Just off busy Fifth Avenue, in Shadyside, there is a small hidden paradise. Ivy, fig and cedars of Lebanon grow on one side of a garden; millet, cinnamon, olive trees and a tunnel of grape vines thrive across a miniature Jordan River.
This is the Biblical Botanical Garden at Rodef Shalom, where plants with significance in the ancient Near East are curated by Rabbi Walter Jacob — a man who is a wealth of information. (He and his wife have visited more than 900 U.S. gardens, which resulted in the book Gardens of North America and Hawaii: A Traveler’s Guide.)
“Some things are going to look better if you came back in 200 years,” he says, tapping his hand on the trunks of the cedars, which are in their infancy at only 50 years old.
Each plant in the garden is accompanied by a reference to where and how it is mentioned in the Bible. The garden is shaped like Israel, with water features representing the Galilee and Dead seas, desert springs and the Jordan River. The current exhibit features two garden iterations of visions of paradise: the Christian, with boxwood, roses, fruit trees and a grassy bed, and Muslim, with palms, almonds, mosaics and water. A past exhibit featured a Babylonian beer garden.
Many things grown there are edible because, well, as Rabbi Jacob explains, “The Bible was not interested in describing horticulture. [The vegetation] was seen as a divine gift [with] practical uses.”