The beauty of an apple

It’s Jewish New Year and apples feature heavily on the menu.   In a rare blog (she is usually encouraging JBG scholars to write about their experiences), UK Friends’ organiser, Barbara, shares some thoughts on her garden tree.

Most years, we send an email to our friends and relatives, wishing them a happy and healthy New Year, usually featuring a photo of the apple tree in our back garden.  This year, for the first time, I shared the same picture with my colleagues at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens and I was surprised by the interest it raised.

FJBG FacebookNew Year 2017


We have always lived in London and have moved several times over the years.  In the 1930s, there was a huge amount of house-building on the outskirts of London, creating large suburbs. It was made possible by the extension of the London Underground travel network and most of the houses we’ve occupied were built during that time.  With only one exception, we have always had an apple tree in our back garden so I think it must have been part of the developer’s utopian dream that every family should have a fruit tree of their own.  We are very happy that ours is well, thriving and a generous producer of fruit.

It’s been suggested we cut the tree down as it takes up such a lot of space in our small back garden.  Yes, it does and it also takes quite a lot of work collecting windfalls which quickly go rotten and squidgy, picking and processing the fruit and getting the brown stains off my fingertips, raking up the leaves and organising pruning.  But what joy that tree brings.

There’s the first day in Springtime when the tight deep-pink buds blossom into delicate pink flowers of breath-taking beauty.

There’s the shade it provides in the summer and the dappled light on the ground underneath.  In the late afternoon sunlight catches the topmost apples so they are the first to develop red ‘cheeks’, a sign they are nearly ready to pick.  There is also that first delightful mouthful of stewed apple, tart yet sweet, fragrant … and free!

Our tree provides food and shelter for wildlife; we watch a family of squirrels carefully select the best apples to munch.  They are clever enough to wedge small apples into a knot in one of the tree’s branches so it is easier to eat, and easier for the birds to access as well.  Family groups of blue tits arrive for elevenses and tea and eat the insects, blackbirds get tipsy on fermented windfalls and magpies, robins and wood pigeons take their share.  We leave the smaller apples on the tree for the birds and last year we saw for the first time a visitor from Scandinavia, a fieldfare, who quite aggressively defended its place at the tree dining table.  Last year the supply lasted until January before we hung feeding stations in the tree.

our apple tree winter

We don’t know what cultivar our tree is.  It is a cooking apple that doesn’t look much like any of the apples I’ve found on apple-identification sites ( but the UK grows more species of apples than anywhere else and there are at least 7,500 different types!  We even have a word ‘scrumping’ specifically to describe the act of taking apples from someone else’s tree.

Our apples find their way into the freezers and stomachs of our family, friends and neighbours.  I can incorporate our apples into almost any recipe I prepare; soups, sauces, cakes, crumbles and last year I bottled apple sauce for the first time! It is a pleasure and a blessing to be able to share our bounty, especially when our tree kindly ripens its fruit to coincide with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and a time when it is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey.

q.What’s worse than finding a worm in an apple?
a. half of one.

So on that note, I bring my observations to a close and wish everyone a year of health, happiness and peace.





Petra’s azure lizard

Abby reports on an unexpected sighting…

A few weeks ago, I went to Petra with my fellow interns. Our goal was to see the ruins of this ancient city and hopefully to see some rare plants.  We wandered the wadis and ancient paths searching for elusive endangered species of flora.

Then! Suddenly a flash of blue! I was curious, here in the wadis we had seen so many shades of red, brown, white, even pink, but no blue. I approached for a closer look. Then to my utter astonishment, a brilliant azure lizard jumped to the top of a red rock. He stared regally down his pointy nose at me and reared on his hind legs. Staring in astonishment, I froze in awe. Never before had I seen a lizard this blue. He looked as if he was carved from living sapphire. He was clearly upset that I was trespassing in his home. I slowly  withdrew from this magnificent creature’s territory.

