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You may only know them from Hebrew school or synagogue, but the Four Species of Sukkot—etrog, lulav, hadassim, and aravot—are all very interesting plants in their own right.
Here are their stories:
The most fragrant and eye-catching member of the group, the citron has a fascinating story. While it is certainly one of the oldest Jewish ritual objects, the citron is also among the most ancient of fruits on Earth. Horticultural scientists have deduced based on its molecular structure that the citron is one of the four naturally occurring ancestors of all other known citrus fruits (American Society for Horticultural Scientists). Experts trace the citron’s origins to Southeast Asia, where it continues to grow in the wild.
Originally it seems that the citron was cultivated in the Mediterranean region primarily for its medicinal and hygienic utility. According to the 4th century BCE Greek writer Theophrastus, the extract of the citron was applied to clothing as an insect repellant, swallowed to induce vomiting after ingesting poison, or gargled to improve bad breath! (Historia Plantanum)
Today, the citron figures into various global cuisines. Succade, a candied jelly substance made from the fruit’s inner rind, is used in cooking the world over. Citron jam and pickled citrons are common in India and Pakistan, and in Korea, candied citrons are used to make a popular kind of tea.
Fast fact: The variety of citron that grows in Israel goes by the common name Balady Citron, deriving from an Arabic word for “native.”
Date Palm (Lulav):
Palm trees of various types have been important to human development in many parts of the world, but none so much as the date palm of the ancient Middle East. The date palm allowed civilization to spread into arid areas by providing settlers with an easily stored, high-energy food and much needed shade from the desert sun (Report on date palm products, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Other members of the palm family provide coconuts, oil, raw material for textiles, and the increasingly popular acai berry.
Mentioned over 30 times in the Bible and over 20 times in the Quran, the date palm carries important symbolic value in all three of the Abrahamic faiths: In Judaism, it is the centerpiece of the lulav bundle; Christians commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by carrying palm branches in a procession on Palm Sunday; Islamic tradition likens the palm tree, whose leaves do not wither and fall off, to one who is steadfast in their faith.
Fast fact: Though the date palm is thriving, at least a hundred other types of palms around the world are now considered endangered, nine having become extinct only recently. Find out more at World Wide Fund for Nature, wwf.panda.org.
The myrtle belongs to large family of flowering plants whose roster includes eucalyptus, cloves, allspice, and guava. Like the citron, the myrtle is a plant long cherished for its beautiful form and pleasing fragrance. In Greek mythology, myrtle was a sacred plant associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love and pleasure. Roman gardens were considered incomplete without myrtle, and one could expect to see it wherever in the world Roman aristocrats settled (Alice M. Coats, Garden Shrubs and Their Histories (1964) 1992, s.v. “Myrtus”).
Within Jewish tradition, the importance of the myrtle goes beyond the lulav bundle. The Talmud (Ketubot 17a) relates that wedding guests, even esteemed rabbis, would pick up myrtle twigs and dance in front of the bride for her enjoyment. Jewish mystical sources suggest that the myrtle’s fragrance is that of the Garden of Eden, and recommend its use in the havdala ceremony.
Fast fact: The species of myrtle used as hadassim is known that “common myrtle” or “true myrtle.”
Willow trees are a common sight across the northern hemisphere, and their expressive, drooping form has made them a favorite subject of artists and poets through the ages. Aside from its striking image, the willow has been cultivated for thousands of years for religious, medicinal, and manufacturing purposes. The oldest known fishing net in existence, dating back to 8300 BCE and found in Finland, was constructed from willow branches (The palaeoenvironment of the Antrea Net Find The Department of Geography, University of Helsinki). Native Americans depended on willow trees to provide salicin, a natural substance very similar to aspirin. In Chinese culture, the willow figures prominently in rituals intended to ward away roaming spirits (Doolittle, Justus (2002)  Social Life of the Chinese. Routledge). Today, willow wood is still used in the production of a number of items including brooms, furniture, and cricket bats!
Fast fact: Interestingly, the common Hebrew word for willow, arav, may have originally referred to a different species. In Psalm 137, arav is the name given for trees growing along the river bank in Babylonia- in all likelihood this was referring to the Euphrates Poplar, which grows abundantly along its namesake river and is a cousin of the willow we use on Sukkot.
Bin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.