It is thought that the 'shoshan' is the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). The word shoshan may have a link to the Hebrew word shesh, which means ‘six’. The Madonna lily has six petals.

The Madonna lily has a leafy flower stem, which grows up to 1.2 metres and sometimes even up to two metres high. The white flower, with yellow at the base, emerges in late spring and lasts through the winter to die back in summer.

Madonna lily

The Madonna lily. PICTURE: Picdrome.

It is found in south-eastern Europe and in west Asia. In Israel it is located in Mediterranean woodlands and shrublands, primarily on Mount Carmel and in upper Galilee.

The form of the shoshan was used as a decorative design in the building of the Temple, both on the capitals for the portico and on the Bronze ‘Sea’ or Laver: "The capitals on top of the pillars in the portico were in the shape of lilies, four cubits high...The capitals on top were in the shape of lilies. And so the work on the pillars was completed...It was a handbreadth in thickness, and its rim was like the rim of a cup, like a shoshan (lily) blossom. It held two thousand baths. It was a handbreadth in thickness, and its rim was like the rim of a cup, like a lily blossom. It held two thousand baths." (I Kings 7: 19, 22, 26).

The shoshan was referred to eight times in the Song of Solomon. It was clearly a flower associated with beauty. 

"I am a rose [chavatstselet] of Sharon,
A shoshan [lily] of the valleys.
Like a shoshan [lily] among thorns
is my darling among the maidens” - Song of Solomon 2: 1-2

"She: 'My beloved is mine and I am his;
he browses among the shoshan [lilies].'" - Song of Solomon 2:16

"Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by shoshan [lilies]." - Song of Solomon 7:2 

“His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume.
His lips are like shoshan [lilies] dripping with myrrh." - Song of Solomon 5:13

"My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices,
to browse in the gardens and to gather shoshan [lilies].
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine;
he browses among the shoshan [lilies]." - Song of Solomon 6:2-3

"Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by shoshan [lilies]." - Song of Solomon 7:2”

Hosea prophesied that Israel would one day blossom like the shoshan: "I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a shoshan [lily]. Like a cedar [erez] of Lebanon he will send down his roots..." (Hosea 14:5).

There are other flowers in Israel which also have six petals, and so it has been suggested that the polyanthus narcissus (Narcissus tazetta) and the blue hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) may also be the shoshan flower.

This is an edited excerpt from Alvin Johnson's iBook 'Biblical Flora', 2017. The book is available for free download on iTunes. A teacher's edition is also available for purchase.