‘Blood of Maccabees’ wildflower grows in popularity in time for Memorial Day

Family project succeeds in cultivating plant, producing memorial pins that connect ancient legend of heroism with modern day martyrs

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The Dam Hamaccabim Project's memorial  pin. (Efrat Cohen)
The Dam Hamaccabim Project's memorial pin. (Efrat Cohen)

A family project to cultivate and get Israelis to wear a wild, blood-red flower associated with the ancient Maccabees on Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism has attracted tens of thousands of orders in this, its second year.

The Dam Hamaccabim Project, which echoes the plant’s Hebrew name, “Blood of the Maccabees” (English name, “Red Everlasting,” botanical name, Helichrysum sanguineum), received 50,000 orders this year, up from 30,000 last year, and is already taking orders for 2021. Israeli Memorial Day falls on Tuesday, April 28 this year.

Shabi Spero, a tour guide from the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, and his brother Natan Spero and cousin Ariyel Maresky, both from Jerusalem, lost an uncle and cousin in the suicide bombing at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood in 2003. Among the victims of that bomb were Dr. David Applebaum, head of the emergency room at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, and his daughter Nava, then 20, who was to have been married the following day.

Today, Ariyel is married to Nava’s sister, Shira.

But, said Shabi Spero, “While our uncle and cousin are definitely in our hearts always, it was the national importance of the legend and symbol that we sought to redeem.”

From left: Ariyel, Shabi and Natan of the Dam Hamaccabim Project. (Yonit Schiller)

He continued, “The sticker (which has an image of the flower, and is commonly worn today) never really managed to convey the message. The flower never got the respect it deserved. We have a national symbol which is so beautiful and ties in so well with the concept of our building a people and a culture out of loss.”

The wild herbaceous perennial blooms April through May, mainly on Israel’s hills but also further down toward the coast, depending on the soil.

It has greyish, furry stems and leaves and what appears to be a blood-red flower (technically straw-like, modified red leaves and tiny flowers that are actually yellow).

Helichrysum sanguineum phographed on Mount Carmel, Israel, (Gideon Pisanty, CC BY 3.0, Hebrew Wikipedia, April 29, 2008)

The fact that its color does not fade after drying not only made it popular among pickers, which is why it was awarded protected status, but has given it an immortal quality which for early Zionists made it the perfect symbol of the Maccabees and their heroic battles against the Greeks to liberate the land just under 2,000 years ago, and therefore an ideal motivating tool.

According to legend, a red flower would forever grow wherever a Maccabee warrior’s blood fell to the ground.

Having decided to replace the sticker with the real deal, the three men had to find a way to grow what was a species not in cultivation.

Zion Simantov of Seeds of Zion. (Facebook)

They linked up with Zion Simantov, owner of Seeds of Zion, based out of Moshav Kerem Maharal, in northern Israel. He grows wild Israeli plants for the rehabilitation of land damaged by infrastructure projects, as well as for the selling of seeds.

It then took “two years of two steps forward, one step back, without the help of any academic literature,” according to Spero, as Simantov conducted experiments, finally reaching success two months before Memorial Day last year. Since then, Simantov has figured out how to make the plant bloom from the end of January so that there is time to dry, preserve and dispatch the memorial pins in time for Memorial Day.

Last year was a mad rush with 30,000 flower pins distributed for free, some of them to the Orange County JCC in the US.

The Dam Hamaccabim Project pin. (Efrat Cohen)

This year, with the coronavirus derailing plans to get 100,000 pins produced for Israel and the US, the not-for-profit project, that is assisted by hundreds of volunteers, is distributing 50,000 just locally, both to large organizations such as Bank Hapoalim, Ashdod Port, and Yad Labanim, and to individuals. The price per pin ranges from NIS 5 to NIS 8 ($1.40 to $2.30), depending on the number ordered. Bereaved families do not pay and organizations serving them are asked to make a donation.

Last year, the Defense Ministry’s chief agronomist contacted the project to ask whether the flower could be grown in all of Israel’s military cemeteries. “It’s something we’d love to do,” Spero said.

It remains unclear exactly when the species Red Everlasting was chosen to symbolize the country’s fallen heroes. It was apparently preceded by another local red wildflower, a buttercup called Pheasant’s-eye (Adonis).

According to an article about the plant published on Tuesday (in Hebrew) by the National Library, it certainly appeared on a stamp issued for Independence Day in 1954. A year later, elementary school children were asked to wear the flower on Memorial Day, from whence it became that day’s official symbol.

Most Popular
read more: