Just moments before bulldozers started work on the Menachem Begin Highway in 1994, botanists and staff at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG), together with Prof. Avi Shmida from the Hebrew University, rescued small green Salvia bracteata plants from destruction. A type of sage used as a Middle Eastern folk medicine for all kinds of ailments, Salvia bracteata had always been rare in Israel. And by now this site was the only place in the country where they existed in the wild.

The plants were brought to the JBG which, like other botanical gardens, works to save plant species from extinction by nurturing them and returning them to nature. Cultivated by the JBG for decades, they were plentiful enough by 2016 to be distributed at spots throughout the city and on the Judean Mountains.

But that wasn’t sufficient for the people at the JBG Hubitus (the JBG Hub for Urban Sustainability), an entity created in 2014 for the express purpose of promoting social environmental activism in the city. So, as part of a special campaign and to add extra value to the project, Jerusalem high schoolers from the Green Team Program — who originally had no interest in flowers — were asked to plant Salvia bracteata near nursery schools, in parks, within the city’s Gazelle Valley, and at a number of community gardens. Hub Director Lior Gottesman adds that, besides being instructed in the correct way to plant flowers, they also learned how man-made changes in the natural order can upset a very delicate ecological balance.

We recently got a firsthand look at the long arm of the Hub on a fascinating tour of the JBG. Along with stops to view a variety of stunning flowers, and a visit to an unusual terrace, Bible Path and Discovery Trail, we visited a number of unique projects that bring communities into the gardens and the gardens into the community.

The salvia bractaea plant was saved from near extinction and reintroduced to the wild by the Jerusalem Botanical Garden. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Salvia bractaea plant was saved from near extinction and reintroduced to the wild by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jerusalem boasts two large botanical gardens, both affiliated with the Hebrew University. But there is no competition between them, for the Mount Scopus Gardens, begun in 1931, are less than a quarter of the size of the JBG. And while those at Scopus present strictly native Israeli plants and flowers, the JBG, established in the 1950s, researches and displays flora from most of the regions of the world. Besides, while free, the Scopus gardens are only open when the university is holding classes. You can visit the gardens at Givat Ram, on the other hand, seven days a week (for a fee).

Construction is under way at the entrance to the JBG, where a beautiful Visitors’ Center is slated to open next year. Much of the site is wheelchair accessible, and in the past we found this the perfect venue for taking our wheelchair-bound dad on nature walks.

One of the more unusual plants on display in the Southern Africa section of the garden is the thatching reed, from the Cape Peninsula, which flowers in brown and resembles the blossoms on our bulrushes.

The thatching reed is native to the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The thatching reed is native to the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two more plants also brighten up the Southern Africa display, both in shades of lilac, but otherwise completely different. One, a small shrub that blooms all summer, is called crystal rose. The second, the spiny tortoise-berry, probably got its name since — in addition to ostriches and baboons — turtles like to eat its red fruit.

On our way over to the European section, we ran into several Roman-era burial caves that are fun to explore. And every once in a while we encountered the garden’s miniature train carrying dozens of excited schoolchildren. Gottesman told us that over 1,200 young pupils visit the botanical gardens each week to plant flowers and vegetables. Indeed, said Gottesman, with 92% of Israel’s population living in cities, these days, it is vital for them to discover that produce doesn’t grow on shelves in their neighborhood supermarket.

Over 1,200 students visit the gardens each week to plant flowers and vegetables. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Over 1,200 students visit the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens each week to plant flowers and vegetables. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Blooming in the California section in late spring was the giant coreopsis with its distinctively tall, thick wooden stem. JBG curator Shira Carmeli showed us how each of its small daisy-like flowers is composed of petal-like “ray flowers” surrounding tiny “disk flowers.”

Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy was an avid explorer. During one of his voyages in 1770, he was accompanied by botanist Sir Joseph Banks. It was Banks who collected plants of an Australian species — banksia — that today bears his name.

The banksia, native to Australia, was collected by British explorer Captain James Cook on an expedition to the country in 1770. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The banksia, native to Australia, was collected by British explorer Captain James Cook on an expedition to the country in 1770. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Many banksia, easy to recognize because of their coned “heads”, flourish in the gardens’ Australia section. Carmeli pointed out the difference between two of them: one, with razor-sharp leaves and a brown cone-shaped inflorescence, is a tall shrub. The other grows horizontally and its salmon-colored top makes it impossible to miss.

Decent signs are woefully lacking throughout the gardens, and have been for decades. So when you visit, ask for a map and use the audio guides as well. You won’t need them, however, in the Bible Path, where over 30 excellent signs in three languages provide in-depth information about biblical plant-life from wheat to acacia trees.

Another attraction is especially fun for children. Called the Discovery Trail, it features a stream, soil meant for digging, a walk on a bridge high above the treetops, and a short trek through a sculpture made of eucalyptus branches.

The Discovery Trail is an area of the Botanical Gardens designed for children. (Judith Magnes)

The Discovery Trail is an area of the Botanical Gardens designed for children. (Judith Magnes)

Visitors are also invited to explore the Geophyte Terrace, a collection of especially brilliant flowers located near the nursery, in the upper western portion of the gardens.

What visitors generally do not see are some exciting programs coordinated by the Hub, and hosted in the gardens. One consists of a hydroponic greenhouse in which high school dropouts from the non-profit Kaima grow a variety of greens in enriched water. Their closed-circuit system saves hundreds of cubes of water and takes only one-fourth of the land space that would be needed in the fields.

The non-profit Reut is one of many socially minded organizations that utilize the Hub’s completely accessible greenhouse for horticultural therapy and occupational training. This particular program is meant for adults suffering from mental illness who have been hospitalized for long periods, and gets them ready for regular jobs or protected employment in the outside world.

The garden's Reut project supports adults suffering from mental illnesses. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The garden’s Reut project supports adults suffering from mental illnesses. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A third project, under the umbrella of the non-profit Alut, is quite unique to Israel. Based in a clubhouse within the gardens, it is meant for low functioning autistic young men who received all kinds of special help while in school and are now without a daily framework. Here they are helped to retain basic behaviors (dressing, shaving, interacting with others, for example).

They also work outside the clubhouse, where they meet many of the JBG Club volunteers — groups of generally retired English and Hebrew speakers. Volunteers come once a week for horticultural and environmental training and education, and spend another day volunteering in the gardens, and with the projects, here and in other sites across the city. Often, a warm relationship develops between a volunteer and people in the programs — a great experience for everyone.

The Alut project provides a framework for young men with autism. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Alut project provides a framework for young men with autism. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Obviously, with its social programs, important research, and community outreach – including classes and workshops for the public — the JBG is far more than simply a venue for showing off beautiful flowers. In fact, Gottesman likes to quote former director Oren Ben-Yosef, who would say that the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is a place where plants grow the people — and not just where the people grow plants.

See the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ web site for up-to-date information on opening hours, entrance fees, which plants are in flower and much more: https://www.botanic.co.il/en/.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.