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Zawan and Tares in the Bible

Cephalaria syriaca, one of the candidates for tares, in a wheat field near Medaba, Jordan. June 1999.

Lytton John Musselman


Musselman, Lytton John. (Department of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0266). Zawan and tares in the Bible. Economic Botany XXX. Farmers in Jordan and Syria refer to two weeds in wheat fields as zawan in Arabic. These are the segetal weeds, Cephalaria syriaca (L.) Schrad. (Dipsacaceae) and Lolium temulentum L. (Poaceae). The Greek word zizanion in the parable in Matthew 13 is translated variously as tares, darnel, and weed. According to the biblical text, tares must have a life cycle like wheat and easily contaminate wheat seed. To better understand which plant is zawan field and threshing sites in Jordan and Syria were surveyed. Four grain fields and four threshing sites had Cephalaria, one field and one threshing site had Lolium. Early botanical explorers noted C. syriacaas a weed in wheat in Syria. There are few records of C. syriaca as contaminants of grain caches at archeological sites while L. temulentum is common.

Key words: Bible, tares, darnel, Cephalaria syriaca, Lolium temulentum, Syria, Jordan.


Two major grains, wheat (chiefly Triticum aestivum L. and T. durum Desf.) and barley (Hordeum vulgare L.), are mentioned frequently both in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Wheat was the preferred grain because it could be used to make yeast bread. Barley, on the other hand, lacks appreciable gluten so produced less desirable flat bread. For this reason, barley was consistently valued at half the price of wheat (e.g., Musselman and Medema 1993). Today, barley is used almost exclusively for fodder in Jordan and Syria.

The parable of the wheat and the tares is well known. Despite this, there is disagreement over the plant or plants meant by the Greek word zizanion, found only in Matthew 13 where it is variously translated into English as weed, darnel, or tares. In order to understand the context of this hapax legomenon (word used in only one place) and its botanical features, it is essential to consider the text in detail.

Jesus told them another parable: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds zizanion here and throughout] among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared. The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?' 'An enemy did this, ' he replied. The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" Matthew 13: 24-30, New International Version.

Features of tares in this text can be summarized as follows:

1. Tares are associated with wheat, not barley.

2. Tares could be contaminants of wheat seed. This is implied in the seed being "good", i.e., pure, not contaminated with the seeds of the tares. Following on this, the grains of the two must be similar. Modern varieties of wheat can reasonably be assumed to have larger grains than ancient wheats, obfuscating the mimicry of the two different fruits.

3. The life cycle of tares and wheat is synchronous, "Let both grow together…"

4. The farmer instructs the workers to first gather and bind the tares, "First collect the weeds…" The fact that the wheat may be collected or damaged does not imply that the root system of the tares is more entwined with neighboring roots more than any normal weed.

5. At least near maturity, the two plants can be distinguished in the field because the wheat was forming ears when the tares were discovered. We can not determine from the parable if the two plants were distinguishable or indistinguishable when young because it is unclear at which stage they were first noted.

6. No mention is made of tares being poisonous.

In Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria area), there is a well-known proverb which also deals with a weed in wheat. This plant, or guild of plants, is zawan in Arabic. The proverb states: "The zawan of your own country is better than the wheat of strangers." This paper discusses zawan and tares of the Bible.

Candidates for Tares and Zawan

Weeds are mentioned in many places in the Bible (see helpful overview in Moldenke and Moldenke 1952). Few of these are associated with wheat, however. There is one reference in Job 31:40a (King James Version): "Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley." The Hebrew word here is bosh'aw, also found in Isaiah 5 where it is translated as "wild grapes". This plant, at least in the Job passage, has been assumed to be Agrostemma githago L. a toxic member of the Caryophyllaceae. Before modern agriculture it was a common weed in barley in England. I have never seen it in the Middle East where it is considered uncommon according to Zohary (1966). It is therefore highly unlikely that A. githago could be zawan or tares. The inclusion of a weed common in Europe (though not England) is just one example of how European plants were read into the translation by scholars not familiar with the flora of the Holy Land. Other examples include mulberry (Morus) for terebinth (Pistacia) and "lilies" for Anemone coronaria (and probably other showy plants).

A long history of claims for L. temulentum as darnel is in the literature including Anonymous 1980, Moldenke and Moldenke 1952, Hepper 1992, and Zohary 1982. Ancient writers who considered darnel as tares include Ovid, Plautus, and Shakespeare (Leemann 1933).

Lolium is visually indistinguishable from wheat, at least at the youngest stages. It matures at the same time as wheat. The mature grains are about the same size and shape as wheat grains (Fig. 1). Because they are non-shattering, L. temulentum culms are carried intact when the grain is harvested. Further, L. temulentum and other Lolium species are often toxic and known to poison cattle. A classic paper by Freeman (Freeman 1903) identified a fungus as the toxic principle in L. temulentum. These two factors, being a grass and being toxic, made Lolium a fitting plant for tares. Nevertheless, the parable does not require that tares be toxic nor does it imply that wheat and tares must be distinguishable when very young.

