Growing Holy Fruits on Southern Soil
History and Adaptability of the Fruits of the Bible
I find myself drifting off every time fruits are mentioned during the Sunday sermon. Some references make my mouth water such as “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey…” Others, like “And sow the fields, and plant vineyards, which may yield fruits of increase…” encourage me to test my limit in the garden and orchard. I get thrilled enough to see fruits and vegetables from the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello readily growing in our gardens, living history of American giants from centuries past.
The text of the Holy Scriptures is not just centuries old, but has endured many millennia filled with heroes of literal biblical proportion. To see the beauty of pomegranates in bloom, smell the floral aroma of the olive groves in early spring, feel the picked grapes being prepared for the press, and to taste the sweet fig at peak ripeness the way that Noah, Solomon, and Jesus himself experienced excites me to the limit.
Fortunately, much of the greatest food bearing plants grown in ancient Israel can be grown in the Southern United States. However, the difference in climates poses a challenge for some.
Although the Southeastern United States and Israel are at similar latitudes (Jerusalem is at 31.47N, a little further north than the Southern cities: Alexandria, Hattiesburg, Dothan, and Albany), they have a very different climate. The South has a humid subtropical climate, often receiving over 50 inches of rainfall dispersed throughout the year. Israel also has subtropical climate, but its an arid instead of humid one. The Northern half and the coastal region (where most the Bible action takes place) is what ecologist call a Mediterranean climate while the Southern half is arid, mostly deserts.
Mediterranean climates exhibit hot, dry summers and colder, wet winters. This climate is also present in Rome, Greece, and in a place closer to home, California. California’s famous Central Valley has this climate, hence you see much middle-eastern produce such as dates, almonds, and caprifigs growing there. The average annual rainfall for Jerusalem is about 22 inches with most of the rain in the winter, and an average grand total of zero inches of precipitation from June through August.
While average temperatures are comparable, at least in the summer, the South has a wide range of extreme temperatures detrimental to many plants. For example, in my home city, Montgomery, it is not uncommon for a winter night to fall into the teens a couple of times every year and once reached as low as -5°. On the other hand, much of Israel never falls below freezing during most years and Jerusalem has a record low of just 20°.
In the end, rainfall/humidity and extreme low temperatures present the most challenges to the Southern grower. Around the Gulf of Mexico the temperatures are not as extreme, but still present some challenges.
FRUITS OF THE BIBLE
Compiled below are a brief history of fruits mentioned in the Bible and their respective acclimations to the South. I have the list ordered roughly in the frequency mentioned, and hence its relative importance in the biblical era.
The grape and the grape vine is by far the most mentioned fruit in the Bible. Vineyards, the site of grape cultivation, are mentioned throughout the old and new testaments as either places of beauty (King Ahab killed for one), locations of professions, or the basis of parables.
In fact, vineyards are mentioned more than twice as much as grape itself. The Jews processed their bounty by either drying it, to make raisins, or by running the fruits through a winepress to extract the juice. This juice then made the all important wine and vinegar, much needed in a world before pasteurization and water purification.
Most grapes grown in America are a hybrid between the Old World’s renown common grape, vitis viniferai, and a number of disease resistant American grape species, particularly the fox grape (Vitis labrusca). These hybrids are necessary for most of the U.S. because of a number of pests, such as the grape phylloxera. Despite these crosses, very few grape varieties grow in the very Deep South (USDA zone 8 and below) due to a disease spread from weeds to grapes by insects called Pierce’s disease.
Regardless of the common grape’s poor success, another grape, the native muscadine, grows exceptionally well here. Using this native grape, the South continues to develop many fine cultivars and establish quite a few quality vineyards.
The olive is the first tree mentioned after the flood when the dove Noah sent out returned with an olive branch. The Bible regularly mentions the olive and the olive trees in their oliveyards throughout its pages. The Jews greatly prized the olive primarily for its oil. Olive oil, the oil spoken of in the Scriptures, was required for everything including fuel for lamps, medium for cooking and food preparation, preserver for spices, and applicant for anointing and healing.
The garden, Gethsemane, literally means, “oil-press” in Hebrew. The Jews even compared manna, the food of angels, with the taste of fresh oil. Olive trees, themselves, get quite massive, often living thousands of years and providing fruit for many generations and valuable wood for many applications.
Winter lows and rapid temperature extremes presents the most challenge for the Southern olive grower. Olive wood begins to become damaged as temperatures drop into the twenties, particularly following a warm period. Serious damage occurs once temperatures drop into the mid teens, especially over an extended amount of time.
Buying high density type olive trees helps since the olive wood is low to the ground and partially protected by the elements. A couple of good oil varieties to consider are Arbequina, Koroneiki, and Arbosana.
I have these varieties from a Southern Georgia olive oil producer, Georgia Olive Farms, and have kept them in pots for the past couple years, only protecting them when temperatures reached 20°. The have experienced no cold damage. They soon outgrew their pots and now are planted as a hedge near the garden, filled with olives. I would not be surprised to see more olive orchards appear in the near future, especially in the USDA 8b-9a region.
