Thistles, Thorns, and Nettles

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. —Isaiah 34:13

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? —Matthew 7:16

Thistles—thorny weeds that thrive in uncultivated places—are symbolic in the Scriptures of slothfulness, lack of productivity, and irritation. Modern travelers in the Holy Land are well acquainted with the many kinds of prickly plants (over 125) that grow there now. There were many in Biblical days, too, and every wayfarer must have been familiar with the thorns that often obstructed the way. Biblical botanists believe that the common star thistle (Centaurea calcitrapa) was one of the most prominent of these irritating plants.

Biblical commentators agree that the plant we call “Crown of Thorns” (Euphorbia splendens) is not the plant from which the soldiers fashioned a crown for Jesus. Crown of Thorns is a native of Madagascar and did not grow in Palestine in Biblical times. Most likely, the crown was made of Paliurus spina-Christi—Christ’s Thorn (sometimes called Jerusalem Thorn)—a small tree or spiny shrub. The young branches of this plant are pliable and might easily be shaped into a wreath or crown.

The nettle found in the Holy Land (Urtica dioica) is the same stinging plant that has become naturalized throughout the northern part of our country. If you unwittingly walk through a patch of nettle, it is a painful irritatant. But the plant is a rich source of iron, magnesium, and other valuable nutrients. The dried herb has a pleasant saline taste and makes an interesting addition to soups and stews, and the young leaves can be cooked as a potherb. Nettle has been used as a medicinal and–more importantly–as a fiber plant, like flax.