With rainforest and rare species, little-known Jerusalem garden aims to flourish

The cultivated green lung of the capital’s Botanical Gardens is a hub for 6,000 species, a research center, and a free field of flora and fauna for the capital’s kids

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The rainforest interior of the renovated Tropical Conservatory at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The rainforest interior of the renovated Tropical Conservatory at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It had been years since I had walked around the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, located on the southeastern edge of Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus.

But an invitation from Hannah Rendell, the British-born, new executive director of the gardens, induced me to come see what’s new at the gardens, with its rolling hills of more than 6,000 species of flora and fauna.

Rendell wanted to show off the tropical conservatory, which was recently renovated. It reopened in the fall and mimics a mini rainforest, featuring some 300 species of plants, including banana trees, coffee plants, orchids, cacti — and a separate desert region. All cared for by one gardener.

Along the way, admittedly, in a golf cart, we covered a lot of ground, and I learned the following:

Hannah Rendell, executive director of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

1. The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is not a show garden with stretches of carefully cultivated beds of flowers. Rather, it is a scientific and research center, with some 400 species that are endangered, extinct, or rare. That makes it a destination for plant scientists around the world, who come to learn about the variety of species grown in Israel’s hot, arid climate. (There are areas of showy blooms as well — check the website for seasons and locations, and the plant of the month.)

There are seven full-time gardeners in the gardens, and 200 volunteers. A field school on the grounds of the garden offers high school students a place where they can study full-time. There are monthly programs and weekly workshops for kids, families and teenagers. Visitors can create self-guided tours for themselves of the gardens, based on the flora and fauna they want to explore, or be armchair travelers and look for a species online. Additioanlly, a new tour guide course for ultra-Orthodox women provides its participants with a job opportunity and creates a stream of guides for the large number of Haredi visitors to the gardens.

2. Israel’s unique continental positioning allows for a wide variety of species to grow in the gardens, yielding a green space that is a center for exploring biodiversity. The organization is part of an international forum of botanical gardens, with visiting international horticulturists who want to learn how to cultivate certain plants in the dry, arid Israeli climate, said Rendell, mentioning Australian horticulturists from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, are expanding the horizons of their knowledge, given encroaching climate changes. The garden faculty also collaborates with other Israeli botanical gardens, meeting regularly and sharing services, whether for composting or plantings.

‘Our Roots,’ the tree tunnel made from eucalyptus branches and roots at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

3. The gardens currently draws around 200,000 visitors a year, which is not a huge number and should grow significantly, said Rendell. A big portion of those visitors are elementary school students, as the gardens form part of the programs sponsored by the education, science, and environment ministries. All Jerusalem kids can enter the gardens for free, and the garden staff helps create programs in local schools.

One of the most popular destinations in the gardens for kids is The Children’s Discovery Path, a 460-meter long path designed by current Israel Museum director Iddo Bruno (he is an industrial designer by training) that presents the environment in which trees live, including the elements of water, rock, tree tops, and roots. Part of the path is the “canopy walk,” where visitors pass among tree tops, see how water runs in a series of on-site hand pumps, learn about soil with hands-on examples, and walk through “Our Roots,” a cool, quiet tree tunnel, made by artist Will Beckers, from the branches and roots of a eucalyptus tree.

4. Rendell is planning on bringing more culture to the gardens, including Jerusalem Street Orchestra performances at the lily pond and original plays performed on platforms throughout the gardens. There will also be environmental and landscape artists and Bezalel students invited to roam around, using the gardens as a place of research and inspiration.

Botanica, the new gift shop at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

One planned structure is The Hub, designed to be a creative center for organizations and entrepreneurs working in the environmental and sustainability space and sharing those efforts with the larger Jerusalem community.

5. There are several new buildings on the campus, including a two-story classroom and event space overlooking the lily pond (available for private events). Right by the parking lot and accessed through the tunnel, is Botanica, an airy, inviting shop, full of house and garden items and gifts. Across the way is the garden center, with a nursery to purchase plants, and a cozy, interior cafe that also sells packaged jams, breads, and sweets.

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