As I backed away he relaxed and turned, as if showing off his magnificent scaly body. He was about 7 inches long, his tail was longer than his body, and he had impressive clawed feet. His body was a dull brown with a purple tinge. Later I was to learn that during breeding season his whole body would turn the same brilliant blue. The deep red rock contrasted beautifully with his lovely coloration.

petra blue lizard

Coming to Petra, I had been astounded by the magnificent ruins, awestruck by the ageless wadis, and astonished by the windswept desert. I had eagerly anticipated the timeless ruins of an era long gone, but the lizard was a complete surprise in this arid land. This Sinai Agama was truly just as amazing as the ruins themselves and a creature that I will never forget.

A thorny challenge

Abby, one of our scholars from the USA writes:

Recently I was tasked with germinating 7 Balanites seeds. I had never heard of this rare tree, so I did some research to find out more information. I discovered that is has several common names; that is is remarkably hardy and is much used by the indigenous tribes of the countries it calls home.

Balanites aegyptiaca is known by many names; Thorn tree, Egyptian balsam, Egyptian myrobalan, and the Desert Date. It is native to much of Africa and the Middle East. This unique tree or large bush is uncommon in Israel but is more common in other parts of Africa and the surrounding countries.

balanites aegyptiana

Balanites is around 10m (33ft.) tall, it has a tall and narrow form. The branches have long straight green spines arranged in spirals. (Hence the nickname Thorn Tree). The leaves are compound and emerge from the base of the prolific spines.

It is tolerant of flooding, grazing, and wildfires. This tree lives happily in sandy soil or heavy clay. Nor is it bothered by excessive heat or humidity. Apparently nothing but a harvester’s axe can lay this tough denizen low. Even then, this wood is so resilient that only the sharpest saw and the most determined woodcarvers will attempt to tame the twisted fibrous heartwood.  Once down, the wood is used to make long-lasting furniture, indestructible kitchen utensils and stout fence posts.  As a side note, many fence posts once planted in the ground will root and grow new trees, making living fences.

In many places, the leaves and flowers are eaten raw and cooked. The oily fruit is boiled to make it less bitter.Usually the cooked fruit is mixed with sorghum to improve the flavor. Crushing and compressing the fruits and seeds will release the oil, which is useful in cooking and for treating wounds. Once the oil is extracted, the ground seeds are given to the animals as fodder.

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If one is disinclined to eat the fruit, one can drink the juice which is fermented. The alcoholic beverage can also be used to strip paint, disinfect wounds, and cure insomnia, and relieve symptoms of the common cold.  All parts of this tree are used medicinally and for a plethora of ailments.  If one is healthy, most parts of the spiny tree can be cooked (or not) and eaten for dinner. Truly the Balanites aegyptiaca is a remarkable and adaptable specimen of the arid lands it calls home.

Propagation Diary

Balanites aegyptaica

Day 1: 2/4/17

Soaked seeds for 18 hours. 1 seed floated. 6 others sank.

Day 2: 3/4/17

Cleaned pulp off seeds, soaked in GA (Gibberellic acid) 24 hrs (150 ppm)


Day 3: 4/4/17

Sowed 7 seeds in 4L containers. The seeds looked healthy.

Day 29 : 2/5/17

4 seeds have germinated and are 1.5 inches tall

Day  49   : 22/5/17

The other three seeds have not germinated, I am fairly certain they have rotted.

The four other seeds are growing and looking very healthy. They will make excellent trees.

I could never tire of watching the water

Another lyrical blog from Abby, one of our current scholars …

I am watching a tiny lizard climb a cypress tree. His dainty brown body blends in with the bark. He rests for a moment on a small limb. His sides and neck are green. His throat and sides pulsate with every breath. Now he moves into the shade, his body is getting too hot. He scuttles from one side of the tree to another. I assume he is searching for insects. His long tail flicks back and forth as he moves. As i watch, he freezes, he’s staring into a healed wound on the tree trunk. Frozen in time, he stares into the shadows, suddenly a large shadow flicks over his body. Its a jackdaw on the prowl for his own dinner. The tiny hunter becomes prey in a split second. Only speed and camouflage can save him. As quick as a dragonfly he bolts downward to the ground. Ducking, leaping, dodging, the lizard evades death almost effortlessly. Dropping down into the containers of cycads he successfully avoids being eaten. The jackdaw flies off voicing his displeasure with a series of croaks and the noisy flap of wings.   

I move my location and sit down on a bench. I am observing life in the Mediterranean section of the garden.  Blackbirds scuffle in the leaf litter searching for worms. One is successful and flies away with a beak full of breakfast. The others continue their search. The euphorbias sway gently in the breeze. The oaks and pines hold a whispered conversation in the wind. Clouds of yellow pollen fill the air. Royal purple irises hold court,  their rich violet falls accentuated by pale pink markings. Paeonia masculata is blooming beneath the oaks. Earlier in the spring their new growth emerged clenched like a fist, hence the name masculata. These unique peonies have beautiful single pink flowers that are only a few inches high. Soon the pretty petals will fall and become part of the leaf mold that covers the ground. The seeds will develop, drop, and germinate. Next year new plants will be growing, adding to the tapestry of the understory perennials.   


Paeonia masculata [Photo by Abby Evans}

Lupines are finishing up their grand spring display. Instead of the magnificent carpets of blue and white, the blooms are spotty now. Single plants blossom here and there popping up amid the yellow Mustard. Gladiolus are beginning to bloom, reminding me of my grandmother. One of her favorite plants, these multicolored beauties are striking in their shades of white and red.


Lupinus pilosus (Photo: Abby Evans)

 My next stop is the Arbutus grove. The smooth red bark, the bell shaped flowers and rich green leaves are an incredible spring exhibition. I enjoy watching the birds flit to and fro among the branches. Its as if they too love this beautiful tree.  The sound of rushing water catches my attention and I go and sit in the shade next to a pond. A colorful male kingfisher is busy fishing. His brown and not so colorful mate sits near him on a rock. She too is looking for food. His vivid blue contrasts sharply with his white bow tie. He is quite the specimen! He is also a good fisher, he catches minnow after minnow. Soon he will he catching tadpoles. The frogs croak in the shallows, hiding successfully in the tall reeds that border the pond edge. The orange koi fish swim lazily in the sun warmed water.

A turtle surfaces for a few moments then ducks below a lily pad.

I could never tire of watching the water.

There is so much life, even in the smallest of ponds.

Water is ever changing, moving, rippling, rushing, it’s like fire: hypnotizing. It never ceases to hold my attention.

All too soon, It is time for me to leave this marvelous scene and head home.

 As I leave my secluded seat I am reminded of Robert Frost’s lovely poem, The Road not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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The road less travelled (Photo Abby Evans)

Beit Shemesh Hike

Sam in another of our current scholars. Here’s his description of a recent field trip

Botanical Adventures

On the 18th of February, Shemer, Kady, Abby and I went for another hike to look at wild Flora. First, we visited a hill near Beit Shemesh. The area in question is renowned for its display of Lupinus pilosus, though we were a touch early and only a few were in flower.
The Sinapis alba, however, was in full bloom. S. alba is a common wildflower across most of northern Israel. The plant is 25-100cm high and covered in yellow crucifer flowers. En mass they look pretty incredible, and the display with be even more vivid when the Lupinus pilosus fire up next week.

Scrambling among the shrubbery in this area are large specimens of Clematis cirrhosa. The blooms illuminate the hosts they cover, creating creamy mounds on the green landscape. A number of C. cirrhosa varieties are available commercially including the well known ‘Wisley Cream,’ so seeing the true…

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The hills are alive … with iris seekers

More from Abby, one of our current scholars, about her recent expedition …

On March 12, I went with the JBG Garden Club on their botanizing expedition to Mount Gilboa (in the north of Israel, in Lower Galilee).  We were seeking Iris haynei also known as the Gilboa Iris. Upon arrival to the base of the mountain, we scattered searching excitedly for orchis sp. and other interesting wildflowers.  However, our guide Hagar did not allow us to wander far and she soon called  us to climb the mountain. Following the trail, we descended first into a meadow before hiking up the winding track. The day was warm and overcast. The clouds blew swiftly across the grey sky, running before a swift breeze. It cooled our sweaty faces and made the trees sway gently. We were hiking through tall grass that was a vibrant green. Swathes of golden-yellow mustard plants ran in rivers through the oaks. A sweet floral smell filled the air, it was the wild  Mustard. Birds sang gaily in the meadow and cows grazed lazily behind a fence. Watching for Iris among this idyllic scene was hard, I wanted to stop, relax,and enjoy this beautiful area!

As we hiked upward, the meadow was left behind and the rocky summit appeared. Boulders became more apparent and pine trees began to dominate the landscape.Then I saw my first Iris haynei. This beautiful plant was clinging to life among the rocky slopes, its roots buried deep in a rock crevasse.  After the initial sighting, I began to see many more of these lovely flowers. As we ascended, we soon began seeing hundreds if not a thousand Irises, some in clumps of 15 and 20, others flowering singly or in pairs. Vivid purple Irises were scattered everywhere on the mountain. The rich green of the trees, the tan rock, and the Gilboa Iris created a beautiful picture.

The plants varied dramatically by height, shape, and color. They ranged  from 12 to 36 inches tall. The flower size varied as well. Some were only 3-4 inches across while others were bigger than the average hand! Some flowers were fragrant and smelled of jasmine, or (strangely) hot chocolate. Other flowers had no fragrance at all. The range of colors was breathtaking as well. All were striped and speckled in various patterns. Flowers in hues of brown and purple were in abundance, though I saw many that were a plain royal purple and others were simply delicate shades of pink. There was even one isolated patch that was nearly white accentuated by brown falls.

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Meandering through this incredible landscape examining such wonderful wild specimens was exhilarating. I never thought that I would be able to see Iris in the wild. Yet here I was surrounded by these magnificent creations, on a beautiful mountain in the lovely land of Israel.

Shalom from Mount Gilboa!

Tracking Israel’s elusive orchids

From Abby, one of our current scholars …

Shalom from the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens!

On Wednesday the 8th I went with the JBG’s Garden Club to the hills surrounding Jerusalem. We were hunting the elusive orchids. Some of these special flowers are rare in this country and are sly sneaky creatures. They need an experienced tracker to discover their hiding places. When we arrived at our first location, I realized how brilliantly clever these rare orchids actually are. They employ the use of decoys. In order that one be led astray into the mire of despair, these horticultural devils will reseed freely.

Leaves soon sprout up in obvious places leading even the most experienced plant hunter to hope for a flower sighting. However, even though the leaves may be of magnificent proportions there is no blossom. The sneaky beauties will flower instead inside a wild Asparagus, a Rose bush, a Scrophularia, or an Astralagus. All of these aforementioned botanical wonders have thorns of truly spectacular sizes and shapes. Long thin needles resembling porcupine quills, rows of short prickles resembling sharks teeth (with the same bite) and some in-between the two, just to spite the despairing orchid lover.

We were in search of around 6 different kinds of orchids that day. We climbed many mountains, forded many streams, followed every rainbow, until we found our dreams!!   It took quite a bit of effort, but eventually we began finding the ‘dumb’ orchids, the ones that are being weeded (!) out of the gene pool. These are the ones that bloom in the middle of the path, flower by the natural gas pipeline and cast their seed in parking lots.

In due course, through careful searching, we found most of the  orchids that this region of Israel has to offer. We found the striking Orchis laxiflora, this charmer was growing next to the pipeline. Next on our list was Ophrys umbilical, this one was inhabiting the parking lot. Close by, growing by the sidewalk, was its cousin Ophrys transhyrcana. Occupying the thorny confines of a Scrophularia was Orchis anatolica. Down the slope was Orchis papilionacea, and Ophrys fleischmanii. Orchis galilea was the last one to show its face. Even though it took nearly 4 hours to complete, we were successful in hunting these evasive yet charming plants. It was fun to see these native Israeli orchids in their natural habitat.  


After our fruitful search, we congratulated ourselves on our success and began bandaging all the cuts and gashes caused by hopeful wading in thorny undergrowth seeking these phantasmic flowers.

All was red, dry and lonely

by Abby, one of our current scholars at the JBG

This week we went on a botanizing tour with the Israeli Friends of the JBG. We traveled through the Negev. One of our stops was in Maktesh Ramon, a massive glacial crater in the south of Israel. Driving through, it was as if we had left all civilization behind us and had entered a different world. It looked as I would imagine the planet Mars to be. Great piles of red rocks were everywhere. They rimmed the edge of the crater in tall spires. They blended together to create an impenetrable barrier to the outside lands. All was red, dry, and lonely. The sheer emptiness of this land was enchanting. Outside the bus there was no sound except for the whistle of the wind through the boulders.


Walking through the dry wadis, the wind moaned eerily. Only the croaks of ravens testified to the hardy creatures that call this unearthly place home. Wandering through this wilderness, the imagination is free to roam unhindered from the daily distractions of this busy life. My mind conjured up deadly dragons guarding stolen gold, angry Orcs from Mordor and two horses and their children searching for Narnia and the North.  I expected to see Anakin and his pod racer streaking toward us. Storm troopers would have been no surprise, and I kept my eyes open for banthas and Sand People.

Instead I saw tall mountains, shaded valleys, steep ridges, dry stream beds, vast level plains, and menacing towers. Pinks, purples, blues, grays, reds, white, and cream swirled together.  Multicolored layers of stone created a striking portrait of the past telling a story none can know for sure, yet everyone wants to know. Every hill was painted as if by an artist’s hand. The colors were vivid, illuminated by the morning sun and creating a masterpiece of nature.


Everywhere I looked there was some new wonder. Black hills rose and fell in a steady line marching parallel to the road.  They were ancient volcanoes, their danger long past. Lava had created great black avenues that stretched for hundreds of feet in all directions. One could easily imagine the molten rock spewing out of the depths of the earth. Shiny flints scattered the ground. Basalt lay where it had been thrown in primeval times. fullsizerender_1

These ancient hills inspire man today and will continue to amaze for generations to come. The desert is a place where imagination can run free, the spirit can fly, and one can find freedom from the stress and pressures of everyday life. The desert is a beautiful place, a magnificent component of nature that serves to illustrate the grand masterpiece that is Maktesh Ramon. None can describe the arid landscape better than the man known as John of the Mountains, John Muir.

“Surely faithful and loving skill can go no further in putting the multitudinous decorated forms on paper. But the colors, the living, rejoicing colors, chanting morning and evening in chorus to heaven! Whose brush or pencil, however lovingly inspired, can give us these? And if paint is of no effect, what hope lies in pen-work? Only this: some may be incited by it to go and see for themselves.”  John Muir, “The Grand Canyon of Colorado”



Creating a beautiful wall

This year (2017) the Friends are sponsoring three scholars and this is blog is by a recent arrival, Abby who comes from Maryland, USA.  This is what she has been doing this week.

I was put in charge of a new beautification project in the gardens. Ori (the Scientific Director) was given a large donation of Cyclamen persicum tubers, 800 to be precise.  He  wanted them to be planted in a wall in the main garden and I decided on the upper path, just below the library, where the cedar trees form an archway over the path. I was then contacted by Alan, a  volunteer coordinator. He had 3 students who needed a project for the next day.


In preparation, I gathered a lot of soil as a type of mortar which was moistened until it was a sticky thick consistency.  I also had hand trowels, to spread the “glue”. When the students arrived all was ready. We walked down to the path and I gave them a brief lesson on Cyclamen; like where the roots came out and where the leaves would emerge.

After that, the girls shunned the latex gloves as well as the hand trowels; instead they used their bare hands to scoop out the glue like mud and stuff it into the rock wall.

I showed them how I wanted it done. They were to grab a handful of mud and find a crack in the stone. Then they were to carefully insert the Cyclamen into the crack and cover with more mud.  The girls didn’t mind the messy job at all and were soon laughing and talking as if they did this sort of work every day!


They worked for an hour and a half and during that time they got exactly half of the Cyclamen planted! Very exciting! The next day, I had another volunteer and we finished up the final 400 tubers.

I had fun teaching the students about Cyclamen persicum. When these delightful plants begin to flower (hopefully next year) this walkway will be stunning. It will be a solid mass of delicate pink and white. If you’re able, come to the Gardens and check them out!

Shalom from the JBG!

Cacti Propagation — Botanical Adventures

Recently, I’ve had to move the heat mats from the tropical glasshouse into the propagation area for Banskia cuttings (something I hope to discuss soon). During this rearranging it became clear some of the Cacti in the tropical house were rotting, so I decided to propagate and replace them. Cacti are plants in the Cactaceae […]

via Cacti Propagation — Botanical Adventures