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A-Z of thought: Xerophyte

Martin Hodson

The word xerophyte comes from two Greek words, xeros, meaning dry and phyton, meaning plant. Xerophytes are most commonly associated with deserts, and there are several words for desert in the Hebrew Bible.

Midbar is a wilderness where it is possible to keep animals, but not to grow crops. The Israelites spent a lot of time wandering there, and the Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is BaMidbar, in the wilderness. Yeshimon, however, is a desolate wasteland where hardly anything is able to grow except for a few weeks of the year when the rains come.

When this happens, 'The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom'. (Isaiah 35:1) The plants that bloom at this time are known as ephemerals, which survive most of the year as seed underground, germinate when it rains, and then grow very quickly to flower and produce seed before the summer heat comes. These plants are not xerophytes, which are plants that can live the year around in arid conditions.

Xerophytes show a range of adaptations to living in very dry conditions. They often have long roots for reaching water deep below the surface. Their leaves are frequently small or non-existent to reduce water loss, and they may be covered by hairs or spines which reflect the sun's radiation, keeping the plants cool. Some xerophytes are succulents, which store water in thickened leaves.

The most obvious xerophytes in the biblical deserts are the acacia trees, known as shittim in Hebrew (this word is retained in the King James Version of the Bible). The desert south of the Dead Sea is not only hot and dry, but salty. Even here glassworts, saltworts and seablites are able to survive.

Not all xerophytes are confined to the Middle East. One well known xerophyte with biblical connotations is the so-called Joshua Tree, a species of Yucca that grows in the Mojave desert in the South-western United States. The name comes from Mormon pioneers who thought its shape reminded them of Joshua raising his arms in prayer.

Probably the most famous xerophytes of all are the cacti. In the 2003 film The Gospel of John, Jesus is seen walking past a thicket of prickly pear cactus in Andalucia, Spain where the movie was shot. This was a bit of a mistake as the prickly pear was unlikely to be seen in first-century Palestine, being a native of the Americas!