Next to grapes and olives, figs are the most mentioned fruit. Throughout the Bible are references to eating and growing figs. Jesus himself eagerly approached a fig tree in anticipation of its figs, right before cursing it dead after finding none. In Israel, figs ripen from June until the end of the year. The latest figs, often still on the tree once the tree has lost its leaves, were called “green figs” (Song of Solomon 2:13).
Around here those late figs taste terrible but must be palatable in Israel. After the season, the Jews preserved their abundance by drying and flattening the figs into cakes. The fig also had symbolic importance; in conjunction with the grape, the fig was a sign of peace and prosperity from the Lord (1 kings 4:25, Micah 4:4) while their destruction part of judgment (Ps 105:33).
Figs are grouped into caprifigs and edible figs.
Caprifigs bear inedible fruit but are an important pollinator for some edible fig types. A special wasp pollenates the figs by entering the eye (opening at the bottom of the fruit) to lay her eggs which overwinter in. The resulting pollenated fruit has many nutty seeds, as you may notice in your dried California figs.
One class of figs, however, does not have to be pollenated, producing sweet sterile flowers, or “fruits”. Since our winters kill any wasp larva required for pollination, these figs, called common figs, are the only type grown in the South.
The common fig tree grows here, at least in the Deep South, better than any other Mediterranean fruit. The fig has relatively few pests here, aside from an occasional nematode or fungal problem, with temperature principally determining the success of your tree.
Cold temperatures, especially when not fully dormant, damage the tree. Figs are notorious about having spurts of new growth in the fall just before frost. If you can keep this from happening, figs withstand dips into the low teens. I don’t want to jinx it, but my figs have weathered a couple of 10° nights with no problems.
However, they do have limits; If you live in the warmer areas of Tennessee or Virginia (USDA zone 7), I would grow only the hardiest varieties, such as the Celestial fig. Further north than that and I would consider potting.
The Israelites highly esteemed the pomegranate, a symbol fertility and life, for both its beauty and fruits. The images of pomegranates decorated the high priest’s clothing and the temple pillars. The Jews prepared the cultivated fruits in numerous ways, one favorite prepared by pressing the juice into a refreshing drink.
The Deep South enjoys growing pomegranates with relatively few problems. The plant may seem like a newcomer, but it has relished our long summers for over two hundred years, even gracing the landscapes of many Southern mansions as an esteemed and tasty hedge. Much like the fig, the pomegranate reacts poorly to untimely cold spurt in the fall. Once in dormancy, it withstands temperatures to about 7-12°, depending on variety.
Planting the tree in bush form, as with the fig, helps and allows easy pruning should cold damage occur. Humidity also places stress on the tree; plant in an open area with good air circulation for the most fruit. Under the fig, the pomegranate is my favorite Mediterranean plant for its ease of growth and beautiful, delicious fruits. It should be a part of every Southern orchard, particularly USDA zone 8 and southward.
THE DATE PALM
Though the Bible frequently mentions the palm tree, only Joel 1:12 alludes to it as having fruit, though other sources report that the Jews, along with other people in the area, widely used the fruit for food and drink.
The people also boiled down the fruit to make “date honey,” which may be the honey referenced in several passages of Scripture, such as Genesis 43:11. Jericho was nicknamed “the city of palm trees,” and no doubt cultivated the trees.
My father immensely enjoyed eating the fruit fresh while in the Holy Land. I have only tasted the fruits in the dried form, sent in from California, which he said does not taste the same.
You may see the closely related species, the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), growing in coastal areas as an ornamental. This palm gives dates, but their flesh is quite thin around the seed. The date palm of the Scriptures, Phoenix dactylifera, is a little less cold tolerant than that species but survives temperatures to 15°. The Arabs say the date should have “its head in the fire and its roots in the water,” describing the unique conditions it prefers. It does not fruit as well in the humid coastal climate, but may be worth growing if you live in that area (USDA 8b and southward).
About half the references to ‘apples’ in the Bible is the phrase, “apple of my eye,” referring to the pupil of the eye. The majority of the true apple references are in the Song of Solomon. Historians speculate often whether the apple of the Scriptures is the same as what we know it as today.
Israel historically produced small woody apples of poor quality due to the inadequate chill hours the area provides. If you have tried to grow apples in the South, you will understand this problem because we face the same situation. Another fruit, the Quince, is native to the area. Song of Solomon 7:8 refer to the smell of the apples; the quince fruit is very aromatic the statement makes sense.
Any matter, both fruits have some success in the South. If you grow apples, be sure you pick varieties that meet your area’s expected chill hours.
In the 1960s, Israel, incidentally, developed an apple variety that requires merely 250 chill hours. This variety, the ‘Anna’ apple, can even be grown as far south as Florida (a state with chill hours similar to Israel).
