March 24, 2010
Wildflowers of Israel
Enter any Trader Joe’s grocery store in Southern California and you are likely to find vibrant sunflowers with golden orange leaves and a dark center among the bouquets and potted plants. What many customers might not realize is that the sunflower being sold is called Jerusalem Gold, which is grown in Santa Barbara from a seed native to Israel.
Many of the cucumbers, bell peppers, basil and tomatoes grown in Southern California also come from Israeli seeds. Even some vegetables and herbs imported from places like Mexico come from seeds that originate in Israel.
Israeli agriculture has had a big impact around the world, even if few people know about it. And that is true in Southern California, too, where a Mediterranean climate provides ideal conditions for flora from the Jewish state.
“When Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills was originally designed, they used trees that grow in Israel, like olive and acacia,” said Len Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in Simi Valley and the Hollywood Hills. “There are also lots of wildflowers that grow in Israel that can grow in California, so we are starting to beautify the parks with these flowers from Israel.”
As Mount Sinai adds more Israeli landscaping to its grounds in an effort to create a more park-like setting, Lawrence said it is also reaching out to the wider community to share the beauty of Israeli wildflowers.
As a gift to the community, Mount Sinai is giving away thousands of packets of Israeli wildflowers seeds, including such flowers as mountain blue Galilee lupines and khella. The seed packets can be picked up at Mount Sinai’s Hollywood Hills or Simi Valley locations or requested via phone, e-mail or response card.
In addition to fostering ties to Israel’s flora and agriculture, the giveaway is also intended to highlight technological advances in Israel that have enabled the Jewish state to cultivate a desert and manage during times of drought. That technology starts with smarter sprinkler systems, improving soil with natural components like coconut shells and choosing plants carefully.
“Israel is the leading country in the world when it comes to water management in the desert,” Lawrence said. “I want to bring more of that technology to Mount Sinai Memorial Parks.”
SeedCount, the Santa Barbara-based distributor of seeds from the Israeli agricultural research company Genesis Seeds, is supplying Mount Sinai with the seed packets for the giveaway.
For the last 18 years, the company has brought Israeli seeds and agricultural technology to the United States. All of the seeds are organic, some are heirloom, and the company focuses on sustainable agricultural practices for commercial growers and greenhouses.
Many of the seeds are well suited to California because of the similarity in climate and growing conditions, said Seed Count’s Yossi Asyag, adding that the seeds distributed by Mount Sinai are certified organic and native but not exclusive to Israel — the blue mountain lupine, for instance, is similar to the bluebonnet, the Texas state flower. And every seed that SeedCount imports is permitted by the USDA, which requires that any flora brought into the United States not threaten native species.
“Our climate is on the same [equatorial] line as Israel, so pretty much everything in Israel can grow here,” he said.
Asyag said that seeds for flavorful, high-producing, drought- and disease-resistant produce are extremely valuable. “Seeds are like real estate. Some are as much as $300,000 for 1 kilo.”
Asyag gets calls from all over the world, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, looking for Israeli seeds. Recently he sent seeds to an American soldier in Lebanon to start a vegetable garden.
The Mount Sinai seed giveaway is not just about helping to make Southern California bloom, though. Lawrence said it is also about life and loss, community and comfort.
“Trees and flowers make people feel more comfortable when visiting our parks,” Lawrence said. “We protect and care for the dead, but we serve the living. We want to make the living feel welcome. ... I think flowers are an important step.”
Mount Sinai hopes the seeds will be well received by the community, creating a beautiful landscape, as well as a beautiful link between California and Israel.
“A seed packet is a beautiful idea,” Asyag said.