Overlooking the Judean Desert, a home for Israel’s flowers
The Mt. Scopus Botanical Gardens feature almost a third of the country’s 2,400 wildflower species, and a few surprises
When was the last time you gazed in awe at the petals of the multi-colored eastern golden drop? Sniffed the delicate fragrance of the Ramon marjoram plant? Or feasted your eyes on the regal petals of the stunning blue sage?
You can view all three of these rare delights (and hundreds more) on a marvelous spring walk through the Mt. Scopus Botanical Gardens at the Hebrew University. The Gardens cultivate and preserve Israel’s natural heritage for the generations to come. And, in the case of flowers that are either rare or slated to be wiped off nature’s map, to recall the glories of the past.
The Botanical Gardens on Mount Scopus were established in 1931, six years after the foundation of the first Hebrew university in the world. From the beginning, and unlike the Gardens developed much later at the University’s Givat Ram branch in west Jerusalem, the Mount Scopus grounds exhibited only flora from the Land of Israel – in habitats designed to be as natural as possible.
Creator of the gardens was Alexander Eig, born in Russia near the end of the 19th century. Eig was an incorrigible teenager who refused to attend school, preferring to wander about in Nature. At their wits’ end, his parents decided to send him to the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School in Israel.
But the studies were in French, which he didn’t understand, and even here he played hooky. Finally he quit school altogether and began working as a gardener in Tel Aviv.
One of his clients was Haim Bograshov, principal of the famous Herzliyah Gymnasia (the first modern Hebrew high school in Israel). Aware of his gardener’s intelligence, Bograshov convinced Eig to enroll in the Gymnasia. There he met his soul-mate, budding botanist, Eliezer Factorovsky. Both boys spent all their spare time in the fields, writing down the names of every plant, tree and flower outdoors.
Factorovsky died of tuberculosis at the age of 24; Eig went on to become the director of Botany at the brand new Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Convinced that his students could learn about flora only by examining them first hand, he insisted on the construction of adjacent botanical gardens. He picked an excellent spot, 826 meters above sea level on the edge of both the Judean Desert and the Jerusalem Hills. This unique location allowed both desert and Mediterranean plants to flourish.
During the War of Independence, Mount Scopus remained in Israel hands. Nevertheless, convoys had to travel through East Jerusalem to the Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University, and were constantly attacked by Arabs. On April 13, 1948, 78 medical personnel on their way to work were massacred by Arabs; afterwards, both university and hospital closed their doors.
Nineteen years later, Jerusalem was re-united and renovation and construction began at the university (and the dilapidated gardens). The university’s ground level was lowered by seven meters, to the level of today’s road; the rocks to the left of the entrance placed there to keep mud and flora from washing into the university became the perfect venue for exhibiting flora that grows in crevices and on cliffs.
As time went on, however, the garden was often shamelessly neglected. Then, a few years ago, work was completed on a non-circular wheelchair-accessible path leading through a portion of the gardens and to several of its main features. Designed by Ran Marin and developed by the Jewish National Fund, the gardens also gained a new entrance – complete with pretty but very bumpy stones and two babbling brooks.
Late winter and early spring are the most beautiful seasons for strolling through the botanical gardens, where you can enjoy nearly a third of Israel’s 2,400 species of wildflowers. On the rocks to the left of the entrance the matziz suri (Syrian golden drop) should be in bloom. This droopy plant, with yellow buds, grows only inside rocks. Indeed, if seeds fall into any other habitat it simply will not reproduce.
Like its name, the tri-colored wall snapdragon (loa ari tziliani) thrives inside walls and in Israel it is particularly evident on buildings in Tiberias, Acre, Jerusalem, Safed and Jaffa. Since these are all cities in which Crusaders dwelled, perhaps the Crusaders carried seeds in their cuffs and shoes that fell on the ground they walked. And where the seeds fell, flowers grew.
The gardens’ coastal habitat features some extremely rare foliage. Pishtanit yaffo (Jaffa toadflax), white and deep purple, is one of the rarest plants in Israel. Humat Haaviron (airplane dock), is found only on Israeli shores and nowhere else in the world – and is in danger of becoming extinct. Some say the fruits of this upright little plant resemble tiny Pipers.
If you like, run your hand up and down the bark of the eastern strawberry tree (ktalav) to see how pleasing it is. The bark, a lovely, deep red color 11 months of the year, peels on the 12th to reveal its green insides.
Examine the flowers to find that they resemble little, upside down pots. When an insect flies onto one of the petals, it climbs upside down in order to collect the flower’s pollen.
The beautiful yellow and white pishtanit meshuleshet (three-leaved toadflax) used to be everywhere in the open fields; now it is rather difficult to find in the wilds. Another flower to look for is the stunning purple and gold blue sage (marva kehula).
Our favorite is the somkan meutze, or Eastern golden drop, with long, drooping blossoms in yellow, gold and deep purple.
Among the Gardens’ non-floral attractions are an observation deck which offers a wonderful view of the Judean Desert, and a two-story shomera — a modern replica of the biblical watchtower described in Isaiah (Ch. 5) that also served as a temporary storehouse for crops reaped by Israelite farmers in the Judean Hills. It was built as a memorial to four Israelis and the chairman of the Jordanian-Israeli Ceasefire Committee, Lieutenant-Colonel George Flint, ruthlessly cut down by Jordanian bullets on May 26, 1958.
The biggest surprise in the Gardens, however, is a site dating back to the Second Temple period that has been cleaned up and opened to visitors. It was discovered in 1903, when Liverpool attorney Sir John Gray Hill began digging the groundwork for a large estate on Mount Scopus. Inside a large burial complex he found an ossuary with the following Greek inscription: “The bones of the family of Nikanor the Alexandrian who gave the gates of the Temple.”
Years ago, there were plans to set this area aside for the burial of the country’s most prestigious figures. Two of Zionism’s most important personages were buried here: Menachem Ussishkin and Yehuda Leib Pinsker (a Zionist who predated Herzl). Later, however, Mount Herzl became the official VIP burial site.
The Gardens are open Sunday through Thursday 8:00-17:00; Fridays until 13:00. To reach the Gardens, visitors must climb stairs and walk through part of the university; if you are unable to handle steps, call in advance for permission to use a closer, accessible entrance. Please bring a passport or identity card with you in either case.
For further information, see the Gardens’ new web site.
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.
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