Subscribe to SA Forestry magazine now (or renew your subscription) and you could win a signed copy of this awesome book, God’s Trees, by Prof Julian Evans. Julian is a renowned forest scientist and author and deeply spiritual person who tells the story behind the iconic trees that feature in the Bible – some of which are well known in southern Africa. The First Edition of this book was published a few years ago, and such has been the interest that the author has been persuaded to publish a Second Edition.
By sending in your subscription (new or renewing) to SA Forestry (print magazine or PDF version) you will be included in the lucky draw and stand a chance to win this fascinating book. Read the note from the author for more…
Two biblical trees and one intruder in South Africa
By Julian Evans
South Africa is blessed with a diverse flora not least the remarkable Mediterranean enclave rich in endemism around the Cape. But what is perhaps less well known is that some of the trees of the Bible are natives here, and at least two are famous.
The poor man’s fig
Sycomore-fig (Ficus sycomorus) trees, so common in the subtropical parts of Africa and often seen as a roadside tree as you get close to the Kruger Park, are familiar from their large size and their figs hanging on stalks directly from the trunk – cauliflory. Less well known is the fact that the tree the diminutive Zaccheus climbed to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10) was a sycomore-fig. It is the only mention of the species in the New Testament, but it occurs twice in the Old Testament where we read of shepherds and others ‘tending sycomore-fig trees’.
The ‘tending’ shepherds would do the job of cutting into the fig in early autumn and then rubbing in a little olive oil. Over the next few weeks the fruits would mature and become edible and were known as the ‘poor man’s figs’. (Of course, the common fig (F. carica) was and is a widely planted fruit tree throughout the Middle East and beyond.)
So when Zaccheus climbed the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus – and today if you visit Jericho in the West Bank you are taken to a sycomore-fig like the one he might have climbed – he was identifying himself with shepherds. Maybe he was laughed at because shepherds were marginalised in those days as unclean, but Zaccheus was so keen to see Jesus and many of us recall from church or Sunday School the wonderful ending of the story Luke records.
A wood for all seasons
Umbrella thorn (Acacia tortilis) is one of the most widely distributed sub-tropical trees of the semi-desert and desert oases and wadis. Travellers heading north in South Africa will be familiar with its dome or umbrella shaped crown which becomes flat in older trees. It is common in the Middle East and is one of the three acacias that are widespread in the Sinai and Negev deserts through which the children of Israel journeyed to the ‘Promised Land’. The Bible doesn’t distinguish between the three species, but refers frequently to acacias (shittim in Hebrew) as it provided the wood for building the tabernacle, fashioning the tables and the altar, and the many other items for their worship as they moved from place to place.
The chapters in Exodus detailing this (chapters 25–27 and 35-39) refer again and again to using acacia wood. While an obvious point, I am always impressed that this was the wood used because that was what was available where they were i.e. God, through Moses, got his silviculture right – as we would expect!
Both in Israel and throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, just as in South Africa, eucalypts abound. And while not without problems, on the whole what a blessing they have been. They are, of course, exotic introductions from Australia, an unknown continent to the writers of Classical times, biblical or otherwise. So what’s the link?
Eucalypts are members of the myrtaceae family named after the common myrtle (Myrtus communis) which is a biblical shrub. It has scented foliage, just like eucalypts, with glands in its leaves and above all its flowers are delicate, with numerous stamens, and creamy-white, again just like those of most eucalypts. It was a much appreciated shrub or small tree and Isaiah (55:13a) pictures the future of hope like the blossoming of the desert: ‘Instead of the thorn-bush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.’
Professor Julian Evans OBE FICFor is a forest scientist long associated with sustainability research at Usutu in E-swatini (Swaziland). Until recently he chaired the British Forestry Commission’s Expert Committee on Forest Science. His coffee-table book, ‘God’s Trees – Trees, woods and forests in the Bible’ DayOne, Leominster, UK (2018) has just been published in a second edition.
All new subscriptions and renewals received between 10 July 2019 and 9 September 2019 will be entered into a lucky-draw competition. The winner will be announced in the September 2019 issue of SA Forestry.