Adam and Eve may have been exiled from the Garden of Eden, but at least a few of their progeny were fortunate enough to return. These lucky souls live at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, founded on the desert slopes of Judea in 1953 as the first Jewish settlement on the site in more than 1,400 years.
Like their counterparts in the Negev, and the Israelites who preceded them at Ein Gedi, the new settlers toiled vigorously to make the desert bloom. Along with date palms and grapefruit they planned to sell in the local markets, the young farmers industriously planted flowers in little plots right outside their doors. The gardens succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and agricultural institutes from all over the world soon began bringing specimens to the kibbutz to determine how they would fare in the desert.
The results were incontestable: A unique combination of climatic conditions combined with smart irrigation produced foliage that was more successful at Ein Gedi than in its original African or Mediterranean home. So luxuriant and diverse that it was proclaimed an International Botanical Gardens in 1994, Kibbutz Ein Gedi is, today, a veritable paradise boasting well over 1,000 species of plant life and a unique botanical aura.
Visitors are welcome in the Botanical Gardens, despite their proximity to the kibbutz members’ homes. Enjoy the view as you walk through the kibbutz: to the east the Dead Sea peeks out from beyond foliage of mammoth proportions, shining a brilliant, incandescent blue; to the west stark brown desert cliffs stand tall against a bright sapphire sky, providing a striking backdrop for the lush green of the kibbutz gardens.
Ein Gedi’s giant monstera, which originates in the tropics, is a waxy, dark green plant that will undoubtedly catch your eye. Monstera is Latin for “monster” and the name probably refers to the plant’s strange, claw-like leaves. In some parts of South America people participating in religious ceremonies hold monstera leaves to drive away evil spirits.
In spring, trees known as “flamboyant,” “flame tree,” or “peacock flower” bloom with fiery reddish-orange flowers. Originally from Madagascar, although practically extinct in their native land, the trees add stunning color to the gardens. So does the jacaranda, or fern tree. Native to Brazil, the jacaranda has beautiful violet-blue leaves shaped like bells. It blooms in summer and in winter loses its leaves, letting in the light of day.
Look for nosegays – also known as frangipani – sporting red, purple, and fragrant white flowers. Traditionally, these colorful blossoms are twisted into the leis that natives place over your head when you visit the tropics. Here, brides-to-be sometimes work them into their hair.
Certain snakes obtain their poison from the tropical adenium, or at least that’s what the natives believe. And they say that if you stand in front of this shrub, or touch its leaves, you contract eye inflammations and suffer from terrible pain
Ein Gedi residents are proud of their baobabs, a species of tree that features prominently in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic book, “The Little Prince.” Identified by their very thick trunks, white flowers, and strange, elongated fruit, baobabs at Ein Gedi are often even bigger than their cousins growing in their native habitats of Africa and Madagascar. Interestingly, the trunk holds an enormous amount of water, making it extremely successful desert foliage.
Africans call it the “upside-down tree” as an African legend tells us that the devil once picked up the baobab, pushed its branches into the ground, and left its roots hanging in the air. Because the fruit closely resembles a loaf of bread, the baobab is also known as the “monkey-bread tree.” That’s because, they say, monkeys who eat it end up with a high. Actually, birds and animals shelter in its branches and are nourished by the fruit; people use the bark fiber for making rope, baskets, musical instrument strings, and waterproof hats.
Certain snakes obtain their poison from the tropical adenium, or at least that’s what the natives believe. And they say that if you stand in front of this shrub, or touch its leaves, you contract eye inflammations and suffer from terrible pain. This particular plant, of which there are many at Ein Gedi, sports pink and white flowers and an elongated shoot.
The Bible tells us that when the Queen of Sheba visited the land of Israel, she brought “a great train, with camels that bore spices…” (I Kings 10:2). According to a local legend, she also brought a species of balsam tree whose sap was made into a perfume that drove men wild with passion. This unguent, a real man-catcher and reportedly used by Cleopatra herself, also had miraculous healing properties. Some say that King Solomon planted it in the wilderness of Ein Gedi.
Jews settled Ein Gedi a century or two after the Queen of Sheba’s visit, a few kilometers south of the modern-day kibbutz. While residents farmed, with impressive success, their immense prosperity really stemmed from manufacture of the marvelous perfume. Some researchers believe that balsam was the balm of Gilead mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
Historians tell us that Israelite kings were anointed with balsam oil, and that balsam-oil production was earmarked for the royal household. Not surprisingly, the secret of its manufacture was heavily guarded by the townspeople. In fact, that’s probably why Israelite, Hellenistic, and Roman rulers kept Ein Gedi more or less intact over the centuries. Today’s settlers are growing two species of balsam tree in the hope that one of them will prove to be a descendant of the Queen of Sheba’s gift to Solomon.
Kibbutz Ein Gedi is located on Route 90, west of the Dead Sea. Entrance to the Botanical Gardens: 8:30-15:30. On weekdays buy tickets at the office to the right of the gate; on Saturdays at the gate itself. You can guide yourself through the kibbutz with the pamphlet you will receive. For more information call: 08-6594726 (outside of Israel 972 8 6594726). The gardens are wheelchair accessible.
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.