February in Northern California is a pretty good month for romance.
It's raining. Good time to build a fire and snuggle under a blanket. Rolling blackouts mean gazing at each other by candlelight. And hey, with no juice to power up "Survivor" II, how about the two of you escape to a fantasy of lush flora and flowery phrases? Grab a copy of the Song of Songs and read to each other:
"I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters" (Song of Songs 2:1-2).
If you plan ahead, you can even surround your sweetheart with these very lilies. More romantic than roses, if you consider the pure poetry of them. And they're blooming right now. You can pick them up at your local nursery, florist or grocery store. If you were clever, last fall you bought some bulbs, refrigerated them for six weeks and planted them in your garden.
Which is not necessarily what Solomon did. The lily in these two verses probably wasn't the lily we know today. Definitely it was not the sweet-smelling lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majalis, that sends out tiny stalks of white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, according to Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. The authors of "Plants of the Bible," they say this plant simply didn't grow in the ancient land of the Israelites.
The authors maintain the particular lily mentioned by the Jewish king in his love letters was more likely a garden hyacinth. "Hyacinthus orientalis," they write, "is indigenous and very common in fields and rocky places in Palestine, Lebanon, and northward. Its flowers in the wild form are always deep blue and very fragrant. In the springtime some hillsides in Galilee are literally covered blue with the fragrant, exquisite blooms."
Sunset Western Garden Book describes the plant as growing to 1 foot tall with fragrant bell-shaped flowers in white, pale blue and purple blue. Dutch hyacinths are "derived from H. orientalis by breeding and selection…in white, shades of blue, purple, pink, red, cream, buff and salmon."
One 6-inch pot containing three flowering bulbs will perfume a room shared by you and your rose-by-any-other-name.
The lily is easier to duplicate than the rose of Sharon in Song of Songs, unless you conclude, along with Israeli botanist Michael Zahore, that it is the Lilium candidum, commonly known as the Madonna or Casablanca lily and available from florists. Tova Matatyaou of Tova's Flowers in Sunnyvale says brides like the big, white fragrant blossom in bouquets.
The Moldenkes, however, think Solomon's rose of Sharon is a tulip, either Tulipa montana, common in the mountainous regions of Syria and Lebanon, or its close relative, Tulipa sharonensis, found in sandy places on the Sharon coastal plain. Both are unavailable commercially.
And to further the confusion, somebody in the horticultural world decided to name Hibiscus syriacus the rose of Sharon, and it grows in Bay Area gardens. Sunset lists many varieties in colors from pure white to magenta. Tropical-looking flowers are 2-1/2 to 3 inches across. But the Moldenkes emphasize it is a "native of eastern Asia, not of Syria as its name would lead us to assume…Since trade had certainly not been established yet with China in Biblical days, this plant cannot possibly have had any connection with the 'rose of Sharon' or any other 'rose' of the Scriptures."
Nancy Swearengen, program coordinator at U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden, uses Zahore's book as a reference guide in her work. She explains why there frequently is no consensus among scholars studying biblical flora.
"When you go through a wealth of different translations, it's really tough to be authoritative," she says. She likens the task to the game of telephone, where a message is whispered to one person who whispers it to the next person and on and on down the line until the final version bears little resemblance to the original. Similarly, scholars are dealing with centuries worth of biblical translations in many different languages.
Because Zahore — who won the Weizmann Prize in biology — knew both Hebrew and Arabic, Swearengen says, if "he couldn't get through the etymology of Hebrew and get to a reasonable botanical description, he went to the Arabic population and found a lot of stuff that way."
Sometimes, though, even after years of study, scholars would find things not making sense.
"You have to consider the lands where the Bible was written," Swearengen says, "dry, Mediterranean territory." The hothouse flowers we're accustomed to seeing in the florist trade can't compare to what was flourishing in the Holy Land thousands of years ago.
Take the Madonna lily, for example. The hot dry summers of Israel today "do not suit the growth requirements and the late-summer blooming habit of this lily," write the Moldenkes, "so it has been long since exterminated everywhere save in the cool wet limesinks where Naftolsky discovered it."
The authors are referring to a plant collector, who, on a field trip with students from Hebrew University in 1925, found "a genuinely wild plant of Lilium candidum in a deep moist limesink at the northern edge of Palestine. The following year, ten more plants, a few with inflorescences, were found in this same locality," they write.
Having firmly established the possibility of its existence in Solomon's time, the Moldenkes conclude Lilium candidum may be the "lily" referred to in Song 6:2:
"My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies."
Hyacinths, they say, were common lilies. "Only a cultivated lily of outstanding beauty would be found in such a specialized garden as was possessed by the wealthy and powerful Solomon."
With that in mind, how much do you think you could "say with flowers" if you brought home a bouquet of pure white lilies to your beloved?
Save that thought for March.
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