The Allegory of the Tame and Wild Olive Trees Horticulturally Considered

Arthur Wallace

Arthur Wallace, “The Allegory of the Tame and Wild Olive Trees Horticulturally Considered,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 113–20.

If Joseph Smith made up the Book of Mormon as fiction, rather than translating ancient records as he claimed, he put together a surprising number of ancient horticultural practices with a precision and accuracy that cannot easily be explained. [1] No one has yet proved that many of these horticultural practices were known to anyone in western New York during the nineteenth century, which at least invites serious consideration of Joseph Smith’s claim that he translated ancient documents by divine means.

One of the most interesting horticultural descriptions in the Book of Mormon is the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees, a transcription or retelling of a parable by an Israelite prophet named Zenos, whose writings were recorded on brass plates that the family had brought with them from Jerusalem about 600 B.C. (see Jacob 5, 6). (The Apostle Paul may have known of this allegory, for he made reference in his writings to wild olive trees and the house of Israel [see Romans 11:16–25].) No indication is given of the period in which Zenos lived, but he is quoted in several other places in the Book of Mormon (see 1 Nephi 19:10; Alma 33, 34; Helaman 8, 15; 3 Nephi 10).

In this allegory, Zenos likens Israel to a tame olive tree and the Gentiles to a wild olive tree, [2] using the parable form that seems to have been a favorite literary device of the ancient Hebrews. It is not his intent, of course, to convey horticultural information; those aspects he mentions only casually. Nor do we know whether Zenos had firsthand experience with olive culture or whether his information was derived from other sources. However, if what he says fits into a correct broad horticultural picture, he will have met at least preliminary tests for authenticity.

The allegory or parable is a long and detailed one in which many facets of olive culture are mentioned. It begins when a tame olive tree becomes old and begins to decay (Israel had begun to grow unfaithful; see Jacob 5:3). The lord of the vineyard then has his servants (prophets and teachers) carefully prune and cultivate it (unrighteous elements were to be removed and righteousness was encouraged; v. 5).

The tree responds with a few new shoots, but the top continues to die (the Israelites were generally in apostasy; v. 6). The lord of the vineyard personally grafts the new shoots onto other trees and has his servants graft branches from a wild olive tree (the Gentiles) onto the old tree to preserve and invigorate it (v. 8). Many wild branches are grafted to the old tree (the house of Israel was scattered and mixed with other peoples and the gospel was taken to the Gentiles; vv. 9–10).

The natural branches of the tree are grafted into trees scattered throughout the vineyard (the descendants of Lehi reading the parable would have seen their own escape from Jerusalem as fulfillment of this “grafting”; v. 14). Meanwhile, the wild branches (gentile Christians in the first and second centuries A.D.) have greatly invigorated the root of the old tree.

The shoots of the old tree grafted to new trees produce good fruit in locations which we can designate A and B. These trees grow in relatively infertile soil. Tree C, located in a fertile area, produces part good fruit and part “wild” fruit. (The Israelite group in America would consider themselves to be this third group, since the Book of Mormon consistently describes America as “choice above all other lands.” The division into good and wild fruit would be taken to mean the righteous Nephites and the unrighteous Lamanites into which Lehi’s descendants had soon split. See vv. 20–25.)

The original tree eventually degenerates, producing all kinds of bad fruit (a general apostasy from the true Church of Christ); but the grafting has reinvigorated the roots, which are now strong. Its original branches, grafted far and wide in the vineyard, are also no longer producing good fruit (vv. 30, 34, 39).

On tree C, the wild branch overpowers the part of the tree that bears good fruit, and the servant suggests that the wild branches have been developing at the expense of the roots, even though the roots remain generally good. He is instructed to go to locations A and B, find stock from the original tree, and regraft it into the old tree and also into tree C, since all of them have good roots. (The gospel has been restored and missionaries gather the house of Israel from throughout the world, including America. The branches from the old tree, first grafted to other trees and then returned to the old tree, represent the restoration of the house of Israel to Jerusalem before the Jewish people accept Christ. See vv. 40, 48, 54, 57.)

The servant grafts these returning branches to the old tree to replace branches where the fruit is very bitter, but not all branches receive grafts. The ungrafted branches serve as a source of nutrients and are pruned off as the grafted branches develop. The top and the root are to be kept in balance. The natural branches do grow and produce good fruit. Tree C also undergoes this grafting process. (Both the Jewish people and the Lamanite remnant in America accept the gospel and are restored to their former favor with God; vv. 65–66, 74.)

