Jun 2009 Journal

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Letter from Israel

If one is lucky enough to live in a town which is blessed with a unique botanical garden, one really ought to visit it at least four times a year - once each season - and more than that, if possible. I must confess to having been very remiss in that respect, although recently I was able to remedy the situation to some extent. My visit with a group of friends to the University Botanical Garden in Jerusalem was both an aesthetic and an intellectual experience, and our eyes were opened by the erudite explanations we were privileged to receive from one of the garden’s founders, Dr Michael Avishai.

Although Israel is roughly the size of Wales it has no less than eight sets of horticultural belts - different climatic regions, each with its own typical plants and trees. Jerusalem is situated in the Mediterranean region but, because of its location over 500 meters above sea level, its climate sustains more than 1,000 varieties of plants.

The Botanical Garden, which was founded in 1962, extends over 30 acres and now hosts more than 6,000 plants, including those indigenous to Asia, Australia, Europe and the tropics. In the tropical conservatory, which is somewhat reminiscent of the one at Kew Gardens, albeit on a smaller scale, one can encounter several different kinds of orchids as well as insect-eating plants growing amidst the lush greenery of the tropical forest. In another corner is a Roman-era columbarium (dove-cote). The Romans used these birds as sacrifices to their gods, as messengers, and as a delicacy on their tables. The columbarium, which was built into the limestone rock, was discovered when the conservatory was being constructed and duly incorporated within it. In another part of the Botanical Garden there are natural caves which were once used as for burial but had been emptied by grave-robbers long before the garden was planted. No other botanical garden can claim unique features such as these.

The garden is divided into several sections by continent, each with its own unique flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs. But for me the most stunning sight was the winding entrance path, its borders containing a multi-coloured array of spring flowers. What a delightful way to greet visitors as they make their way into the garden! This area, we were told, had been planted and cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers from Great Britain who come to Israel for several weeks each year as well as raising funds for the garden at other times.

In addition to the areas devoted to different regions of the world, the garden contains a Bible Path, where the plants mentioned in the Bible are to be found. Another part of the garden is devoted to medicinal plants and also serves as a focus for research into their healing properties. Since the garden is associated with the Hebrew University and is adjacent to its Givat Ram campus, it provides a convenient laboratory for horticultural research.

The garden also contains several lakes, a stream and even a waterfall, though of course all the water is recycled. These enable the plant life that is unique to wet areas to thrive, widening the garden’s plant repertoire still further, not to mention the wide range of birds, both indigenous and migratory, that come to visit.

The purpose of the Botanical Garden is summed up in its motto ‘Science, recreation, conservation’. In endeavouring to fulfil those functions it also seeks to educate Israelis, whether adults or children, to appreciate the manifold beauties of nature, to tend the plants, and to value yet another of Jerusalem’s unique treasures.
 

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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