Bible References: Joshua 10.10-11; 1 Samuel 17.1-2; Chronicles 11.9; Nehemiah 11.30; Jeremiah 34.7.
Azekah was a notable Israelite town located at the foot of the western mountains in tribal lands of Judah. When Joshua routed Canaanites at Gibeon, Israelites pursued and killed Canaanites all the way to Azekah. In the war between Israelites and Philistines in which David killed Goliath, Philistines camped near Azekah. King Rehoboam built up Azehak as part of fortifying Judah. Azekah was a city which held out against the Babylonian king’s army when Judah was attacked and Jerusalem under siege. After the Jews were restored to Jerusalem and Judah, Jews lived in Azekah.
In the Bible it was common to name a town for an abundant plant in an area. Azekah means Lycium, which Israeli botanists and Bible scholars identify as box thorn.7,16 Israeli botanists identified the box thorn of Israel as the Lycium mediterraneum (L. eupoeaeum), commonly called the European matrimony vine, Chinese matrimony vine, and desert thorn. The box thorn is a member of the largely-poisonous nightshade family, Solanaceae; but the killing alkaloid found in most nightshades isn’t detectable in matrimony vine.
Box thorns are thorny shrubs that grow between four-inches and two-feet tall. Stems, light brown and hairless, branch profusely. Older vines contain spines which can be up to five-inches long. Most stems end in a pointed spine. Green leaves, small and narrow, grow on alternative sides of stems. Leaves shed with the onset of summer.
Flowers are attractive. They grow solitary or in clusters and are funnel-shaped with white, green, or purple corolla. I can imagine a bride carrying down the church aisle a bouquet that includes these white flowers. Lycium produces complete flowers with functional male and female parts, but on occasion a flower is only female.
Most Lycium fruit is two-chambered, fleshy, and a juicy berry. Israeli box thorn berries are red and eaten by birds. Berries are seed-filled. There are as many as seventy-to-eighty species of Lycium. The L. barbarum grows in China where roots and leaves are used in traditional medicine to treat skin rashes and promote hair growth. The fruit of L. barbarum is the goji berry, commonly consumed as a dried fruit.
Often a plant genus spreads and grows in contiguous countries. In contrast, the Lycium genus has a non-contiguous distribution around the globe. South America has the most species, followed by North America and southern Africa. Most Lycium species occur in arid and semi-arid climates.
One of the most abundant plants in the Middle Atlantic states where I live is the boxwood shrub. Buxus is a genus of about seventy species in the Family Buxaceae. Although box thorn (matrimony vine) and boxwood shrubs have similar names, they are two distinct plants. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a box thorn growing in southwestern Virginia.
Reflection: The matrimony vine is a thorny bush. That seems strange at first thought, considering its common name is matrimony vine. On deeper reflection, I concluded any couple who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage has thorns as well as beautiful flowers.
Copyright July 6, 2019; Carolyn A. Roth
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