A Journey North by Jack Clutterbuck
As we left the bustling streets of Jerusalem at the crack of dawn, I was still half asleep. Having not entirely adjusted to the time difference between a now somewhat distant British Isles and my new abode for the month ahead, I drifted back in my mind to the night before. I had been strolling through the city to try and get my bearings, but happened to get more and more lost each time I followed my nose on the trail of sweetly scented citrus and Pittosporum tobira. Like many of Jerusalem’s multicultural inhabitants, these plants had come from distant shores. Yet over the next two days under the guidance of Dr Ori Fragman-Sapir, I managed to take a glimpse of the incredibly varied and beautiful flora that has populated this climatically diverse region since long before any human being.
I travelled north to Rosh Pina that morning with fellow UK scholars Hans Mackrodt and James Miller, where we met Dr Ori Fragman-Sapir, Head Scientist at Jerusalem Botanic Garden, and Jill Kowal, a trustee of the British Friends of JBG. Over much needed coffee and substantial Jaffa bagels, Ori talked us through the plan for the day; to ascend the area of Mt. Hermon that lies within Israeli territory - home to a myriad of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees that knew only boundaries of climate.
On the way we drove through the Hula Valley, surrounded by the steep slopes of the Golan Heights to the east and Upper Galilee’s Naftali mountains to the west. The Hula Valley was once extensive marshland surrounding Lake Hula but was drained in the 1950’s to create naturally irrigated and fertile agricultural land, and rid the region of mosquitoes carrying malaria. The success of this reclamation project can be seen today, with field after field of crops such as cotton, wheat, and apples, all contributing to Israel’s ability to produce 95% of its own food requirements. However, the environmental consequences of reclaiming the land were high as this rare wetland ecosystem and stop-off point for migrating birds was lost. A chance flooding event in the 1990’s allowed a small part of the valley to be flooded once more and the decision was made to develop it as a stop-off for migrating birds. This nature park, known as Agamon Ha-Hula, attracts around 500 million migrating birds in autumn and spring. As we sped along through the valley, a mustering of storks could be seen above us following the Jordan River northwards to Europe and western Asia.
On the approach to Mt. Hermon, now past the endless agricultural fields, we found ourselves amongst Mediterranean climate vegetation. Savannah-like plains and open scrubland stretched outwards and upwards, characterised by two species of spiny jujube; Ziziphus spina-christi, with its edible burnt-yellow fruits tasting like raisins, and Ziziphus lotus, defined by a more sprawling habit.
Increasing in altitude, a Mediterranean oak scrub dominated the rocky hillsides, until we reached around 1300m. From then on a transition took place into Irano-Turanian and Mediterranean mountain vegetation, with deciduous trees and shrubs such as Styrax officinalis, and a familiar friend at what must be its most southern distribution; Sorbus torminalis. As we drove further up the mountain and the temperature gradually decreased, I had a sense of travelling back in time. The half-parched landscape began to turn green and lush once again, and specks of pink, yellow, white, and purple flowers flashed amongst the shimmering grasses.
The summit of Mt. Hermon reaches up along the border between Syria and Jordan. Around 7% of the mountain range lies within Israel, and to reach the highest areas we had to pass through many armed security gates. Ori had been granted a permit that allowed us to travel through them, enabling us to explore parts of the mountain that most people never get the chance to see. As we moved up into the clouds and amongst sub-alpine vegetation, patches of the snow still clung to the slopes. “Let’s look near to the snow” suggested Ori. He explained that the soft chalky soil here acts like a sponge, and so some of the best places to find plants in flower are within close proximity to the snowmelt.
Growing at just over 2100m upon sharp slopes and amid angular boulders was an abundance of miniature spring flowering delights. The dominant climax species were the low growing sub-shrubs Astragalus cruentiflorus and Astragalus gummifer, forming a patchwork of ‘hedgehog-like’ forms across the landscape. These species also acted as nursery plants for many herbaceous species, providing a microclimate for their establishment in a hostile environment. The faded pink flowers of Tulipa humilis were just awakening for the afternoon sun, and the golden Ranunculus cuneatus appeared jewel-like amongst the stony ground. The most conspicuous plant had to be Prunus prostrata (creeping cherry), sprawling over and hugging the limestone rocks that formed a backdrop for a profuse display of flushed pink flowers. As I took in the magnificent views of the Golan Heights and up to the snow capped peak of Mt. Hermon, I became aware of the tranquil silence that can only be found at such altitudes. I was a long way from my home in London.