The allegory concludes with the threat that the tree will be burned if the fruit again becomes bad (v. 77).

This is an extensive parable, with a remarkably detailed structure revolving around the care and production of olives. Could Joseph Smith have fabricated it?

First, wild olives do exist in Israel. On a visit I made to Israel in 1970, a guide pointed one out near Mount Carmel, and I made further inquiries. The wild olive tree is a shrub or bush. It may be either a plant grown from seeds of a tame olive but under wild conditions where it usually does not resemble the parent tree, or one of about twenty species of a plant related to the tame olive but producing small and inedible fruit. [3] In other words, the wild olive is a contemporary reality, and is also mentioned in the Bible—though only in the New Testament (see Romans 11:17). Wild olives are foreign to New York. [4]

A potentially troublesome element in the allegory is the consistent use of the term vineyard, usually referring to a location where grapes are grown, rather than orchard, the more conventional term for fruit trees. Orchard is a biblical term, appearing in Song of Solomon 4:13. The Smith family had an orchard; indeed, nineteenth-century farms routinely included orchards. [5] Young Joseph also would have known about grape culture, since grapes in nineteenth-century New York stood second only to apples in importance as an agricultural product. [6] His use of vineyard is thus interesting.

One possible explanation might be the multiple meanings of vineyard. Webster’s unabridged dictionary (3d ed., 1960) includes the sense of a field of labor, particularly for religious purposes (specifically missionary work), an appropriate usage within Zenos’s parable. It can also mean a collection of more than one kind of fruit tree, as in a garden containing many kinds of trees, which could include olive trees. In Isaiah 5:7, the house of Israel is called a vineyard. Other biblical references further imply that the word’s usage in the allegory of the olive tree representing the house of Israel is very acceptable.

Less perplexing are the possible shades of ambiguity in other terms. Good, tame, and natural may be synonyms, but we cannot be certain. “Wild fruit,” “evil fruit,” and “bad fruit” seem to be used consistently to mean fruit that was not good; Jacob 5:58 says, “We will pluck from the trees those branches which are ripened, that must perish, and cast them into the fire.”

However, these semantic elements are less important in evaluating the allegory than areas of obvious ignorance which would be apparent if someone were trying to commit a fraud by writing of things with which he is not familiar, then claiming ancient authorship for his work.

As to the horticultural content of the allegory, most of the information seems to be sound. The response of the tree to the initial pruning and cultivation with new shoots is completely predictable. [7] Adventitious shoots very commonly grow from the base of olive trees, especially when water and fertilizer are applied. The fact that the wild branches grafted to the old tree bear good fruit is horticulturally probable if the wild branches are genetically capable of producing good fruit. It is also not unlikely for a tree to produce two different kinds of fruit (as did the tree in location C). “Bud sports,” or mutations that result in fruit different from that of the parent tree, are relatively common. [8]

The circumstance of the old tree with wild branches engrafted producing first good fruit, then several varieties of bad fruit, transcends correct horticulture at this point, although “delayed incompatibility” can give similar results. A particular combination of rootstock and scion (top part of the tree) may do very well for a period of time and then deteriorate in a variety of ways, due to a slight change in environment or a disease. The allegorical situation would require the tree to demonstrate both incompatibility of grafts and production of bud sports simultaneously, however, and the described results are more elaborate than we would commonly see in an actual horticultural situation.

A very common horticultural phenomenon, however, is that of tree C, where the “wild” part of the tree overcomes the good part. It is very common in fruit trees that have been grafted with more than one scion for the stronger one to take over the entire tree and crowd out the weaker one(s). This principle is often seen when a rootstock sprouts a sucker at the base of a trunk and the fast-growing sucker successfully competes with the trunk for moisture and nutrients. Suckers are very common on olive trees.

The servant’s suggestion that the excessive top growth was coming at the expense of the roots refers to a situation that can occur when a too-abundant supply of nitrogen produces rank, succulent top growth with reciprocal underdeveloped root growth. [9] This situation can also occur when certain plant hormones trigger inappropriate growth in the plant.

The circular grafting of branches back onto their parent tree is also a horticulturally sound practice. The rootstock of a scion may be incompatible with that scion, while the grafting of a root-stock clone onto the incompatible graft may produce success. It is also very common to work through a tree over time, grafting more and more branches with the selected scion stock rather than grafting all of them on the rootstock at once. Grapefruit trees are often changed to orange trees by this “double top” procedure. The servant’s instructions to keep the top and root in balance find a horticultural parallel: he wanted to avoid suckers growing from near the roots, which could happen if all the old branches were removed at once. A proliferation of suckers could channel nutrients to themselves, leaving the grafts starved. However, modern practices make no special effort to keep a root-and-top balance as long as water is not limited. It would be interesting to have more information about ancient horticulture to see if Zenos’s allegory reflected contemporary practice.

