Sweet smell of success wafts from Israel’s ‘Basil Tree’

A 78 year-old Holocaust survivor triumphantly returns to his birthplace, showing off the latest in Israeli horticulture technology

Yechezkel Dagan (C.), flanked by Hishtil executives Reut Rothman (L.) and Ronny Hasid (R.), present Hishtil's Basil Tree at IPM Essen (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yechezkel Dagan (C.), flanked by Hishtil executives Reut Rothman (L.) and Ronny Hasid (R.), present Hishtil's Basil Tree at IPM Essen (Photo credit: Courtesy)

A unique Israeli-developed plant has won a top prize in the world’s biggest horticulture event. The “Basil Tree” isn’t just pretty to look at, according to Hishtil, the Israeli “inventor” of the tree, but practical, too: The bonsai-style mini-tree grows basil perennially, allowing people with herb gardens to have an ongoing supply of the herb, instead of having to replant a new basil seedling each time they use up their supply.

The tree was developed by grafting basil roots into a miniature bonsai plant. The basil takes root inside the tree, ensuring solid, long-lasting roots and a new basil “crop” comes in every four weeks or so, according to the company. The tree was developed to withstand harsher climates, and is designed for use in North America, Britain, and Europe. With a little tender loving care, it should be able to last for years, Hishtil said.

Basil is popular in Italian cooking, but growing it can be a hassle, requiring sprouting, transferring into the ground from a seed flowerpot, and regular care to prevent insect infestation. Hishtil sells the Basil Tree as a full-grown plant (30 cm tall). It’s resistant to insects, so no pesticides are needed, and can be kept indoors in the flowerpot it comes in, Hishtil said.

The mini-tree won the prize for best new horticultural development at the just-completed IPM Horticulture Show in Essen, Germany, beating out dozens of competitors for the prize. Over 1,500 companies showed off their wares to around 57,000 trade visitors from over 100 countries at IPM, which was attended by representatives of some of the largest home and garden stores around the world. This is the first time an Israeli-developed plant has won a prize at the show, which has been held annually for the past 32 years.

Hishtil, Israel’s largest horticulture company and nursery, was started over three decades ago by Yechezkel Dagan, a refugee from the Holocaust who was born and spent his early years in the German city of Essen, where the IPM event was held. Dagan, 78, fled Essen with his family when he was a small child, moving to Israel, where he eventually established Hishtil. Today the company has 400 employees in Israel and 500 abroad in partner companies Hishtil works with in Europe and the US, and sells over a billion seedlings each year.

Bonsai basil trees are hardly the only high-tech project Hishtil is involved in. The company has invested in an agricultural start-up called Tomaisin, which has developed sun-dried tomatoes that grow already dried, on the vine. The plants, developed in cooperation with Israel’s Volcani Institute agricultural technology center, are resistant to bugs, and saves on shipping and processing costs for tomato paste and ketchup producers, who in any event remove the water from whole tomatoes as the first step in processing.

Dagan is one of Israel’s true “old timers,” having fought alongside the late Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and Sar-El Division commander Aharon Davidi as the first religious member of the paratroopers, which he joined in 1956. Several years ago, Dagan was awarded a Life Achievement Award by the Israel Vegetable Growers Association for his many contributions to Israeli agriculture and horticulture. Dagan came to the ceremony dressed in work clothes – the same outfit he wears almost daily on his forays into the fields. “Someone asked me why I wasn’t wearing a white shirt for this event,” Dagan said in his acceptance speech. “It’s because I believe that Hishtil, and Israeli agriculture in general, still has a lot of work to do, despite our accomplishments.”

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