Regular readers will know that somewhere south of Halloween I started to look at the lore surrounding the God Wood Tree (Bursera simaruba aka Birch Gum) which Zora Neale Hurston encountered when she spent time researching the folklore of the Accompong Maroons. Hurston stated that the tree as so-called because it was “the first tree that ever was made. It is the original tree of good and evil.”
I found this intriguing as based on the Biblical description in Genesis and depictions I’d seen of the Garden of Eden, I’ve always assumed that the original Tree of Good and Evil was either the apple or the fig. In my Good News Bible, Genesis 3, v. 7, once Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:
“they were given understanding and realized that they were naked: so they sowed fig leaves together and covered themselves.”
However, as the Good News Bible never actually names the fruit produced by the tree of Knowledge, it appears that the fig was just a suitable provider of clothing rather than necessarily being the producer of the fruit forbidden by God.
The other contender which features in much Western art is the apple. Carolyn Roth points out in her blog on plants of the Bible, that the Latin name for the domestic apple tree is Malus domestica whilst malus is the Latin word for “evil” or “unlawful”. As for many centuries the Bible was written in Latin, the two forms of malus may have become linked in people’s minds.
After reading Hurston, I started to wonder which other plants had been suggested as the Biblical tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It turns out there are quite a few ranging from pears, pomegranates and even mushrooms!
One intriguing candidate, although strictly speaking not a tree, is the banana (genus Musa). This idea appears to have developed from early medieval Christian and Islamic beliefs which posited that the Biblical Tree of Knowledge was the banana plant. This theory continued to have an influence down the centuries. In the Dictionary of Plant Lore, Donald Watts writes that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the banana was “a candidate for the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ For example, writing at the end of the 16th century, the English herbalist John Gerard called the banana “Adam’s Apple Tree”. Carl Linnaeus the 18th century Swedish botanist also believed this as he felt that banana leaves would have provided a more suitable amount of coverage with which Adam and Eve could hide their nakedness than the more traditionally muted fig leaf.
Trying to find out exactly what kind of plant the Tree of Knowledge was is an impossible task, especially as the Tree and the story of man’s Fall are most likely symbolic or allegorical. Nevertheless, I can understand why believers have tried to work out the exact species of tree as grounding the Genesis account in physical reality is one means of proving its veracity.
Next time… Nature and Supernatural Nature leaves Eden for Jamaica but still gets figgy!
Sources (in order of appearance in text)
Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938), p. 26.
Good News Bible: Today’s English Version (London: Collins/Fontana, 1976), p. 6.
God as a Gardener blog edited by Carolyn Roth – https://godasagardener.com
D. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore (Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Academic Press 2007), p. 22.
John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants (London: John Norton, 1597). p. 1332.
Image credit no. 1: apple charm by H.R. Sparkes
Image credit no. 2: Banana – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banana_1.png from Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia