Let's identify some of the plants in King Solomon's flowery poetry.
No one knows for sure whether the Biblical book Song of Solomon was literally true or only meant to be a collection of poems. The latter could explain why the hero varies from king to shepherd! At any rate, the most cynical of us suspect that a man who had hundreds of wives and concubines couldn’t know much about true love.
The Song's Poet
Due to King Solomon’s mostly peaceful reign, he had time to indulge in a number of hobbies besides getting married—including the designing of gardens mentioned in Ecclesiastes. So poetry may just have been one of his avocations, as it apparently was for his father, David, also.
Perhaps a man who made most of his marriages for reasons of political convenience found himself hankering after a more pastoral romance, such as that between a vinedresser and a shepherd. Whether these particular love poems are true or not, we gardeners can appreciate the fact that they are embellished with flowery references to plants and trees, most of them fragrant.
The Song's Plants
Although the identity of some, such as figs and grapes, is pretty obvious, others require interpretation. There is little agreement on what the rose of Sharon, lily of the valley, and apple mentioned actually were, none of the plants we know by those names actually being native to the Holy Land. But Biblical scholars do appear to have come to consensus on some of the others.
For example, spikenard is believed to have been Nardostachys jatamansi, kin to the plant we know as valerian. Possibly hardy to USDA zone 6, native to the Himalayas and now endangered, spikenard makes clusters of pink flowers. However, its rhizomes are the part most used in the production of nard oil.
Camphire apparently was a more poetic name for henna (Lawsonia alba or inermis). A shrub or small tree hardy only to zones 10 through 12, it bears fragrant clusters of tiny white or pink flowers such as the enlarged one shown above. Its dried and ground leaves are the source for the reddish dye often used to tint hair and with which Middle Eastern women occasionally paint elaborate designs on their skin.
Since aloes is mentioned in conjunction with fragrant plants, scholars believe it isn’t likely to be our modern Aloe vera, but perhaps Aquilaria malaccenis instead. Also known as aloes wood and eagle’s wood and only hardy to USDA zones 10 through 12, this now endangered tree--native to eastern Asia--produces the agarwood often used in perfumes and incense. Its clusters of greenish or yellowish-white flowers are followed by furry egg-shaped fruits.
Calamus (Acorus calamus), pictured above, is one of Solomon’s plants that those of us in northern climes could actually grow (in USDA zones 4 through 11). Although similar in appearance to the water-loving irises also known as flags, the sweet flag produces only tiny greenish blooms on spadixes, so it is mostly grown for its fragrance and ability to tolerate wet conditions.
Related to the deadly nightshade, the mandrake plant shown below (Mandragora officinarum) forms a crinkly rosette of leaves in USDA zones 8 through 10. Its violet flowers are followed by green fruits which eventually turn golden and fragrant. Despite that pretty picture, all parts of the plant are supposed to be toxic, so how it got its Old Testament reputation as a fertility enhancer remains a mystery!
The Song's Poetry
Many of the metaphors in the Song of Solomon don't do much for us today. I, for one, would not be complimented by my hair being compared to a flock of goats! But one of the reasons the book remains popular is for the following spot-on description: "for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. . ."
Another unforgettable passage is the Song's description of spring, which we all are craving just now: “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come. . .”
Photos: The henna photo is by chantell, the calamus photo by RVWE, and the mandrake photo by scirpidiella, all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.