Field trip

Brandon, our most recently-arrived scholar and Longwood graduate, reports on a recent field trip …

On 20/02/18, the scholars and the Friends of the Gardens went on an excursion with the goal to see Iris atropurpurea and Tulipa agenensis. It was interesting to see a diversity of habitats on the Israeli coast and how each location allows for the specific conditions that these now endangered plants need to survive.

The first place we visited was the sand dunes along the coast of Rehavam Zeevi. Here, we found clumps of irises to be growing not too far from the cliffs.


This is the third location I have seen Iris atropurpurea growing in Israel and it’s interesting to note the subtle color variations that occur in the species. I attribute this to soil pH and nutrient levels in the soil with additional environmental factors within populations of a location but they are all beautiful nonetheless. I’m happy to know there are people like Dr. Ori Sapir-Fragman who are locating the populations of these Israeli natives not only to bring awareness of their locations but to note why they are worth preserving.

The second stop was along Highway 2, just north of Ma’agan Michael. Here, located near coastal fish farms, was elevated land that was very lush with plant growth and less sandy than that we’d encountered earlier at the dunes. The size difference of the flowering clumps was expected but some individual flowers were so large they looked like they could have been cultivars. The black centers contrasted well with the red petals and looked incredibly exotic. This is a Genus that is typically grown as an annual appearing in Spring where I live in the US, so once again I found myself appreciating tulips in a whole new light seeing it growing happily in its native environment.

iris 6


Seeking Israel’s oncocyclus irises

Francisco, one of the nursery/propagation scholars reports on a recent tour to seek out onocyclus irises …

There are ten species of the oncocyclus irises in Israel, all protected, the dark-purple Iris atropurpurea is the first to flower along the central Mediterranean coast, having scattered populations mostly surrounded by towns and cities.   Oncocyclus is a Greek word, with ‘onco’ meaning mass or bulk, and ‘cyclus’ meaning circle. This is believed to be in reference to the single dark patch on the falls of these beautiful flowers; it’s easier to see the spot on paler flowers (see photo below).

oncocyclus iris2

Oncocyclus irises; photo Francisco Lopez Torres

In the last week of January we visited a nature reserve in Nes Ziona, south of Tel Aviv.  There were many Iris atropurpurea in flower, the genus name was given by Linnaeus in honour of Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow.  The species name comes from the Latin ‘atroxmeaning very or fiercely and ‘purpureameaning purple. This clump has very dark, almost black flowers, but there were some variation on the colours.

Oncocyclus Iris1

Iris atropurpurea: photo Francisco Lopez Torres

The flowers do not have nectar and pollination is carried out by solitary male bees that use the flowers as a shelter from the colder nights. The seeds are dispersed by ants that use the aril as food but leave the rest of the seed untouched.


Wild Narcissus tazetta in the desert

Welcome to the first blog from our newest scholar, Brandon, who arrived at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens at the beginning of January, having just graduated from Longwood Gardens …

Last Thursday (18 January 2018), Scientific Director Dr Ori Fragman-Sapir took the scholars on an excursion to see wild Narcissus tazetta while collecting leaf samples to be sent to the UK for research purposes.

narcissus tazetta

narcissus tazetta by Brandon Geroge

The first site we visited was on steep rocky slopes of limestone just outside the city of Dimona in the Southern District of the Negev desert.  It’s an environment that seems so inhospitable for most plants to grow, I was pleasantly surprised to find isolated pockets of moist soil in the rocks, and it is here where the Narcissus were found thriving and at peak bloom in some cases.

After collecting samples, we drove south to a remote location off route 204. We walked along a low-lying area where a dry stream bed was present. I knew based on what we found at the previous site that this would be the perfect micro-climate to find the bulbs.

Here we found a mass of them and because of the sheltered site, the gorgeous fragrance wafted around us as we approached them. Having only seen Narcissus in cultivated gardens where I come from in the U.S.A, this trip gave me a better understanding of how this Genus grows in its endemic locations, while also realizing the incredible feat of dormancy this species can tolerate.

Iris Vartanii

iris vartanLysa, our curatorial scholar from the USA, writes about a rare and beautiful iris being sheltered and propagated in the JBG.  It has an interesting history … 

1880s Palestine, out on the rocky foothills near Nazareth stands Dr. Pacradooni Kaloost Vartan. An Armenian born in Istanbul, Vartan attended missionary school in Constantinople only to become an interpreter for the British army during the Crimean War. While interpreting for the army, he learned of the inadequate facilities that served as battlefield medical hospitals. This led him to study in Edinburgh to become a doctor and upon completion of his studies he moved to Palestine to open a medical facility in Nazareth. In the 1860s, Nazareth was home to approximately 5,000 citizens, but the nearest doctor or hospital was in Damascus or Beirut; ultimately, the only care was provided by charity.

