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JAUNTS : Inspired by the Bible, Garden Takes Bloom at Ojai Church : Only plants mentioned in the Scriptures are grown. But don't expect roses--this place strives for historical accuracy.

April 13, 1995|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai gardener Mary Lapham Hunt knew the Scriptures cold--from the fig tree in Genesis to the wormwood herb in Revelations.

Today, these and 48 other plants, flowers and trees mentioned in the Bible are her legacy, flourishing in a biblical garden Hunt started four decades ago on the grounds of the Ojai Presbyterian Church.

This will be the first spring that Hunt won't be around for the daisy-like blossoms on the myrrh or the tiny blooms on the rare white broom tree. She died last fall at the age of 88, leaving the Ojai Biblical Garden in the hands of longtime docent Ginger Wilson.

"For years, it was her life," Wilson said.

Hunt meticulously researched every plant and installed signs for each, along with a Bible quotation. With Easter nearing and many plants in bloom, now is a good time to wander through the garden, which is open to the public. Visitors can take a self-guided tour, or Wilson will give detailed tours to groups.

Hunt's zeal for biblical correctness is as fascinating to visitors as the meandering garden's 50 species and 200 plantings. Simply finding a plant mentioned in the Bible wasn't authentic enough for her.

"There were different translations of the Bible and early translators were not botanists," Wilson said.

Sometimes the real plant was lost in the translation, so Hunt conferred with biblical and botanical scholars.

"If she couldn't prove all the experts were positive, it didn't go in the garden," Wilson said. "Anything considered controversial, she wouldn't consider."

That's why visitors won't see lilies and the famous quotation: "Consider the lilies of the field." Instead, they'll see the red anemone, a more likely plant for the time and place. And any time the Bible mentions roses, it was probably oleander, Wilson said, except in the Book of Isaiah, where it is presumed to be a narcissus plant.

Visitors won't see an apple tree in the garden, either, despite the mention of fruit in the story of Adam and Eve and elsewhere in the Bible. Apples, as we know them, didn't grow back then, Wilson said. Apricot trees did, though, and one stands near the entrance of the Ojai garden.

Hunt was meticulous about getting exactly the plants she wanted. "They don't sell these in retail stores, and for some she hunted 20 years," Wilson said. Hunt returned from a visit to the Middle East with a cedar of Lebanon tree in a gallon container.

One of her finds was a gift from heaven, she liked to tell people on the tours she gave. For years she had hoped to find a real date palm, such as the kind that grew in biblical times. But she searched in vain. Then, a man in Palm Springs heard about her wish and sent her one. His name? D.L. Heaven.

Now the palm, known as a feather palm, stands tall on the church grounds. "It was a very important tree" to earlier people, Wilson said. Durable and virtually waterproof, they were used for baskets, sandals, brooms, rope and even thatched roofs.

Hunt, a longtime Ojai resident, discovered that about half of the plants mentioned in the Bible already grew in the Ojai area. "Israel's climate is similar to Ojai's," Wilson said. But some plants are so rare, they are hard to find even in Israel now.

It took 20 years for Hunt to get the garden in shape for its opening to the public in 1974. None of it would have happened had she not entered an exhibit of biblical plants in the Ojai Valley Garden Club's show in 1954.

The then-pastor of the Ojai Presbyterian Church was so intrigued by it that he invited her to create a biblical garden on the church grounds. There was just one problem: Hunt was a devout Episcopalian.

"She wasn't too eager," Wilson said.

But given assurances that the garden would be an ecumenical venture open to the public, she dived in. Since its opening, people from all over the world have visited the garden Mary Hunt grew.

"There wasn't a leaf that fell from the tree that she was not aware of," said the church's current pastor, Peter Whitelock.

Details

* WHAT: Biblical Garden.

* WHEN: Open daily during daylight.

* WHERE: Ojai Presbyterian Church, 304 N. Foothill Road, Ojai.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* FYI: Maps available in church office.

* CALL: 646-1437 (church); 646-1655 (tours).

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