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WAS THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT REALLY AN APRICOT?

In 1985, Lytton Musselman began gathering material for a book he had long wanted to prepare on the plants of the holy lands. This month, his hardback and extensively illustrated "Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran" was published by Timber Press.

"It seems so long ago when I started on this," said Musselman, the Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University.

"I was brought up in a home with a high regard for the Bible," he added. "It is a shaping influence on my background and development. In addition, I love plants. This book is a conflation of two loves."

Musselman said his opportunities to live and do research in several countries of the holy lands during the last two decades enriched his chapters about the 100 plants that are mentioned in the Old Testament and New Testament, including the Apocrypha, as well as in the Quran.

The book ($25, 336 pages and with 250 photos, mostly taken by Musselman) has an introduction by Garrison Keillor, the humorist and creator and host of "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Keillor notes that his upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren church was a "rather arid" experience that left him thinking of the Biblical lands more in terms of cactuses than fruit trees. "Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh" shows these lands to be more lush, writes Keillor, who is a longtime friend of Musselman.

There are 81 chapters in the book, covering well-known edibles-capers, cucumbers, garlic, lentils, olives, walnuts, watermelon and, of course, figs and dates-as well as more exotic plants-calamus, galbanum, ladanum, nard and sycomore (not to be confused with sycamore).

Many chapters clear up references in the holy books that may confuse modern readers. Musselmen, for example, notes that the sycomore fig tree, and not a sycamore, seems likely to be the tree that Zacchaeus climbed in order to get a better look at Jesus. The author also makes a case for the apricot, and not the apple, being the fruit with which Eve tempted Adam.

Keillor takes exception in his introduction to this last bit of botanical sleuthing. "After a lifetime of biting into apples and imagining them to be forbidden fruit and therefore all the more delicious, I find it hard to transfer this to a smaller fruit…. This is a matter for further prayer, Brother Musselman."

Musselman has received three Fulbright awards, allowing him to teach at institutions such as the University of Jordan, and he has been a visiting professor at Aleppo University in Syria and the American University in Beirut. He is the author of "Jordan in Bloom" (2000), which was commissioned by Jordan's Queen Rania Al-Abdullah.

This article was posted on: November 28, 2007

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