In his famous Parable of the Sower, Jesus referred to seed sown in soil that was full of thistles (Matt 13:7; Mark 4:7; Luke 8:7). What did these thistles look like, and how did they succeed in choking the grain plants?
A view of the fields and hillside terraces in Israel on a hot summer day could reveal two prevalent residents: stones and thistles. An old Jewish fable apprises that ninety percent of the world’s stone was dropped on Israel during creation. A close competitor to that ninety percent of stone is the percent of thorny plants. Some sources claim there are approximately two hundred species of such plants in Israel. Surely there are many more than that!
Stones and Thistles
How appropriate it is that stones and thorny plants are mentioned so often in the Scriptures! How appropriate it is that Jesus mentions them in his parable teaching! In the Parable of the Sower—or of the “Good Soil,” or of the “Seeds”—he includes both stone and thistles. Together with birds, they are enemies of the harvest.
As part of a series on Gospel flora, this article concentrates on the thistle. Yes, thistles! Most translations insist on using the word “thorns” for the Greek (akantha) found in Gospel passages. As mentioned in my article, “Beating the (Thorny) Bushes,” both Greek and English translators of the Scriptures have had a great deal of trouble in identifying thorny plants of Israel. There are at least twenty Hebrew words in the Hebrew Scriptures that refer to thorny plants.
Parable of the Sower
In the Parable of the Sower, the word “thistles” seems to fit best. It is gratifying to see that some translators agree. The Good News According to Matthew (H. Einspruch), The Four Gospels (E. V. Rieu) and The New English Bible are a few translations that read “thistles.” Rieu’s rendering of Luke 8:7 is especially noteworthy: “Other seed fell in among the thistles, which came up at the same time and smothered it.”
Grain is sown in Israel around the time of Sukkot (Tabernacles) when the early rains are expected. It sprouts in the rainy winter and grows through spring. Barley ripens first and is harvested at Pesah (Passover). Wheat matures in summer and is harvested around the time of Shavuot (Pentecost).
Thistles have a similar growing season. In early winter, annual species sprout from seeds dispersed in the past summer, and perennials spring up anew from roots remaining in the ground after the upper growth has dried in the fall and been broken down by the early winter rains. As any gardener knows, robust weeds grow more quickly than cultivated seed. The thistles start with a rosette of leaves close to the ground. These lower leaves grow large and broad. Anything beneath them is deprived of air and sunlight in the smothering darkness. So it is with grain sown among thistle seeds and roots. And so it is with the word of God when overgrown by the cares, riches and pleasures of life, as Jesus explains his parable in Luke 8:14.
The Curse of Thistles
No doubt Second Temple-period farmers knew well the problem of thistles, the curse in Genesis 3:18. It was a constant battle. The farmers’ simple plows only encouraged the widely dispersed seeds and failed to dig up the tenacious roots. Late summer burning of the dry thistles was just that—too late. Fields left to lie fallow can be taken over by thistles in a year or two.
However, thistles are not totally undesirable. They do make effective, though temporary, fences. And they are edible; the artichoke is a cultivated relative. Thistle stalks can be peeled and eaten like celery. Young leaves of the thistle rosettes still are used in salads and as potherbs in the Middle East. They are thought to have been the “bitter herbs” of Passover, as by then the leaves have lost their mild taste and tenderness. But a loaf of hot, crusty bread is much preferred to a pot of bitter herbs. Who would be inclined to pray, “Give us this day our daily thistle!”
Thistles are a member of the Composite (Compositae) family, one of the largest families of plants. From the more than 1,000 species of thistles on earth, the field can be narrowed quickly to the 125 claimed to grow in Israel. Those may be limited to the ones known for their propensity to grow in the fields and terraces of Galilee and the Judean Shephelah foothills. These were major grain-growing areas of Jesus’ ministry. The following species are some of the most common and represent seven distinct genera.
This outspreading plant reaches from four to seven feet in height. Its stalks are the first to rise from the rosette in early spring and soon are topped by large purple or white flower heads. The broad, dark-green leaves are marked by white blotches. These are accounted for by a fable that some of Mary’s milk dropped on its leaves as she nursed the infant Jesus during their trip to Egypt. In turn, this gave rise to the plant’s alternate names: Holy Milk Thistle and Mary’s Thistle. Edible when young and used medicinally, this annual is a candidate for the “bitter herbs” eaten with the Passover lamb and unleavened bread (Exod 12:8; Num 9:11).
As happens to very common plants, this thistle has several common names: Golden Thistle, Spotted Golden Thistle and White Thorn. The rosette sprouts a thick, thorn-ridged stalk as much as six feet tall. Short branches bear at their ends bright yellow flowers surrounded by thorny leaves. The deep-green leaves have distinctive white edges and veins. This annual dries to a ghostly grayish white in the fall. Michael Zohary (Plants of the Bible, p. 160) suggests this species is the “thorn” of the Parable of the Sower.
The Syrian Thistle sends up its stalk as early as the Milk Thistle, but is much shorter, generally about three feet in height. Its spiny, broad, basal leaves are also mottled white. An annual, its clusters of small, pink flowers develop seeds with long, white hairs for dispersal.
Sources claim from 24 to 48 species of Centaurea in Israel. The confusion is understandable as many species are similar and some have flowers of different colors—white, yellow, pink and purple—from plant to plant within the same species. Centaurea iberica is one of the latter. Only the flowering heads bear thorns—long, yellow ones. The leaves are small, soft and sparse. The plant is low and bushy. This biennial starts in the early spring with a rosette of edible leaves.
This particular species of Globe Thistle grows mainly in northern Israel. A perennial, the rosette sprouts in winter and grows to a shrubby size. In summer, flower stalks rise up three to five feet. The spectacular, purplish-blue flower heads are as much as five inches in diameter. In fall, they disperse small, spiny seeds.
Onopordum acanthium, Scottish Thistle, has been described as the most impressive thistle of all, but its relative, Onopordum cynarocephalum, rises taller, sometimes over six feet. The Cotton Thistle has a central stalk that branches into many stems, all bristling with short, fine thorns. Its purplish-red blossoms are well over two inches wide, the general size of the Scottish. This perennial is found along the coastal as well as central areas of Israel.
This thistle species is quite distinct from those above. It is a low, bushy plant with large, spiny, thick-veined leaves. When broken, the yellow veins exude a milky sap. The flower head is a stemless dome of stiff, brown bracts with yellow florets. In late summer, the dry plant, a perennial, breaks from the root and shrivels into a ball shape. Like a tumbleweed, it rolls with the wind and scatters its many seeds. This feature has given it the alternate name of Whirling Thistle. The Hebrew name, galgal, means “a wheel.” It is found in Isaiah 17:13, translated “rolling thing” (KJV), and some believe this refers to the Tumble Thistle.