The Botany of Bible Lands: An Interview with Prof. Avinoam Danin

Avinoam Danin is Professor Emeritus of Botany in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He curates Flora of Israel Online. His latest book is Botany of the Shroud: The Story of Floral Images on the Shroud of Turin.

Avi Solomon: What first sparked your lifelong fascination with botany?

Avinoam Danin: My parents told me that when I was 3 years old I always said "Look father, I found a flower". My grandparents gave me the book "Analytical Flora of Palestine" on my 13 birthday – I checked off every plant I determined in the book's index of plant names.

Avi: How did you get to know the flora of Israel so intimately?

Avinoam: When I was a high school student, as a personal project I determined all plants growing in a 1000 square meter area and followed it by determining all plants I found on my way anywhere. Mapping the vegetation of the Negev Highlands for my graduate and doctoral theses increased the list of species I knew.

Being the plant taxonomist of a Hebrew University team during the Sinai investigations added much to my knowledge. Writing together with Prof. N. Feinbrun the Analytical Flora of Eretz Israel (1991) and later, after several botanical visits in Jordan, the 5th part of Flora Palaestina (2004) was my way to obtain intimate knowledge of the flora of the region.

Satureja nabateorum

Avi: Which is the most interesting of the new species that you have found?

Avinoam: It is very hard to say "which is the most". We botanists consider the new plants we describe as new-born children and love them all. I have now 42 such plants and it is hard to say whom I love more. A new species is Capparis ramonensis I discovered on the gypsum outcrop of Makhtesh Ramon.

It is confined to a 3.5 square km area on our planet. A plant of an even smaller area is Hormuzakia negevensis found near Dimona. I named an Origanum new to science as Origanum jordanicum to honour His Majesty King Hussein who signed a peace agreement with our prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the time of the discovery. We were searching a Nabatean path from the Arava Valley to Petra and a new savory was discovered then.

It became my beloved Satureja nabateorum which has beautiful trunks when becoming old in the sandstone crevices of SW Jordan.

Portulaca oleracea seed

Avi: What makes the amazingly nutricious "weed" Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) so common all over the globe?

Avinoam: The plant which was known as Portulaca oleracea is in fact an aggregate of more than 20 entities which look like Portulaca oleracea. However, there are many forms (we regard them at present in the scientific community as "microspecies") that look like the "regular" Portulaca oleracea, but differ in the microscopic morphology of their seeds. They all share the property of need for light, moisture, and high temperatures for germination.

Many sites created by human activity are available with the necessary conditions. It may float on sea water for more than half a year and germinate when landing on non-saline soil. Hence it may be distributed independently. Producing plenty of minute seeds makes it an efficient invader.

Gall of Salvia fruticosa

Avi: What are Cretan Apples?

Avinoam: As concluded by researchers from the HaReuveni family who sought out the botanical inspirations of the Menorah, Cretan Apples are galls developing at the tips of branches of two Salvia (Sage) species–Salvia fruticosa and Salvia pommifera. Salvia fruticosa grows in several east Mediterranean countries, including Israel and Crete; Salvia pommifera grows in Crete and in Turkey. The galls look like small apples and have a sweet taste when young. The Greek name of the two sage species has the Greek name of apple (milo) in their names (fascomilo).

Avi: What led you to examine the Shroud of Turin for botanical evidence?

Avinoam: Dr. Alan and Mary Whanger had discovered images of plants on the Shroud. They came to my home in 1995 and showed me their findings. I concurred with them and visited them in Durham, NC, in 1997 and discovered additional plant images. I repeated their studies and continued my own observations.

Thorn of Rhamnus lycioides on the Shroud

Avi: What were your findings?

Avinoam: Four plant species, the images of which are found on the Shroud, indicate the geographical origin of the Shroud. Fresh stems of the plants Gundelia tournefortii, Zygophyllum dumosum, Cistus creticus and Capparis aegyptia could be placed on the dead Man's body only in a strip of land, a few kilometers wide between Jerusalem and Hebron. Nine blooming species found on good photographs of the Shroud share blooming months of March and April, thus indicating that the event of covering the man with the plants in the Shroud took place during that time of the year.

The Man of the Shroud was possibly tortured with thorns of Rhamnus lycioides, Ziziphus spina-christi and Gundelia tournefortii. A cane of Arundo donax was inserted to the Shroud covering the Man as well.

Avi: What has been the reaction from your colleagues in the scientific community?

Avinoam: Of the botanists who glanced at the plant images, there were those who objected to my interpretation of these images and others who agreed and supported this. A first dose of encouragement came from my friends, botanists themselves, Dr. Peter H. Raven and Dr. Michael G. Barbour.

They are well known American scientists and their agreement with much of what I showed them was an important component of the strength I needed to stand against potential criticizers. In June 2006, I presented my findings to the staff of an important European botanical garden. At the end of my lecture, one of the attendees declared that as a botanist who is used to seeing and identifying plants, said he does not support my findings. Later that day three botanists having a similar position in that institute arrived incognito and warmly supported my findings and interpretation.

I can mention the response of three Israeli archaeologists. One of them, a good friend of mine and my family for more than 30 years, changes the subject whenever I try to confront him with the whole subject. Another colleague opened our conversation by saying that according to his experience there were no people as tall as the image of the man of the Shroud. He therefore was not ready to talk about my findings, and I thanked him for the short conversation I had with him. However, there were several Israeli archaeologists who were ready to hear what I said with appreciation for the interesting findings.