant kingdom selflessly supports all forms throughout all lifetimes, and whatever that incredible healing force may be, call it god, call it intelligence, is nothing short of pure love and magic.

Article Written By Dawn Gibson

references

  1. Dafni, A. & Böck, B. (2019). Medicinal plants of the Bible—revisited. 
  2. G. Abdel-Maksoud, Abdel-Rahman El-Amin (2011). A Review on the materials used during the mummification process in ancient Egypt.
  3. Smith, S. www.openbible.info
  4. www.biblegateway.com
  5. MOLDENKE, H. &  MOLDENKE, A. (2002). Plants of the Bible.
  6. Tierra, M. (1988). Planetary Herbology. 
  7. Lad, V. & Frawley, D. (1986). The Yoga of Herbs.
  8. Diederichsen, A.  (1996). Coriander - Coriandrum Sativum L. 
  9. Curtis, S. & Patel, K.D. (2021). Sustainable spikenard. In Essence. Vol. 19 No. 2: Spring/Summer 2021. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bec424b297114f64cb908d8/t/609a63ab9cccf959a020fe5c/1620730795907/Curtis%2C+S.+%26+Darshan+Patel%2C+K.+%282021%29+Sustainable+Spikenard.+InEssence+19%282%29+21-24.pdf
  10. Department of Forests and Soil Conservation. (n.d.) National quota fixation for Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi DC) ensuring sustainable management and conservation in Nepal. Retrieved from: https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/sc/71/E-SC71-12-A5.pdf
  11. Tisserand, R. (2017). Spikenard and sustainability. Retrieved from https://tisserandinstitute.org/spikenard-sustainability/
  12. Mojay, G. (1997). Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils.

© 2021 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.

*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.


    2 replies to "10 Ancient Medicinal Plants in the Bible"

    • gloria

      While I knew about these plants, your information goes into greater detail about them. great info – Thanks

    • Lisa

      Thanks for the great article about medicinal herbs and plants mentioned in the Bible and used throughout the ancient world!

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