It’s just three days until Christmas Eve, and for the most part, no one’s paying much attention in these parts — apart from some 150,000 Christians, the expected 90,000 visiting pilgrims, and the embassy workers and foreign journalists who are making Israel their temporary home.
Those in need of a tree can take advantage of the Jewish National Fund’s Yuletide spirit (they also have free holiday e-cards online) and pick up a free Christmas tree — an Arizona cypress that is “especially suited to serve as attractive Christmas decor,” according to the JNF — grown from year-old saplings in a plot delineated for the annual Christmas-tree handout. Private individuals can also pick up their own specimen for just NIS 80 — not a bad price for the 6-foot-tall trees.
But if you’re hankering for tree sightings, without all the tinsel and twinkling lights, it could be time to take a tree tour, visiting a selection of the 110 best trees in Israel. The tree mapping is a project of the KKL-JNF Ancient Tree task force, which has been operating for the last eight years, mapping specific trees and determining their age, measurements and overall health. Travel writer Yaakov Shkolnik is part of the JNF team, having worked with the tree organization for many years, including the writing of “101 Trees,” a JNF book about 101 trees and stories throughout Israel.
In honor of the upcoming holiday, he introduced a group of us to his three favorite trees in Jerusalem; we’re adding two more, for a total of top five trees.
1) Shkolnik, as he’s often called, led us first to the Garden of Gethsemane, outside the Church of All Nations, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Gat Shmanim, as it’s called in Hebrew, means “oil press,” probably so called for the ancient olives trees planted in the garden. It’s known for being the place where Jesus and his disciples prayed the day before his death, which is why most pilgrims and tourists come here. But the trees themselves are worth a visit. They are massive in width, unusually so for the generally small, twisted species, with wide trunks that can’t be easily spanned by human arms. These, however, are mostly hollow inside, with young shoots growing out of cracks in the trunk that ultimately rejuvenate the trees, explained Shkolnik.
2) Another favorite set of saplings are up on Mount Scopus, just next to Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University, in the British War Cemetery where 2,515 British soldiers were buried following World War I battles in pre-state Palestine. Just outside the well-manicured space is a soaring bay laurel tree, a genus of the evergreen tree, this one with at least eight separate trunks and a bush of bay leaves growing at its base. Inside the cemetery, surrounded by the pristine rows of simple gravestones and well-mowed grass, is a dying strawberry tree, a once-glorious specimen of low-lying branches with a red trunk and edible berries, according to Mohammed Khalil, the longtime gardener. Khalil, an employee of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who has been taking care of the various British cemeteries for the last 42 years, explained that the berries of the tree are not actually strawberries, but are edible, although slightly bitter.
3) Down toward the center of town, Shkolnik led us to the Valley of the Cross. In this valley stands the Monastery of the Cross, a Crusader-period structure that was sold to the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1600s. Legend has it that the monastery was built on the burial spot of the biblical Adam’s head, from which a giant cypress grew, whose wood was used for the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. Whether legend or true, there are now two massive cypresses standing in the courtyard of the monastery, reaching up into the sky. One of the trees has a trunk that is deeply embedded into the metal banister, seemingly holding up the stone staircase of the ancient structure.
4) Out of the 110 trees touted on the KKL map, I was intrigued by a lemon eucalyptus located at 8 Shapira Street in Petach Tikva. It’s described as a strong, powerful tree, reaching well above the 6-story apartment building at its side. Its trunk peels once a year, revealing a yellowish skin underneath, and the leaves give off a lemony scent.
5) I loved the look of this lone acacia tree sitting in the midst of a working field near the Bedouin town of Rahat in the western Negev. At a height of nine meters, with an 18-meter span of shade, it’s easy to envision it as the possible burning bush that the biblical Moses encountered in the desert, given that it’s visible from 400 meters away, according to the JNF directions. Tracking down the tree is a bit of an adventure, but worth the trip: Drive from Kibbutz Shoval south in the direction of Rahat, on Road 264. After about 3.5 kilometers, turn westward into a dirt road that leads to a cemetery. The road passes along the northern fence of the cemetery and veers left toward the fields. The tree is visible from 400 meters west, and can be reached by foot or car, depending on weather and driving conditions.
Call 02-658-3459 for a free copy of JNF’s “110 Best Trees”; “101 Special and Amazing Trees in Israel” by Yaakov Shkolnik is available at Steimatzky and at Tzomet Sfarim.