Quince trees grew beside many farm houses throughout the 1800s. Like the closely related pear (which grew beside the apple in ancient Greece and throughout Europe), the quince is susceptible to fireblight, which prevails in the humid South. However, with a little care, they can also be successfully grown. I have a classic variety, the ‘Orange’ quince, producing fruit with a strong citrus aroma.
Israel considered the almond a great delicacy since very early in history. During the famine, Isaac sent to Egypt the “best fruits in the land,” including almonds (and pistachios, see below). Like the pomegranate, the almond is a tree of beauty, blooming into a striking white tree during the drab days of January. The Israelites glorified this beauty and used its image to decorate articles for the temple.
Growing fruit from this Mediterranean native can be difficult because it is tender to late frosts and prefers dry summers. An almond variety, ‘Hall’s Hardy’, is, well, hardy, and does pretty fair here. Of course, like the closely related peach, the almond requires regular spraying regimens to keep disease from stressing it.
THE PISTACHIO, WALNUT AND HAZELNUT
The Bible makes two references to “nuts,” one in Genesis 43:11 and another in Song of Solomon 6:11. The former is from the Hebrew word “botnim,” commonly taken as pistachio nut, and the latter from “egoz,” meaning walnut. The pistachio nut, Pistacia vera, is native to the region and considered a delicacy. The walnut, commonly called the English, Carpathian, or Persian walnut (Juglans regia), was widely planted throughout the Mediterranean by the time of Solomon.
The Bible also mentions the hazelnut in Genesis 30:37. There, the hazel (Corylus avellana) is only referenced for its wood but the people of the region no doubt consumed the nuts. The “chesnut” is also mentioned with the hazel, but this tree is likely not the nut tree we know and love but an unrelated tree, the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis).
Pistachios thrive in dry, hot climates. The majority of commercial pistachios come from the America West, particularly the deserts of southern California. Humid and wet summers adversely affects pistachios, causing the fruits to be sparse and small.
The English walnut is much more promising to at least some areas of the South. Compared to our beloved native black walnuts, Juglans nigra, the English walnut is not as cold tolerant, slower growing, likes well drained instead of very moist soils, and has much larger nuts. The English walnuts, as could be expected, do not like extreme temperatures, above 100° or below 12°. Alabama A&M reports the walnut contracts a deadly soil-born virus in the Gulf States, and is not recommended for that reason. However, if you live elsewhere in the South, the tree should be successful.
The American Hazelnut, C. americana, is the native version of the common hazelnut and grows well in the Northeast down to the north Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia (zone 7). The common hazelnut of the bible also grows in this area but has little resistance to the American disease, eastern filbert blight.
Historians speculate whether the mulberry mentioned in the Old Testament is what we know as the mulberry today. To further confuse matters, the sycamine, mentioned by Jesus in Luke 17:6, is indeed considered to be the native black mulberry (Morus nigra). No matter, the Jews definitely enjoyed mulberries in biblical times.
Like Israel, we have our own indigenous mulberry, the red mulberry (M. rubra). The red mulberry readily grows throughout the Southeast and make a delightful treat when found. The black mulberry is very similar to our species, but reportedly produces fruit slightly superior in flavor (and very superior in flavor to China’s white mulberry [M. alba]). The black mulberry grows quite well here, as witnessed by its fairly frequent landscape use in the city, but probably not as well as other mulberry species for the fact that it is rarely seen growing wild like the red and white mulberry species.
Those who participated Sunday school as a child might recall the catchy tune, “Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycomore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.”
The Sycomore, a larger species of fig, served as an important food source to ancient Middle Easterners. Egypt greatly esteemed and cultivated the fruit as a major food. One of the prophet Amos’ professions was “a gatherer of sycomore fruit.” His duty included slashing the fruit to drain the sour juices and make them larger and more edible.
Israel, however, esteemed the wood of the sycomore greater than its fruit. The tree filled the valleys and grew along the coast and was harvested for its light and very durable wood.
I always assumed the sycomore of the Scripture, Figus sycomorus, was similar to the sycamore grown in the states, Platanus occidentalis, and not a giant fig producing tree! As for growing your own sycomore, well, it is not a good sign when you have never even seen the tree in the U.S.! The fig is an evergreen tropical plant, only growing in as far North as Israel because of the temperate effects from the Mediterranean. Even if you did manage to smuggle the tree back home and keep it alive, it could not produce fruit without the pollenating wasp, like many other figs. Though you may never taste the fruit, it is still food for thought.
Though not found by name in the scriptures, the thorny scrub grows quite readily in Israel and its crisp sweet fruits are valued by the people. The jujube (Ziziphus jujuba) or a related species (Z. spina-christi) could also be implicated in less honorable biblical events including its use for the “crown of thorns” and the tree itself to hang Judas the traitor in.
Jujube plants grow fairly well here in the Deep South, with fireblight being the main concern. However, once established they can require little maintenance, testified by occasionally finding them still growing at old and overgrown farmhouses.