I am a self-confessed plant bore. My garden is my refuge. On trips and travels, I’m the one photographing the flowers and obsessively identifying them when I get home. Once a week, I even teach plants to kids at an elementary school.
It’s now three years since I left the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens — my spiritual home for a good seven years and a place that still occupies a special place in my heart.
On Saturday night, I went back there, in my mind, after receiving the sad news that Dr. Michael Avishai, the gardens’ co-founder and scientific director — and a source of personal inspiration for me — had died, at the age of 83.
Avishai was born in Berlin in 1935 and survived much of World War II hiding with his mother in a Czech village.
After moving around Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war, he immigrated to Israel in 1948.
He completed his school education, became a gardener and entered the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, eventually gaining a PhD in plant breeding.
After creating a plot of native Israeli plants to assist the botany professors at West Jerusalem’s Givat Ram university campus, he was asked in 1962 by the pioneering botanist Michael Zohary to start a second botanical garden on a 65-acre site close to the Knesset and the Israel Museum — neither of which had yet been built. (The first garden, specializing in wild plants of Israel, was planted in 1931 on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, where it still exists.)
The Givat Ram gardens – around 30 acres of which have been developed to date – were originally intended to test the potential of cultivated species for the Israeli market. Many of the plants that grace the country’s streets and gardens today spent their first months getting acclimatized (or not) under Avishai’s watchful gaze.
In time, Avishai implemented Zohary’s vision of a garden that was designed in geographical sections. To the outdoor plant exhibits, he would add a tropical conservatory and several water plant ponds.
Avishai, like Zohary, understood the massive potential that the location of Jerusalem – and Israel – offered for cultivating flora from a wide swath of the globe. Jerusalem straddles the seam between the Mediterranean and desert regions of the northern hemisphere. Israel sits at the crossroads of three climatic regions and three continents — Africa, Asia and Europe – and enjoys huge topographical and climatic variety – a precondition for natural diversity.
Avishai helped to shape and then make the most of the geographical plan designed by the late Israel Prize-winning landscape architect Shlomo Aronson. He used the rolling topography and created micro-climates to suit the many species he wanted displayed.
I met Avishai some years after his 2001 retirement when, as emeritus scientific director, he would come daily to the Gardens (which he referred to as his “third child”) to deal with correspondence, continue with his research, teach, lecture and guide.
The big picture
He belonged to a generation that has all but disappeared.
A gentleman versed in European culture and manners, a polyglot and a person of great knowledge, insight and intelligence, he stood out, for me, for his ability to see the big picture.
Versed in evolution, geology, botany of course, and doubtless many other disciplines as well, he deeply grasped that one can only understand the extraordinary world of flora (as well as of fauna) within the context of the great tectonic shifts and climatic changes that have shaped planet Earth for billions of years.
Often, while stopping at a particular species during a guided walk (not for long, though — he was constantly hurrying along people a third of his age so as to see as many plants as possible), he would refer back to the huge super continent Pangaea that existed on earth some 270 million years ago and split into two around 200 million years ago.
The southern part – Gondwana — included Africa, Australia and South America. The northern part, Laurasia, included parts of Europe, Asia, North America and China.
He would explain how, since then, land masses had moved and changed character and climates had cooled and warmed up again. Plant life, all of which originated in Pangaea, had diverged and branched off in different directions. Species that were unable to adapt had disappeared. New species had continuously evolved.
“While a garden organized by botanical groupings can demonstrate the distribution of plants across Earth today, our Garden can help to demonstrate how the world’s flora has evolved by exhibiting plants in their geographical context,” he would explain.
The result, if you knew what to look for, or had Avishai as your guide, was that you could trace a plant family such as the cypresses as it “wandered” all over the globe and adapted to different conditions, eventually putting down roots in the United States (as redwoods and swamp cypresses, for example), in China (as junipers) or in Australia (as Callitris).
While living thousands of kilometers apart in the wild, these species — most of which have retained common ancestral features, such as scale-like leaves — could be seen within an hour’s walk at the Gardens.
One of Avishai’s areas of special interest was the oak, which has around 450 species, 72 of which are on display at the Gardens. Oaks are dominant members of many plant communities in much of the northern hemisphere, all the way from Colombia in South America to Oregon in the northwest US, and from China westwards to Portugal.
Avishai would say that the distribution of the oak genus demonstrated how North America, for example – and the West Coast in particular — was once connected to Asia via the now-submerged Bering Bridge, and to Europe via Greenland, Iceland and other pieces of land that are now under the sea.
During one conversation with me, he explained the determined efforts he was making, with the help of genetic research, to identify the male oak in the Gardens that had managed to fertilize a single specimen of a Kurdish oak. In the wild, oak species tend not to interbreed.
My go-to source
While at the Gardens, I relaunched and co-edited the Gardens’ quarterly magazine and, among other things, co-wrote texts for an online course, explanatory signs, and two audio tours of the Gardens, one of which I co-narrated with Avishai. I also took English-speaking VIPs on tours.
Avishai was my go-to source for the kind of plant stories that held me spellbound, and that I could use to enchant others and bring them closer to the plant world.
I would sit with him whenever he had time (which was not very often – he was always busy) to tease out quirky stories and to keep asking “why?” and he would lend me books on subjects about which I was eager to learn more.
He would talk about living fossils – plants thought to have gone extinct long ago, only to be discovered by chance on some remote mountain side the (Wollemi Pine) or propping up a paddy field (the Water Fir) and identified by fossils millions of years old.
He would share stories about the magical interrelationships between plants, other living creatures and the elements.
Who would have thought, for example, that olive oil has such a special function in nature (for nearly everything in nature appears to have a function, even if we do not yet understand what it is)? After the olive has fallen to the ground and the time for germination has arrived, microbes in the soil break down the oil, signaling to the seed inside the pit that it can germinate and put out its first leaves. That one left me speechless.
I suggested that we conduct a series of walks where I would record what he knew about every plant for a book about the Gardens.
As usual, he said he didn’t have the time. Now, I fear that much of his knowledge will disappear with him.
From his retirement in 2001 until a bad fall a few months ago in which he broke his hip and had to undergo surgery and lengthy rehabilitation, Avishai could be seen every morning tending to his beloved water plant collection.
He kindly supplied me with specimens for the ponds at the school where I teach, and we would talk about this species, with its feathery leaves, which was adapted so as not to tear in strong currents, or that one, whose surface was ridged to repel water and thus prevent the buildup of fungus.
The flowers and seeds of water lilies, Nelumbo (Sacred Lotus) and the giant Victoria amazonica (whose vegetal “scaffolding” enables each massive plate-shaped leaf to support up to 24 kilograms of weight) are members of an ancient plant family that evolved before bees and butterflies, he would explain.
The simple, dish-shaped flower provides an easy landing pad for primitive, hit-and-miss pollinators such as beetles. It also offers nutrient-rich tissue and pollen, plus a warm place for the night.
The flowers are able to heat up and in so doing provide the most inviting “bed and board” for beetles with mating on their minds. The flower closes in the evening, trapping the insects inside, and only reopens the next morning, releasing beetles that are now covered in pollen, which they will take to fertilize another flower later in the day.
That Avishai was able to grow the Victoria amazonica in a climate so different from the tropical Amazon River basin was testament to his patience, skill, and determination to never stop learning.
In an age of ego and bluster, Avishai, who was laid to rest on Monday, was a quiet man who eschewed small talk and spoke only when he had something to say.
He inspired generations of students, interns, overseas scholars, gardeners, volunteers and members of JBG’s staff.
His shoes will be very hard to fill.