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Ablaze With Color: Israel’s plant diversity yields scenic vistas, ties to holidays.

by Michele Chabin, Contributing Writer

March 24, 2010 | 2:08 pm

The rains that drenched Israel during a few intense storms this winter did not end the country’s longstanding water shortage, but they did awaken a remarkable range of wildflowers and plants.

From the Golan and Galilee up north to the Judean hills in the center and the Negev Desert in the south, the hills and valleys are carpeted with brilliant anemones, irises, orchids, cyclamens, roses and even a native species of wild tulip.

The fact that it rarely rains in Israel from the beginning of May till mid-October — like Southern California, the summer is almost totally dry — hasn’t prevented numerous plant species from taking root and flourishing in all sorts of terrain.

Amram Eshel, a professor of botany and plant ecology at Tel Aviv University and scientific editor of wildflowers.co.il, a comprehensive Web site for nature enthusiasts, said Israel has an unusually varied topography and climate for such a compact country, and, subsequently, high plant diversity.

Plant life in Israel is “much richer than in most other countries,” Eshel said. “Here, the gradients between the mountains in the north and the desert in the south, and between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Rift Valley in the east” cause great variations, the botanist explained. So, too, do rapid soil changes and the differing amount of rain that falls in various parts of the country.

Anyone needing proof of Eshel’s assertions need only drive down an Israeli highway during the rainy winter season or, better still, during the spring, when wildflowers are at their most glorious.

“In spring, rockrose and thorny broom turn the hillsides pink, white and yellow,” Israeli journalist Wendy Elliman wrote in a rapturous article on Israeli flora and fauna. “There are hyacinth, crocus and narcissus in the mountains as early as December, followed by anemones, tulips, cyclamen, iris and daisies. Honeysuckle creeps over the bushes, and large plane trees provide shade along the freshwater streams of Galilee.”

Sara Gold, who launched wildflowers.co.il four years ago, said that Israeli wildflowers are rarely disturbed by hikers and schoolchildren thanks to a decades-old campaign against picking wildflowers “that has seeped into the national consciousness.”

Gold’s user-friendly Web site, which appears in Hebrew, English, Russian and Arabic, offers comprehensive lists of flowering plants, medicinal plants, herbs, toxic plants and plants protected by Israeli law.

Especially helpful is the inclusion of flowering times, which enables visitors to view wildflowers during high season and gardeners to make educated decisions.

Tourists visiting Israel in, say, September, can click on that month and see what’s in bloom, and where. Gardeners who want some color all year round can check on a certain month and choose from hundreds of plants, all with gorgeous photos.

The Web site’s only drawback is that not all of the rich content available in Hebrew, including vivid examples of how plants are mentioned and used in Jewish tradition, has been translated into English — at least not yet.

“We are working on it,” Gold said. “We just need the resources.”

As it is, the site is made possible by 60 enthusiastic volunteers (photographers, editors, writers) who want others to appreciate Israel’s approximately 2,800 varieties of wildflowers and 60 to 70 species of wild trees and bushes as much as they do.

While Israelis love many types of wildflowers, Gold says, they have a special affinity for pink and burgundy irises, which grow in the Negev and on Mount Gilboa, and bright red anemones, which sprout up just about everywhere. Oaks, pines and sycamores are also favorites.

This being Israel, many local gardens contain the seven species mentioned in the Torah: “A land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and dates.”

Gold is quick to note that the seven species do not qualify as wild plants, because they are cultivated, but are nevertheless an integral part of the Israeli landscape and culture. The same is true of the Jaffa orange, once a powerful symbol of Israel’s ability to make the desert bloom.

“A wild plant grows in the wilderness and no one waters it,” Gold said. “Some were originally cultivated and then became invasive. Some originated in animal feed and escaped. It can multiply itself via seeds or its roots. The exception is the Sabra plant. You take a piece of it and it grows.”

Gold, who was born on a moshav, a collective farm, 60 years ago, says Israelis anticipate the holidays by what’s blooming around them.

“When the almond trees are blooming, it’s Tu B’Shevat. When the pomegranates, which were brought here a few thousand years ago from Persia, are ripe, it’s Rosh Hashanah.” 

“Israelis live and breathe the biblical phrase “for every thing there is a season,” Gold said.

Despite the temptation to import plants — California has strict regulations regarding what can and cannot be brought in — those living outside Israel who wish to plant an Israeli-inspired wildflower garden should stick to what is locally available, Eshel says.

“As a botanist, I’ve seen plants from outside Israel invade the wildlife here. The same is true in California, where plants brought in from outside have hurt the environment because there are no natural pests to keep them in check.”

Californians can still attain an Israeli wildflower garden by growing poppies, lupines or roses, or a biblically inspired garden by planting homegrown varieties of olive, fig and almond trees.

“When it comes to plant life, it’s best to be content with what we have,” Eshel said.

Anemones in Shokeda, the Negev, Febuary 2010. Photo by Yaniv Tillinger-Gold

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