In those foothills surrounding Nazareth, Vartan discovers a delicate little greyish lilac-white Iris. Its beauty accented by the stark light buff limestone which surrounds it. He collects it and sends it to Sir Michael Foster, an Iris expert, of the Royal Society in the U.K. for identification. Foster describes this precious specimen as Iris vartanii, after Dr. Vartan, in 1885 in Gardener’s Chronicles.

This rare species exists only in sixty-six locations in Israel’s Mediterranean ecosystem. A late fall/early winter bloom, it can currently be seen blooming in the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens in one of the rare beds in the Mediterranean section. Light lilac petals with dark purple veins and a yellow central ridge. It is truly spectacular.

iris vartan 2


Beck, Julianne (10 Jan. 2015). Between a Rock and a Future. Undercover Science.
Foster, Prof. Michael (3 May 1892). “Bulbous Irises”. (A Lecture
delivered May 3, 1892 to the Royal Horticultural Society).
Dykes, William Rickatson. Iris Families You Ought To Know. Historic Iris Preservation Society.
 Spiegel, Frances. Vartan of Nazareth: Missionary and Medical Pioneer in the Nineteenth-century Middle East – a review.

What I do at the Gardens …

This week we hear again from Francisco, our propagation/nursery track scholar from Spain.  He’s been at the Gardens for two months.

This time I want to show my job in the Jerusalem Botanic Gardens, doing propagation of rare and endangered plants in Israel.

seed trays 1

This photo shows all the seed trays I have been sowing for the last 8 weeks.  I do most of the preparation myself, cutting the trays from the bottom of plastic pots, mixing coir, perlite & vermiculite as propagation media and cutting the labels.  I research information on the species, including habitat or previous germination rates on the IRIS botanical collections management program and whether the species was grown by other scholars.

Sometimes the seed bag is full of chaff, then I have to find 2-3 good seeds in there and ask the volunteers to find more of those in the bag.  Everything I do has to be registered on the IRIS program; every seed tray or pot has a label with a number on it as well as a Latin name, date of sowing, special treatments and so on.

seed trays 2

Sometimes the seeds are so big or do not like root disturbance, I sow those in plugs or cups (six-pack pots) as you can see in the photo above.

The photo below contains the plants already grown in cups after the potting up.  I am helped with this job by Dave, the Scholar from Australia, two days a week.  He also helps Lysa (the other Friends’ sponsored scholar) with the curation and care of the tropical plants in the quarantine glasshouse.

Seed trays 3

The bench (in the photo below) contains plants in bigger pots, some arrived recently into the collection, others were propagated by previous scholars.

rare seeds 4

Mapping Australia

Lysa, from the USA,  is one of our new 2017-18 scholars; she is on the curatorial track.  Here she explains what she’s been doing.

A few weeks in and I am in full swing with a few projects. One of these projects includes mapping, identifying and labeling all plants in the Australian section with Dave, the intern from Australia. With some creativity and a whole lot of coffee, we have figured out how to approach this large project.  We are approaching it with makeshift maps, drawings/ diagrams of the sections, plant lists and taxonomic Eucalyptus books. We are making very good progress and are on map number three! All most finished and then will be learning and mapping plants in the Mediterranean section.


Draft map of the Australian section          Photo:  Elysa

Mount Scopus BG

Francisco, one of the new 2017-18 scholars who arrived in Jerusalem in October, is our first Spanish scholar.  Here he talks about his first trip to another garden.

Last Thursday, Michael Avishai, the Emeritus Scientific Director, took us on an afternoon trip to Mt Scopus to visit the Botanic Gardens there.  We stopped twice to see the wonderful views to the east and to the west. The photo shows the views to the west.

judean desert

View over the Judean Desert  Photo:  Francisco LT

In the foreground, Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis ) and Cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens) from controversial reforestations done in the past.  Next to the road, brown patches of low scrubland, dominated by thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum) a summer deciduous plant, just starting to grow leaves after the autumn rains.

In the background, shaded by the clouds, the Judean desert; overgrazing by livestock in a region with not much rain is probably the main reason for the bare soil look.  Hopefully we will be back with better visibility to take a glimpse of the Dead Sea from here. The gardening team at Mt Scopus was very kind to us, specially Ofri who gave us a tour.  He is a former curatorial scholar and staff member of the JBG.

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.

balanites_aegyptiaca_ms_10627_182_e064ba (1)

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.