Friday, September 10, 2010

Balsam Plants Living Again at En Gedi

A few years ago, scientists succeeded in raising a date palm tree from a 2,000-year-old seed found at Masada.  Now botanists are attempting to revive the balsam plant.  From an article published last week in Haaretz:

Saplings of the balsam plant that have been cultivated in Kibbutz Ein Gedi's botanical garden for the past two years are a first test of the possibility of bringing the legendary bush, which flourished in the Second Temple period, back to the Dead Sea region, two scholars told a Jerusalem audience yesterday.

Speaking at a conference organized by the Elad association in Jerusalem's City of David, Prof. Zohar Amar and Dr. David Iluz of Bar-Ilan University described their research into the plant's identity.

Since the 1970s, there have been several failed attempts to acclimate the plant believed to be balsam, one of ancient Palestine's most economically significant plants, to modern-day Israel. But the staff of Ein Gedi's botanical garden are optimistic that the current effort will succeed.

The plant is mentioned dozens of times in ancient sources, from the Bible to the Talmud, as well as in Greek and Roman writings. The most prestigious perfume known in the ancient Near East was produced from it, and it was also known for its healing qualities.

The balsam plantations in the Dead Sea area were under direct royal control, and the methods of cultivation and production were a closely guarded secret and a powerful political tool. For example, the balsam groves in Jericho became a bone of contention between Cleopatra of Egypt and Herod the Great. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in the second century CE, Jewish fighters uprooted the plants so they would not be captured by the Romans.

The story continues here.  There is quite a bit of variety in the translations for balsam, but you may recall some of these:

Genesis 37:25 (HCSB) Then they sat down to eat a meal. They looked up, and there was a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead.  Their camels were carrying aromatic gum, balsam, and resin, going down to Egypt. 

2 Samuel 5:23 (NIV) so David inquired of the Lord, and he answered, “Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees.

Song of Solomon 5:13 (NAS) 
“His cheeks are like a bed of balsam,
Banks of sweet-scented herbs;
His lips are lilies
Dripping with liquid myrrh.

HT: Joe Lauer

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