APRIL: Christ's Thorn Jujube - Shezaf matsuy - שיזף מצוי

Month: April

Common name: Christ's Thorn Jujube

Scientific name: Ziziphus lotus

Hebrew name: Shezaf matsuy

Family: Rhamnaceae

Habitat and Distribution: warm, humid habitats in Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, the Negev and the northern Arava

Flowering months: March-October
Christ's Thorn Jujube growing in southern Israel. Photo: Yoram Goldring
Christ's Thorn Jujube growing in southern Israel. Photo: Yoram Goldring

Christs Thorn Jujube in Israel

Christ's Thorn Jujube is a branching thorny tree of Sudanian origin. In Israel, you can find both them both natural and planted. They like warm, humid habitats, and is an integral part of the landscapes in the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, the Negev and the northern Arava. KKL-JNF uses this hardy native species, which attracts different animals that pollinate it, consume and disperse its fruit, for afforestation. The jujube has been mainly planted in forests created over the past thirty years, ever since afforestation activity began focusing on the ideal of mixed forests.

Flowering time

Having originated in warm, humid climes, the tree “deliberates” whether or not to shed its leaves in winter. Though it usually grows as an evergreen tree, preserving its green leaves throughout the year, during an especially cold winter it will shed most of its leaves.
Individual trees of this species throughout the country have reached heights of ten meters, accompanied by very broad trunks and expansive crowns of dense, zigzagging branches. Each leaf grows a pair of stipules at its base, which turn into hard thorns, one straight and the other hooked.

Food and medicine

The jujube fruit, colloquially called 'domim', is not to everyone's taste, though hikers often enjoy it, as do sheep and goats.

There is evidence that the jujube was used in Pharaonic times for its wood and fruits. One of the uses of the fruit was in baking bread, a practice followed by Egyptian peasants as late as the beginning of the 20th century.

And still, today, Bedouins collect and dry the fruits for use in the winter, making a thick paste to be used as bread. The tree's wood is heavy and durable and serves as a medium for artistic woodwork, rewood and high-quality charcoal.

Christ’s thorn jujube is used in traditional medicine for treating toothache (powder from roots), arthritis (paste from crushed roots, leaves or branches), muscle pains (inhalation of leaves and branches), asthma (fruit, leaves and seeds), diarrhea (infusion of fruit and leaves), burns (fruit crushed and boiled), and other ailments.

Text and tradition

The jujube is mentioned in the Mishna, in context of expanding on biblical laws forbidding mixing seeds, crossbreeding animals, grafting trees and other combinations:
"And the plums and the jujube, even though they are similar" (Mishnah, Tractate Kil’aim 4:4).
In other words, although both fruits are similar, it is forbidden to cross them according to Jewish law.

Christ’s Thorn Jujube is undoubtedly one of the strangest names any plant has. So how did this tree get its unusual name? Christian tradition identifies the tree as the source of the crown of thorns Jesus was crowned with before his crucifixion:
"…and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head; they put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. (Matthew 27: 29).

Although the tree is rare in the Jerusalem vicinity, the famous traveler Canon Henry Baker Tristram wrote that he saw the species in the Valley of Kidron, outside of Jerusalem. There is still extensive debate relating to the source of the thorns, but the scientific name of the species (spina-christi) agrees with this premise.

The Christ's thorn jujube features in a traditional Muslim legend, in which the tree grows in Paradise, with leaves as many as there are human beings. Each leaf bears the name of a person. Every year, one day in the middle of the month of Ramadan, just after sunset, the tree is shaken. The names on the leaves that fall are of those who will die in the coming year.