On the basis of toxicity and mimicry, many modern students of Bible plants have accepted Lolium temulentum as tares. Prominent among these is Hepper (1992), who states unequivocally that tares are darnel. In spite of this, L. temulentum is not common in present day wheat fields in Jordan and Syria, at least not in the drier wheat-growing regions.

On the other hand, there are records of numerous L. temulentum grains as contaminants in grain caches in Israel (Briend and Humbert 1980) and Egypt (e.g., Vartavan 1999, Samuel 1989) but only a few from Syria (van Zeist and Bakker-Heeres 1982) and Jordan (van Zeist and Heeres.1982)

Lolium remotum Schrank grains have been found in a cache of wheat at an archeological site in Syria (van Zeist and Bakker-Heeres 1982). This species is also segetal and similar to L. temulentum (Charnet and Balfourier 1994) but differ in the size and shape of the grain. Lolium remotum is known as flax rye grass because the grains resemble the seeds of flax (Linum usitatissimum L.), while grains of L. temulentum are similar to caryopses of wheat. The two species have different ranges (Terrell 1968); Lolium temulentum is more or less cosmopolitan while L. remotum is northern. I have seen no specimens of L. remotum from Bilad al-Sham.

Exegesis has strongly influenced the plant chosen for tares in the parable. If the tares are assumed to be those unfit for the Kingdom and therefore evil, a plant which is both a weed and poisonous is attractive. This favors the choide of L. temulentum as tares.

A strong prospect for zawan and another possibility for tares is Cephalaria syriaca. The growth form of C. syriaca is much different from wheat. After a single stem reaches approximately the same height as a wheat plant, it produces four branches at sharp right angles to the main stem (Fig. 2). The fruit is similar to a wheat grain in size and shape. Unlike Lolium, C. syriaca is not toxic (contra Hepper 1992), although it is very bitter.

Zohary (1973) records C. syriaca as one of the most successful weeds in wheat fields in parts of the Middle East because of its stature, phenology, retention of fruits, and the resemblance of the fruit to wheat. In some parts of Turkey, the density of C. syriaca was so great that the wheat was abandoned and the weed harvested for its oil (Zhukovsky in Zohary 1973). Cephalaria syriaca is widespread in the eastern Mediterranean (Verlaque 1985). He (Zohary 1982) says Lolium temulentum is zawan in Arabic and C. syriaca is zawan aswad (black zawan). The farmers I talked with use the term zawan exclusively for both.

This paper discusses two possible candidates for zawan and tares and is based on observations in Jordan and Syria from 1997-1999.


During the growing seasons of 1998 and 1999, wheat and barley fields were surveyed for Cephalaria syriaca and Lolium temulentum in the rain-fed, traditional wheat growing regions near Madaba and Kerak, Jordan; Quneitra, Jebel al Sheik (Mount Hermon), Jebel al Arab (also known as Jebel Druze), and Latakia regions of Syria. Both species flower in May and produce fruits more or less at the same time as wheat.

Threshing sites were examined during July and early August. Because there is no rain during the summer, farmers often thresh their barley, wheat and lentils as much as one month after harvesting. Herbarium specimens were examined at the University of Jordan, Department of Botany; Faculty of Science, University of Damascus; and the Arab Center for Arid Land Research (Damascus).


Cephalaria syriaca was abundant in hand sown fields. These are typically small plots of about 0.10 ha. Mechanically sown areas were free of C. syriaca. Lolium temulentum was abundant in fields in the mountains east of Latakia and at a threshing site at Quneitra, both in Syria.

A survey of herbarium specimens (University of Jordan) turned up two historic collections of C. syriaca. Theodore Kotschy noted "In agris pr. Aleppium frequens" on the label of a specimen collected in May 1841 near Aleppo, Syria. Likewise, Haussknecht's specimen of May 1865 on the Harran plain near the border of Jordan and Syria noted it as being "Inter segetes..."

Much of the grain in Jordan and Syria is still harvested by hand in one of two ways. The first is to cut the grain heads with a sickle or scythe. The second is to pull up the plants if they are to be used for fodder. Obviously, more fodder is available if the entire plant is removed from the soil. Barley is more frequently harvested by pulling because it is used for fodder.

When the grain is harvested by pulling, it is collected and the weeds are left--just the opposite action of the farmer in the parable who deliberately harvests the weeds and leaves the grain. Fields are grazed after the grain is removed. In both methods of harvest the sheaves are piled or bundled to be collected later for threshing.

