Horticulture in The Bible: Grafting & The Importance of The Rootstock


One of the most fascinating studies I’ve engaged in my horticultural pursuits has been the study of grafting, in general and rootstocks, in particular. Grafting is the process by which the rootstock (the root mass of a plant which has been severed from the rest of the plant) of one plant is joined to the scion wood (think trunk and branches) of another. As the two separate plants eventually grow together, they result in one plant (Frankenplant, though it may be) which exhibits the most beneficial characteristics from the two individual plants. These characteristics, however, are improved upon by the union. Good becomes great. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

You may be thinking that this process – which is also used to produce those garden magazine trees which bear multiple types of fruit on one trunk – is the result of the brilliance of some 20th century genius. In reality, however, the practice of grafting was so common 20 centuries ago, that several of the writers of the Bible employed the imagery of grafting to illustrate theological truths.

In The Bible

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church, for example, he writes:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you (Romans 11:17, 18. ESV).

Paul is reminding the young Christian church (the scion wood of a wild olive) that humility must be observed because they have been granted their position in God’s kingdom only by means of being grafted onto a rootstock that is not their own. Paul reminds them that Judaism is the rootstock through which all of their foundational understandings (sustenance) have come. Fascinating. Paul knew that New Testament grace could only be recognized through the lens of Old Testament law, and he used the familiar imagery of grafting to get his point across. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Though not often so conspicuous as in this picture, the graft union is the point at which the stock and the scion are joined. Pictured is a “high-graft”. The rootstock includes a portion of the trunk and the scion is grafted higher. At least as common is the “low-graft” which maintains only a few inches of the trunk to which the scion is grafted.

The Root Supports You (And Actually Shapes the Whole Tree)

Today, continued study of the art and science of grafting has changed the horticultural landscape in significant and amazing ways. Understanding more fully the truth of the roots’ importance, fruit tree growers now order their trees based not only on the type of fruit they want to grow, but also on other beneficial characteristics that are supplied by the rootstock.

If a grower wants a Golden Delicious apple, for example, but only want the mature tree to reach 12’ tall, he or she simply orders a dwarfing rootstock for their Golden Delicious scion.

The rootstock of a plant determines the overall size of the plant it supports. Additionally, if the geographic area in which the grower plans on farming the trees is notorious for certain pathogens, the grower can order rootstocks that add certain resistances to the scion wood of the tree which protect against these pathogens. The root prevents disease. Again, fascinating.

Beyond the commercial fruit tree growers, the ornamental industry has also been changed by our understanding of grafting. Most, if not all, crabapple trees that you see in the nursery today are grafted. Many of the “weeping” types of both deciduous and evergreen trees – grafted. Honeylocust, dogwood, maples, and hazelnut – many of our favorite varieties are grafted.

It’s certainly true that we, as a people, have made monumentally large advances in science and technology over the past hundred or so years. Even over the past twenty or so. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find out that 20 useful apps have been developed and released for my telephone in the time it took me to write this post. Nonetheless, for the benefit of understanding the depth and breadth of the information that we have, it can be an enlightening practice to look around and often look back in history to see whose shoulders they are that we stand on which provide the view that we have today.

In the case of horticulture, we often identify the location of those shoulders in the Bible.

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