Atop a small hill in a corner of Jerusalem, tropical plants take root. Nearly black orchids stand amid carnivorous plants and other leafy creatures dating to ancient times. While the intense Israel sun bakes the outdoors, this treasured vegetation grows protected in a beautifully constructed greenhouse. A team of experts manages their well-being in this delicately balanced tropical environment. Their home is one of the city's choice retreats from urban mayhem: the dome-covered University Botanical Garden and its Tropical Conservatory.
The landmark structure overlooks an impressive sight. Spectacular trees and flowers of nearly every hue adorn inviting paths, pools and waterfalls in a variety of carefully engineered landscapes. Each one represents another slice of the world we call home: the Mediterranean, Southwest and Central Asia, Australia and New Zealand, North America, Europe and South Africa. On the whole, the collection is the largest of plants in Israel. Although it is an independent entity managed by the Botanical Garden Association, its proximity allows the site to serve as a forum for research and teaching endeavors with instructors at the adjacent Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus.
The garden's lush flora and bodies of water also provide a haven for a large number of winged visitors. The garden has recorded more than 46 different bird species, which are in best attendance in the early morning and afternoon (binoculars recommended).
The park's distinct features include the conservatory, which was inaugurated in 1986, a year after the garden opened to the public. Other areas feature medicinal plants, such as ginko biloba and echinacea. And the "Bible Plants Path" provides a self-led walking tour through the Mediterranean, Southwestern and Central Asian sections. It pairs biblical verses with plants mentioned in the canon. The wide selection includes everything from almond, cedar and mandrakes to tamarisk, terebinth and willows.
During a recent visit, I joined other guests aboard the garden's "Flower Train," a half-hour trolley ride led by a locomotive-lookalike truck. Our Hebrew-language excursion left from the European section near the main entrance and continued up the first steep hill, home to a selection of bonsai trees. We proceeded toward the "Savannah Flora and Bush Deserts," and passed a collection of protea flowers from South Africa, massive pink blooms that peak in winter. Our guide, Erez, whose name translates to cedar tree, explained this "desert and steppes area" features a number of thorn-bearing trees designed to protect them from elephants and giraffes. One particular acacia species produces thorns several inches in length. Local African tribes use them for sewing needles and body piercings.
We rolled on through a large grove of massive succulents and aloe and on toward a series of caves or ancient pigeon cots dating to the Second Temple. During that time in Jewish history, pigeons served mainly as food and were offered as Temple sacrifices. This "columbarium" was discovered along a water cistern during excavation work for the foundations of the conservatory.
We drove on, through the magnolias of North America, the eucalyptus of Australia, the oak and cedars of the Mediterranean and the medicinal plants of the world. After a complete circle through the gardens, we picked up a group of schoolchildren who missed the original departure and began a second round. When we reached a small creek and waterfall at the observation platform, a few of us got off the train for a special treat: the conservatory.
After walking up a steep incline, I opened the door and was met with a cool moisture that filled the room and rich greenery from head to toe. The vegetation is arranged in three layers to recreate the three levels of equatorial flora. The first layer of low, colorful ferns and geophytes grow on the surface of the soil. Next, bushes and climbing plants and a numerous types of orchids, including a set of near-black blooms, are combined with climbing plants. And finally, trees create a forest canopy by reaching tens of feet toward the ceiling.
The conservatory displays a collection of tropical plants of economic importance: coffee, cocoa, rice, spices such as vanilla and fruits such as coconut, papaya and lychee. There were plenty of bromeliads from South America. These relatives of the pineapple produce a rosette of leaves to absorb water and minerals. Ravenala from Madagascar, with their distinctive fan-like leaves, stood out among the plenty of bizarre specimens. Near the floor, grows aristolochia -- massive, almost grotesque flowers that resemble lungs, liver and placenta. My favorite? Striking red heliconia from tropical America with brilliant red blooms with vibrant yellow tips.
For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.botanic.co.il.
Lisa Alcalay Klug, a former staff writer for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, writes for The Jerusalem Post, the New York Times and other publications.