As recently as the mid-1980's, threshing sledges were used in Jordan and Syria. These are constructed of wood and are ca. 3 m long and 1 m wide with a turned-up end, resembling a toboggan. Embedded in the bottom are metal spikes or sharp rocks. The grain is spread out on an area of flat stones (the "threshing floor" of many Bible passages). A draft animal pulls the sledge, loaded with weights, over the grain. In this way, the non-shattering spikelets of wheat (likely T. durum) as well as L. temulentum would be separated from the culm allowing the tares to be carried to the winnowing process along with the wheat.

This form of threshing would be familiar to the target audience of the Bible both in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 22: 4; Isaiah 28:28) and the New Testament. In the New Testament, Paul mentions it twice in his writings (I Corinthians 9:9 and I Timothy 5: 18) confirming that this procedure was well known. Today, grain is threshed with modern machines.

Threshing machines are transported to piled sheaves. These sites resemble threshing floors formerly used with threshing sledges--flat, solid ground. Abandoned sections of paved road are favored spots.

At the threshing sites I visited, I found Cephalaria syriaca in the piles of wheat but not in the barley. Farmers are aware of C. syriaca (as zawan) and told me that it occurs in wheat only, not barley. Vartavan (1999), on the other hand, notes abundant L. temulentum in Egypt.

Lolium temulentum was observed in wheat fields in the northern part of Syria, in the mountains east of Latakia and at a threshing site near Quneitra. These areas have a higher rainfall than the wheat-growing region of Jordan.


The evidence--association with wheat, synchrony of life cycle ,the name zawan as used by farmers, zawan in an old Arab proverb, could support either C. syriaca or L. temulentum as the tares of the Bible. Perhaps the Greek zizanion can be used for any weed in grain, two of the most serious being Cephalaria syriaca and Lolium temulentum.

Observations presented here raise several questions. If C. syriaca is tares and has been associated with wheat since antiquity, why are few C. syriaca fruits known from archeological sites? As Zeist and Bakker-Heeres (1982) comment, "The conspicuous scarcity of Cephalaria syriaca fruits at Ramad suggests that at the time this species was not yet a troublesome grain-field weed". When did C. syriaca become abundant and what agronomic changes have taken place to favor C. syriaca, at least in drier regions? To understand this might require a study of changes in farming systems and the resultant weed flora.


Field work in Jordan and Syria was conducted from 1997-1999 and supported by a Fulbright award, Damascus University, Aleppo University, and the United States Information Service. I am thankful for use of the facilities of the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. Comments of the reviewers were especially helpful. Dr. Kamal Mohamed provided the Arabic translation of the abstract.

Literature Cited

Anonymous. 1980. Fauna and Flora of the Bible. United Bible Societies: London.

Briend, J. and J. Humbert. 1980. Tell Keisan (1971-1976) une cite phčincienne en Galilee.

Čditions Universitaires: Fribourg, Switzerland.

Charmet, G. and F. Balfourier. 1994. Isozyme variation and species relationships in the genus Lolium L. (ryegrasses, Graminaceae). Theoretical and Applied Genetics 87(6): 641-649.

Freeman, E. M. 1903. The seed-fungus of Lolium temulentum, L., the darnel. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B 196: 1-17.

Hepper, F. N. 1992. Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids.

Leeman, A. C. 1933. A short summary on our botanical knowledge of Lolium temulentum L. Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Industry 1 (1): 192-218.

Moldenke, H. N. and A. L. Moldenke. 1952. Plants of the Bible. Ronald Press: New York.

Musselman, L. J. and H. P. Medema.1993. Van U is ook de Aarde. De zwijgende maar machtige boodschap von planten in het heiligdom. Uitgiverij H. Medema: Vaassen, Netherlands.

Samuel, D. 1989. Their staff of life: Initial investigations on ancient Egyptian bread baking. Chapter 12, pages 253-290 in B. J. Kemp, editor. Amarna Reports V. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.

Terrell, E. E. 1968. A taxonomic revision of the genus Lolium. United States Department of Agriculture Technical Bulletin 1392: 1-65.

van Zeist, W. and J. A. H. Heeres. 1973. Paleobotanical studies from Deir 'Alla, Jordan. Palčorient 1:21-37.

van Zeist, W. and J. A. H. Bakker-Heeres. 1982. Archaeobotanical studies in the Levant I. Neolithic sites in the Damascus Basin: Aswad, Ghoraife, Ramad. Palaeohistoria 24: 165-256.

Vartavan, C. 1999. Hidden Fields of Tutankhamun. London: Tirade Exploration.

Verlaque, R. 1985. Etude biosystematique et phylogenetique des Disacaceae. III. Tribus des Knautieae et des Dipsacaceae. Revue Cytologie Biologie Vegetale-Botanie 8: 171-243.

Zohary, M. 1966. Flora Palaestina. Part One. Text. Equisetaceae to Moringaceae. Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Zohary, M. 1973. Geobotanical Foundations of the Middle East. Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer Verlag.

Zohary, M. 1982. Plants of the Bible. Cambridge: University Press.