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Bringing Biblical Plants Back to Israel

Frankincense and myrrh, best known as part of the Christmas story, are part of a botanical revival aimed at restoring lost species of plants

Sara Toth Stub
December 23, 2019
Photo: Sara Toth Stub
Guy Erlich with plants on his spice farm Photo: Sara Toth Stub
Photo: Sara Toth Stub
Guy Erlich with plants on his spice farm Photo: Sara Toth Stub

On the side of the highway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Guy Erlich wandered between rows of frankincense trees and myrrh bushes. Here, in the sandy and salty soil next to a gas station, Erlich has spent the last decade cultivating biblical plants, many of which have not been grown in the Holy Land for centuries. He plucked a few green berries off one of the 20,000 plants that cover his 2-acre Balm of Gilead Farm, and handed them to me.

“This is the true frankincense,” he said, encouraging me to chew on the berries, which have a very bitter and slightly piney taste. Mentioned in the Bible as one ingredient in the Temple incense—and in the Christmas story as one of the gifts that the Three Magi brought to baby Jesus—frankincense is something few modern Western Christians or Jews have ever seen or touched.

“These plants are part of our tradition, but they were lost, so hardly anyone knows what they really are,” said Erlich, whose hat, clothing, and boots were covered in dust from a long day spent among his plants in the desert. “I am trying to change that.”

Erlich is one of a small but growing number of people in Israel today researching and growing biblical-era plants, bringing back lost species and trying to revive what they say was once a thriving tradition of medicinal and holy botany in Judaism. With online stores and visitor centers, these biblical gardeners are also trying to reach more locals and tourists.

“These plants are part of our roots,” said Tova Dickstein, curator of the botanical garden at Neot Kedumim, a Biblical Landscape Reserve in central Israel, popular with both Jewish and Christian visitors. “So it makes sense that we try to preserve them and their uses, and teach people about them.”

About 10 years ago, Erlich, along with his wife and three children, sold their apartment in Jerusalem and moved to Kibbutz Almog, a West Bank settlement near the Dead Sea, in search of a slower and quieter life. Erlich, who had worked mainly as a journalist, was also looking for a new business idea. Shortly after the move, the family visited the nearby Einot Tzukim nature reserve, where he was intrigued by the ruins of a 2,000-year-old perfume factory and the story of an aromatic and medicinal plant called balsamon that once grew around the Dead Sea. Referred to by many names, including the balm of Gilead, these plants show up in the Bible. They also spared the Jewish community of Ein Gedi from destruction by the Romans in the first century CE due to that community’s ability to harvest these valuable plants. They were so important to the ancient economy that they are illustrated along the Dead Sea on the famous Madaba map, a sixth-century mosaic map on a church floor in Jordan. But, like many such plants, they disappeared from the area in the Middle Ages, a time of many wars and upheaval.

“I decided then that I would bring this plant back to the shores of the Dead Sea,” Erlich said. After scouring the internet for a place to buy balm of Gilead plants, which today grow in the wild only in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, Erlich was surprised to discover a local source of the plant: For a few years, Elaine Soloway, a researcher at the Arava Institute on Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat, had been growing and studying a small number of the plants, which she got from a plant collector who had gotten them from a garden in Oman. She gave Erlich a few plants, which he started growing in pots outside his new home.

“I was afraid I would kill them, but they were patient with me,” he recalled, and they grew large enough to transfer to the ground. Soloway also gave him some frankincense and myrrh—which also haven’t been grown widely in Israel since the Middle Ages. Erlich has added others from other collectors based abroad, enduring Israel’s tedious agricultural imports bureaucracy. “I thought, why should I stop with one kind of plant?” he said with a smile.

After accumulating hundreds of plants, he needed more space, and managed to buy the nearby plot of land where his farm is based today. At first, he hand watered his plants with a water tank he hauled in with his truck from a supplier in nearby Jericho. Then, after more bureaucracy, he got a connection from Mekorot, the national water company. Now, hundreds of meters of plastic piping punctuated with small holes—a drip irrigation system—snakes among thousands of plants, sustaining them in the dry desert. “I’ve now become an obsessive collector of plants,” Erlich said.

Soloway is amazed at how someone with no farming or botany background has managed to grow so many plants, many of which, including frankincense, are endangered in places where they grow wildly. “He has taken a really nasty piece of desert and turned it into a garden,” she said.

Erlich also taught himself how to derive essential oils from the plants, making perfumes, balm, and incense from some of the plants, which he sells in an online store.

Along with a local beekeeper, he recently finished the second batch of a unique honey made from bees raised on frankincense, a product that fetched nearly $500 a pound. But Erlich also faces mounting water bills, little interest from potential investors, and relatively slow sales of his products. His online store features an option to support him by doing things like buying a year’s worth of water and support for a frankincense tree for $360. He admits that his family has suffered economically due to his passion. “In many ways they are a victim of this,” he said. Recently, he took on additional work harvesting dates at a nearby farm to make more income. But he is also optimistic that the business will eventually take off and become profitable: “This is just the beginning,” he said. “There is a lot of potential here.”

Recently, he has begun to focus more on tourism, showing people around his field, then doing a demonstration on how to make incense. Inside a clay pot of hot, burning coals, he burns small branches of a variety of plants, then adds the crushed resin of frankincense and myrrh, creating a spicy but soothing aroma. Participants also enjoy cuts of tea made with his herbs in a small hut that the Jewish National Fund built for him to provide shelter from the beating sun.

He dreams about an air-conditioned visitor center, and about working with Palestinian and Jordanian partners, but knows that due to his location in the contested West Bank, such cooperation and investment is currently unlikely.

Others who work with biblical and ancient plants in Israel also feel they are struggling for relevancy and attention. Because the revival of such plants is still new, many people don’t really know about it, Dickstein said. “We are competing with things like Masada, or where Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee,” she said. She has found that culinary uses of such plants have attracted attention, as Israel’s cuisine has gained increased notoriety recently. A new monthly biblical cooking class she runs has filled up quickly, mainly with secular Israeli Jews.

“Food is a way for people to be tied to their roots without having to be tied to religion,” Dickstein said. “It’s also popular because it’s healthy and local—two trends now.”

Meanwhile, Soloway is trying to revive interest in the medicinal properties of some of these ancient plants, saying that local Jews, like other cultures in the area, once had a strong tradition of using plants for healing. But she is struggling to find funding for such projects, including for a garden she wants to start dedicated to biblical plants that can help cancer. Recent research in the field of alternative medicine has shown that balm of Gilead, frankincense, and myrrh can possibly help inhibit the growth of tumors, although such uses are not mainstream. “This is a neglected area of research,” she said.

Zohar Amar, a professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan who studies ancient plants from the region, said that although he believes such plants have enormous medical potential, it is difficult to study them according to modern standards of science, which requires identifying specific active ingredients and taking potential treatments through long and expensive government-approval processes. Modern scientific studies also do not usually include or value the history and ancient stories behind the plants, Amar said: “So we are losing centuries of medical experience and heritage.”

One enthusiastic supporter of Erlich’s project is the Temple Institute, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization dedicated to education about the Temples and preparing to build a third one. Erlich said he recently agreed to the organization’s request to provide frankincense, myrrh, and balsamon for the next temple. “I’m the official supplier of incense for the third Temple,” he said with a smile.

Erlich, who is not religious, never expected to be cooperating with such controversial Temple activists, who also controversially advocate visiting Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, currently the site of two prominent mosques. He says he does not really believe in building another Temple, but is happy to work with anyone who is interested in the plants. “If I can spread light with these plants,” he said, “that will be my Temple.”

Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.