On our gradual decent we stopped at a few places where the rise in temperature
enabled a more lush vegetation to persist. Magenta pink carpets of Silene damascena ebbed and flowed along the hillsides. Scilla hyacinthoides were on parade, their blue torch-like forms jumping out of the cliff face. The giant Lamiaceae inflorescences of Eremostachys laciniata stood tall, showing off their white woollen flowers that turned purple upon the lower lip. Amongst all these floral beauties however, the ephemeral image that lingered was of a common (though rare on Mt. Hermon) Isatis lusitanica draping down in an arching movement over the steel-red cliffs, displaying its newly borne pendent fruits.
The next morning, over a traditional Israeli breakfast that certainly set us up for the day ahead, Ori had some exciting news. He had been tipped off about a location on Mt. Carmel where we could see Lilium candidum in flower. Having never seen any lilies in the wild before, this news caused quite a thrill and made me decide not to go back for thirds on the breakfast buffet.
We were a couple of hours from Mt. Carmel, which rises up alongside the Mediterranean Sea in north Israel. Ori wanted to take a look at a few areas along the way to show us more of the bounty of spring that this region has to offer. It soon became apparent that Ori had made this journey countless times for research and for pleasure. He seemed to know where we would find each plant that we discussed (and more often the ones we had never heard of), like being reunited with old friends. One such stop took us to a site where Salvia indica was peaking and swaying in the strong breeze. What has to be one of the most stunning and unusual sages I have ever seen, the oversized flowers with light purple hoods and royal purple specks within had an air of the exotic about them.
Another stop that stands out was at an abandoned Circassian cemetery right on the Syrian border. Amongst overgrown graves, dimly lit by the dappled light entering through an almost closed canopy were a couple of species of Dutchman’s pipe. Aristolochia paecilantha, with its faint yellow limb covered in psychedelic brown speckles, and Aristolochia scabridula, a more dark and mysterious character lurking patiently for flies to pollinate it. Just on the edge of the cemetery in a clearing bathed in sunlight, a lone Iris mesopotamica stood basking in all its glory, the huge flower hovering on its stem at eye level. We had seen the foliage of this spectacular species where it originates from in Mt. Hermon, but it is often planted in old cemeteries. While exploring the graveyard we could hear the distant sounds of conflict in Syria, bringing an unsettling reminder of the volatile nature of this region.
As we reached Mt. Carmel the excitement of finding the Madonna lily was building. We walked down a dusty burnt-red track lined with electric blue Eryngium creticum and monstrous Onopordum cynarocephalum. A small opening in the scrub revealed a worn path up into the cliffs above. Hans, who is no stranger to plant hunting started scrambling up the path like a hound on a trail. ‘Where there is a path, there will be flowers’, he proclaimed as he disappeared out of sight. In no time at all he was yelling for us to follow him. We clambered up the cliff through oak scrub using all four limbs until we reached an opening. There was Hans, stood amongst the gleaming white Lilium candidum that appeared to jolt out of the volcanic rock. Gradually everyone made it up to the lily filled opening that looked out to the Mediterranean Sea. We sat admiring them for sometime, struck by their graceful presence and pleased that we’d managed to encounter their beauty. We all inhaled the potent fragrance that was being released from their immense white trumpet flowers. Cheap toilet air freshener we all agreed.
On the walk back to the car I tried to recount all the plants that I had seen over the past two days. Too many for my head I thought. Later that week I would rediscover many of them being cultivated at the Jerusalem Botanic Garden, where Ori has been building up a substantial ex-situ collection of Israel’s rare and endangered plants for the purposes of conservation, research, and education. Suddenly in the distance a jackal began to howl, and gradually a whole chorus joined in that echoed around the mountain.
Jerusalem Botanic Garden Worms Scholar
Hello to all reading this. My name is Tom and I am the lucky recipient of the 2014 Della & Fred Worms Scholarship from the Friends of JBG. I hope to write a few articles on some of the most interesting elements of my time in Jerusalem.
As I write this I have just returned from a sunrise hike up the famous hill fort of Masada and a casual float in the Dead Sea. However, as Friends and followers of the Gardens in Jerusalem, I’m sure you know of all the popular weekend destinations for tourists. What I hope to be able to do through these blogs is give you a personal insight and a perspective into the work going on at JBG that you may not ordinarily get. We will start by discussing the curious case of one of Israel’s rarer plants, Tuberaria guttata.
I am cataloguing rare annuals Sara (one of the 2012-13 interns) has grown and creating image sheets and a complimentary database to aid future scholars in decision making. During this project I happened upon a couple of pots of Tuberaria guttata (L.) Fourr. It is a beautiful little annual Mediterranean herb from the family Cistaceae that is just coming to the end of its flowering window now. Whilst the striking features warrant attention in their own right, observing the wider distribution and reproductive behaviour of the species throws up some very interesting questions, the most important being what is a species?
This was not the first time I had encountered this species; in November 2013 I had been searching for this plant in…wait for it…Wales. In the UK there are colonies of this species in north-west Wales, south-west Ireland and a newly discovered colony in the Inner Hebrides. In Israel, as in all of these locations, it is regarded as rare. As a result, the species can be understood as having a wide distribution but being locally scarce. The reasons for this are complex and diverse, but it can be safely asserted that the UK represents the northern extreme of range whilst Israel probably represents the southern extreme. It occurs throughout the Mediterranean at other localities in between these two points.
It is a very variable taxon throughout its range, with morphological differences commonly observed. The UK form, for instance, is shorter and more compact than its Mediterranean counterparts, with stipules absent from the upper leaves, which are oblong rather than elongate. The basal leaves are also wider and the flowers possess bracts, unlike the plants in much of the rest of the range. The black markings at the base of the petals is also very variable, from well pronounced like the Israeli form to completely absent elsewhere. How do you attempt to classify something so variable based on morphology alone?
One method is to look at the genetics, which complicates the issue further with this little plant. Us humans, you may know, are diploid organisms, meaning we have two sets of chromosomes. All the UK material of T.guttata has 6 sets of chromosomes (hexaploid), whereas the Israeli form has four sets (tetraploid) and material is also known to exist with 8 sets (octoploid). The species also readily hybridises with other Tuberaria species (e.g. commutata and inconspicua) in its southern european range. If hybridisation occurs within a population of T.guttata, then the offspring themselves can grow up and hybridise with T.guttata, and the offspring of that generation can hybridise and so on and so on. A situation can arise in which you have a plant which is morphologically identical to T.guttata but is actually hybrid in origin.
This may sound a touch pedantic, but it has very important consequences for conservation. Decisions have to be taken on the priorities for conservation, and where to allocate often scarce resources. The UK form used to have subspecies status (ssp. breweri), elevating the perceived rarity a degree, but this has now been dropped. Is the Israeli form different to its southern european counterparts or the UK form? How different? Different enough to warrant status as a new species? If you give it new species status, immediately it becomes a critically rare Israeli endemic that occurs nowhere else in the world. It instantly generates an issue for national biodiversity, necessitating resource input to assess the level of threat and determine the action necessary to ensure survival.
In this case I suspect this is not necessary (although I am nowhere near qualified to make that judgement!) but the quirks of this little Israeli plant illustrate the inherent difficulty in classifying nature, and its far-reaching human implications. Rarity is a natural phenomenon, and nature by definition is dynamic and ever-changing. Sometimes even our best attempts to understand and conserve our natural world, whilst good-intentioned, fail to recognise this.
I hope you found this as interesting to read as I have found the subject. I will write some more soon.
Thanks to Nigel Brown at Treborth Botanic Garden and the University of Bangor for much of the scientific information included in this blog article.
Gareth Gilpin, our current 2014 travel scholar, continues his exploration of Israel, its botanical richness … and its food!
Sara (one of the 2013-4 scholars) and I were very lucky to be spending the day with the vivacious and lovely Ofri (former plant mapper at the Gardens, now working in the Hebrew U Mount Scopus garden), who picked us up early (early for me) so we could get the most out of the day. The plan was to head over to the nature reserve at Ein Gedi, but we had quite a few mini adventures and distractions along the way!
Early on we pulled up at a petrol station, and we started to walk behind it and climbed a stony hillside. You would never expect to see such a beautiful sight behind such a grubby, in-the-middle-of-nowhere place - but there it was, the whole hillside was festooned with Asphodeline aestivus in full flower. Apparently these are quite common in Israel, but I had never seen this species of Asphodeline before, and to see it in such wanton abundance was stunning. Mental notes were made to source this beauty for my company back home, and then introduce it to the landscape/design trade, for this plant was a marvel, and would surely go down a storm in England. We pored over many other curiosities and miniature beauties just coming into bloom, some of them absolutely tiny works of art.
