Israel’s total rainfall normal, despite dry start; cold promises late floral show

Ecologist recommends hitting southern deserts for a colorful display in mid-May, with rainfall there three times last year’s quantity

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Flowers bloom along the Cedar Trail in the Jerusalem Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Flowers bloom along the Cedar Trail in the Jerusalem Forest. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

People who want to take a wildflower hike after much of the country’s vegetation has already succumbed to the heat may want to plan a trip to Paran in the southern desert — one of the driest parts of the country —  which this season received three times its annual rainfall.

That’s the recommendation of Emeritus Prof. Avi Shmida, an evolutionary ecologist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, as he reviewed the effects of the cold and rain that have intermittently pummeled the country over the last couple of months.

This year, like last year, the cold caused delayed flowering.

By contrast, warmer winters during the past decade saw relatively early flowering, Shmida pointed out.

Studies have shown the long-term trend in Israel to be one of warming temperatures due to climate change.

According to the Bible, the desiccated wilderness of Paran is where the slave Hagar wandered with her baby, Ishmael, after Abram (later Abraham) sent her into exile. It’s also an area where the Israelites spent part of their 40 years of meandering after the Exodus from Egypt.

According to the Israel Meteorological Service data, Paran’s rainfall between October 25 and April 14 is up 311 percent compared with the same period last year.

“Paran will be a blast (for flora lovers) in mid-May,” predicted Shmida, who also noted that this year, like last year, cold snaps in February and March have delayed wildflower blooming.

The Paran riverbed. (Nizzan Cohen, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“The Negev desert will be sensational in another month – from Mitzpe Ramon southward, throughout the Arava,” Shmida said.

In Jerusalem, red turban buttercups — which normally flower in mid-March — can still be found on (cooler) north-facing slopes, for example in Emek Arazim (Cedar Valley), Shmida said.

The mandrake flowered two weeks late, he added.

Mandrake roots can resemble human figures and have been used through the ages for voodoo-like curses. Rituals developed around the gathering of the mandrakes, whose fruit was (and still is) regarded as an aphrodisiac; it was also believed an uprooted plant would scream and kill anyone within hearing distance. Mandrakes appeared in the Harry Potter books as a plant that screams, requiring its handlers to protect their ears.

A mandragora (mandrake) plant from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, a book about herbal plants, written by Leonhart Fuchs and published in Basel in 1542. (Wellcome Collection gallery, 2018, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The so-called Judas Tree, which has usually stopped blooming by the end of March, is still showing off its delicate pink flowers, Shmida pointed out, and — thanks to the cold, has triple the blooms.

Tradition says that Judas Iscariot hung himself from such a tree — an unlikely event, given that a tree of this size would probably break under a man’s weight.

Israel Meteorological Service figures show that to date, this winter’s rain has hovered around annual averages in Jerusalem and the northern Negev Desert and exceeded those averages in Sdom (131%) and Hatzeva (205%) in the southern desert. It reached 225% in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

However, central and northern coastal areas, and the north of the country, have been drier than usual, scoring 69% in Deir Hanna in the Lower Galilee, 75% in Safed, and 76% in both Haifa on the northern coast and Ramat Hasharon next to Tel Aviv.

Dr. Amos Porat, director of Climate Services at the Israel Meteorological Service, noted that while this month’s rains have been particularly heavy, they were not abnormally so.

“This kind of year isn’t strange – it’s happened before,” he said. “There are days with heavier rain, but nothing you can say is a pattern. It’s still behaving in a relatively normal way.”

Turban buttercup. (Alastair Rae, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

An IMS study published in February 2021 found that over three periods examined during the past 90 years, total rainfall had remained much the same, although distribution patterns had changed.

The Golan Heights and the eastern Galilee were receiving less rain, the report said, while the western Galilee and the southern coastal plain were becoming wetter.

The researchers also found a gradual lessening of rain in November and a gradual increase in January and February.

A Judas tree in bloom. (Orna Lotan collection, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

A separate study, on heavy rainfall between 1951 and 2021, published in February last year analyzed data from 58 rain stations across the country, noting a “tendency” for an increase in heavy rain events in most areas, although this was only statistically significant in the northwest.

The current winter saw relatively little rain during October, December, and January, with rain in November slightly below average. Rain fell during the end of January and early February, and over much of March, starting up again with storms in the second week of April.

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