Biblical plant names (and life) can be confusing, depending on your perspective
Scary to see someone you love labeled as sick, isn’t it? The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. However, after 5 days in the hospital with a family member who I almost lost, I’m back out in my garden, thankful for the abundance of life around me and recognizing its incredible fragility. What I labeled as “healthy” was not at all; it was illness incognito. I’ll not take wellness in myself or those I love for granted again. At least I pray I do not.
On a walk last night, this little rain lily was peaking out from between the stacked moss rock and curb at a neighbor’s house. It’s one of the bulbs Chris Wiesinger and I featured in our book HEIRLOOM BULBS FOR TODAY. A stalwart Texas native, this lab-coat white bloom is at home in any garden. While I was oblivious to changes in weather outside the hospital windows, a place of sameness no matter what the clock says, the tiny bulb sensed moisture from a rainstorm passing through town, responding with a hearty yawning bloom, slightly fragrant and completely beautiful.
Another favorite I discovered as I wandered the streets at dusk is a shrub called althea, known to me growing up as “rose-of-sharon.” As with many plants, that common name is not only inaccurate, it is misleading. First of all, althea is not a rose; it’s in the same family as cotton and marshmallow. The Latin name is Hibiscus syriacus and it’s a native of Asia. Don’t think it has much to do with sharon either, which refers to the Plain of Sharon spoken of in Old Testament literature, an area that runs along the Mediterranean between present-day Haifa to the north and Tel Aviv to the south.
While I’m on this tangent, the true “lily of the valley” plant spoken of in the Bible – according to Jewish scholars – is the yellow, fall-blooming Sternbergia lutea – native to Israel, not the white nodding perennial found in the Appalachians and in cool areas of Europe and Asia. Apparently King James’ translators took liberties with the Hebrew word for flower bulb, turning it into “lily” in the Anglicized translation of the Bible from the early 1600’s, which many believe was done in an effort to appease the Puritan faction within the Church of England. Sternbergia might not have been known in England at the time, or maybe the many Christian legends associated with Convallaria majalis – the plant Europeans and Americans call “lily of the valley – prompted its association with this common name instead. (The tiny white blooms are said to be the tears of Jesus’ mother when she saw her son on the cross of Calvary. It’s also the symbol of humility in the language of flowers.)
My week has given me perspective on many things, recognizing that while labels might help distinguish or describe, they are not stagnant. My idea of “sick” was disguised in a seemingly healthy body, a deadly infection masked in a way only my loved one heard in the pain shooting through his body. Names vary and change, depending on who you are, where you are, and when you are there. Plants and people receive titles according to the labelers perspective. Confusing to one may explain it all to another, or could lead everyone down the wrong path entirely. c: