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