We detoured a second time when Ofri spotted somebody selling food from a roadside kiosk, that he insisted we try. The seller was pleased to see us, and after lots of chatting back and forth he starting pulling all sorts of things out of his boxes. We had a long, brown, rectangular lump of something that looked like bean curd (served with a very spicy relish and tomato salsa). I can't remember exactly what it was, and can't even begin to guess at its name, but it was delicious, truly gobble-it-all-up delicious. That was slightly awkward as Sara and I were sharing a portion, and you could tell that neither of us wanted to pass up any opportunity to reach back in for another piece of the tasty brown slab. Then we were offered some wobbly white stuff, that used to be made from some kind of orchid, but was now synthetic - it was like the seller was going out of his way to make his food seem/sound/look as unappealing as possible, and then like a magician he abracadabra'd it all into deliciousness. This was served with copious amounts of sugary rosewater and coconut which finished the little road snack off nicely.
Yet another detour ensued, this time roadside, just opposite the Dead Sea. All I wanted to do was run to the other side and get my float on, but these two had other plans. My time would come. We scrutinised the area, wandering back and forth, marvelling at tiny pockets of richness, and calling each other over. Every time we saw something new, Ofri's book would come out and the search would begin. People driving past must have thought we were lunatics. But we knew what we were doing, and we were happy doing it. We met a fellow madman/botanist on the same patch of dirt, who was thrilled as he had found some tiny specimen that was ultra-rare and that he hadn't seen before. He couldn't wait to post a picture quiz on his botanical forum for people to try and guess the identity of the plant, but he said Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir (as I'm sure you all know, Scientific Director at JBG) would be banned from entering. Wise words.
American-born Sara Perzley graduated from the RBG Edinburgh. She is one of the 2013-4 scholars of horticulture at the Gardens, supported by the British Friends of the JBG. Here she writes about her work with rare plants.
Many visitors to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG) have strolled past the beds of rare and endangered plants in the garden. What they may not have realized, however, is that the contents of these beds represent only a small fraction of the Gardens’ total collection of rare plants. While it would be ideal to have the entire collection on public display, practical considerations prevent this, and most of the rare plants are kept behind the scenes in the propagation nursery, visible to guided groups only.
A large proportion of rare Israeli native plants, and Israeli native plants in general, are annuals, completing their entire lifecycle over the course of a year. This makes evolutionary sense in a climate with a hot, bone-dry summer. Instead of developing adaptations such as water storage organs or the ability to go dormant for a season, nimble annuals simply begin growing after the autumn and winter rains, and quickly flower and set seed by late spring or early summer. Although the plants themselves cannot survive through the dry season, their seeds can, and are ready to start the cycle over again in the autumn.
While this is a streamlined, efficient strategy from the point of view of the annuals, it makes for quite a lot of work for whoever is looking after the collection of rare plants at the JBG. At the moment, that would be me! I have spent my first several months at the Gardens sowing seeds, pricking out seedlings into larger containers, and of course, documenting the entire process in the plant records system.
As there is not enough space or time to plant all of the rare annuals out in the Gardens, most are kept to grow in buckets in the nursery, where they can be monitored and where their seeds can be easily collected to be sown again next autumn. The collection serves as a living gene bank for rare species, and occasionally some of the plants grown in the nursery are given to nature reserves to bolster or replace populations that have diminished or been lost.
One of the important records kept about the rare plant collection involves the percentage of seeds that germinate from each species sown. Many of the rare annuals germinate easily and quickly, approaching 100% germination, but others are more tricky, with less than 1% germination. For some species, germination can be aided by using techniques such as soaking the seeds in water before sowing or chilling them in a refrigerator. Data on how to propagate rare plants, most of which are not cultivated in gardens, can be difficult to impossible to find, so it is important for botanic gardens to keep their own records and notes for the future.
So far this year, a total of 127 rare species have been sown, spanning the alphabetical gamut from Acinos rotundifolius to Ziziphora tenuioir. Most of these are Israeli native plants listed in the Red Data Book: Endangered Plants of Israel, a catalogue of the 413 plant species that are most threatened in this country. However, the collection also includes a few rare plants collected in other parts of the world by JBG scientists and colleagues abroad. More rare seeds will be sown in February, from plants that prefer warmer growing temperatures and would not have been happy germinating during the middle of a Jerusalem winter, especially one that included a major winter snowstorm!