The fact that the natural branches produced good fruit once they were regrafted to the original stock suggests that the prior tendency of these same clones to produce poor fruit was the result of incompatibility, not disease, and that grafting corrected the incompatibility. If disease had been involved in either the original tree or in the far-off places of the vineyard, the double-worked branches would also have been diseased.

Some popular belief holds that olive trees grow best on rocky, infertile hillsides. This is incorrect. Olives will tolerate such conditions, but they do much better in fertile, deep, well-cultivated soils. They require a great deal of water, and hence cultivation to remove weeds and pruning to create a tree rather than a bush. [10] Olives are amenable to many pruning methods. Pruning, rather than genetic manipulation, creates dwarf olives and also shapes them to fit machinery. When the allegory insists on the importance of cultivation, pruning, and manuring, its author is not in error.

At no point in the allegory does the author manifest general ignorance on the subject of olive culture. The numerous casual references to pruning, cultivating, fertilizing, grafting, preserving species by grafting, incompatibility, bud sports, scion vigor, root rejuvenation, double graftage, root-top growth balances, and invigoration from graftage of wild species are most interesting. Whoever wrote the chapter had considerable correct information at his fingertips, even though it was not until the twentieth century that ancient horticulture received systematic attention. It now forms topics for discussion at national and international professional meetings.

However, such information did not generally form part of Joseph Smith’s frontier culture. Nor did he betray the ancient allegory by using more modern horticultural terms, such as budding, rootstock, mulching, cultivation, mutation, incompatibility, and so forth. As a final detail, even though pruning was certainly part of nineteenth-century American practices, Joseph Smith would have been familiar with it in relation to deciduous trees or vines, in which pruning has to consider the wood on which fruit would be borne the next year. Grapes and apples would be examples with which Joseph Smith would have been familiar. In contrast, the pruning of the olive, a subtropical evergreen fruit tree, is initially for training to make it into a tree rather than a bush, and second for rejuvenation—or, more appropriately, survival. In the nine times the word pruning is used in the parable, survival rather than increased fruit production, is implied. Survival pruning reverses the aging process by altering the balance of regulators (hormones). It is not the type of pruning Joseph Smith knew.

In short, this prolonged parable recorded in the Book of Mormon is one of its elements which, by its accurate incorporation of ancient horticultural practices, invites serious consideration of Joseph Smith’s claim that he translated rather than wrote the Book of Mormon.


[1] Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967), 269–73. My thanks to Professor Royce S. Bring-hurst of the University of California at Davis for suggesting in 1963 an examination of horticultural elements of the Book of Mormon. See also my Evidence in Science and in Religion (Los Angeles: privately published, 1966), 95–98.

[2] Joseph Fielding Smith, “Who Were the Prophets Zenos and Zenock?” Improvement Era 66 (March 1963): 158–59, discusses the meaning of the allegory in depth.

[3] H. T. Hartmann, I. Uriu, and O. Lilliland, “Olive Nutrition,” in Fruit Nutrition, ed. Norman F. Childers (New Brunswick, N. J.: Horticultural Publications, Rutgers University, 1966), 252.

[4] L. H. Bailey, Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (New York: MacMillan Co., 1901), 1084–87.

[5] Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 59, records that the family sold fruit from its orchard in Vermont when Joseph was around ten years of age; p. 79 records that Joseph rested under an apple tree; p. 96 mentions that the family had a sugar orchard (maple trees). See Bailey, Cyclopedia, 1084–87 for additional information on horticulture in nineteenth-century New York.

[6] Bailey, Cyclopedia, pp. 1084–87.

[7] S. H. Cameron and R. W. Hodgson, “Effect of Severity of Pruning on Top Rejuvenation in Citrus Trees,” Proceedings of the American Society for Horticultural Science 39 (1941): 67–72.

[8] A. D. Shamel, The Citrus Industry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1946); see Chapter 10, “Bud Variation and Bud Selection.”

[9] N. O. Bosemark, “The Influence of Nitrogen on Root Development,” Physiologia Plantarum 7 (1954): 497–502.

[10] Childers, Fruit Nutrition, 252.