Clearly distinguishing among thorns, brambles, and thistles in the Scriptures is not easy. All are armed plants, fitted with either thorns (modified branches), spines (modified leaves), or prickles (outgrowths of any plant surface). In general, thistles are more likely to be armed with prickles but even here are exceptions because the term "thistle" is not a well-defined botanical word. See Thistle and Bramble.
Is there any way that we might be able to name plants which the Scriptures refer to as thorns, brambles, or thistles? Perhaps not precisely but certainly the context of the verses can help us. For example, the thornbush in the parable of Jotham (Judges 9:15) is more likely to be Zizyphus spini-christi simply because of the setting in the hills near Shechem where this plant occurs and because of the stature of the plant as a "ruler."
Known in Arabic as sidr or lote, Z. spini-christi is one of the most common trees at lower elevations in Jordan. Trees are evergreen and can be picturesque with a spreading crown. In the Wadi Arabah are some ancient denizens of sidr. Flowers are small, yellow green in color and disk shaped. Unlike many trees, sidr may flower at different times of the year.
The Qur'an speaks of a scene in paradise characterized by choice fruits and fowls. 'Peace! Peace' is the only greeting. Under the shade of thornless sidr trees will the righteous recline. Marks of the curse are removed. This is in contrast to the sharp spines of the sidr tree in our earthly scene. Spines are borne in pairs with one sharply curved, the other straight. Both, however, are sharp!
The fruit is about the size of an olive and has a pleasant taste like an apple. Known in Jordan as nebk, they are sometimes collected and sold. Other species of Ziziphus have larger fruits and are sometimes grown as street trees in Amman.
Of all the trees that are used by honey bees in Jordan, sidr is the most desirable. It is attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that the honey of the sidr tree is the most healthy. Sidr honey is very tasting and brings a high price.
Despite its Latin name, Z. spini-christi (literally, spine of Christ) is probably not the plant used in making the crown of thorns. Rather, the low growing very common shrub Sarcopoterium spinosum is a better choice. This shrub is abundant around Jerusalem because it is one of the most conspicuous elements of the degraded Mediterranean ecosystem in the mountains along the Rift Valley. Zizyphus spini-christi, on the other hand, is more frequent in drier sites and at lower elevations.
Spiny burnet, the "common" name for S. spinosum, forms mound-like growth among the rocks of the degraded batha and garique vegetation in the Middle East. Leaves are deeply divided and fall during the dry season. True thorns are produced; these can be up to 4 inches long. Unisexual and inconspicuous flowers are produced in March and the small fleshy fruits develop in May. They are edible but insipid.
Spiny burnet is a flexible plant and it would be easy to weave a crown out of the plants. (See the article on Wreaths ). Farmers sometimes use the branches for cleaning animal stalls and other applications where a strong yet flexuous kind of broom is needed.