Ibex you don’t know where I’ve been

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In the second part of his Ein Gedi blog, Gareth – our travel scholar – visits the Reserve, the Ein Gedi Botanical Garden and the Dead Sea.

Finally we made our approach to Ein Gedi, and it was getting hot. Ofri said he wanted to take us along the ‘special route’ which involved a ‘bit of an uphill climb’, rather than the 15 minute tourist trail that cost 60 shekels. Why not?  The ‘special route’ was a 2 hour climb up jagged ‘paths’ hewn into the rock, along crazily zig-zagging angles. Still, the views grew steadily more and more stunning, and the climb was exhilarating. We stopped at the top by a tiny pool fed from a natural stream, and I heard the water hiss (and reel away) as I sunk my battered feet into it. Taking a bit of a mooch while the others had lunch, I noticed a tiny deer-like creature scrabble away in front of me. Then, from seemingly nowhere a female Ibex trotted in front of me, stood on a tap rock, and stared at me. We stood like this for at least 5 minutes, and she didn’t look away once, it was incredible. My camera chose this exact moment to tell me that the batteries were dead, but I refused to believe it. After taking them out, rubbing them, and muttering the holy mantra of ‘don’t you do this to me now you b$$tards’, they sprung back to life, and I got to take ‘that’ shot, with her still staring intently right at me. Incredible.

What goes up, must come down. So we began the slow descent, along steep and winding paths, with the occasional handrail thrown in here and there just to give you hope that you would make it down alive. We did, and were greeted with the rushing clamour and gorgeously refreshing Ein Gedi falls. Deliciously cool and moist air made everything okay again. And the grotto that it had formed was something else, something totally out of place in the Israeli desert – lush ferns, mosses, masses of greenery, stalactites … the works – an incredible sight. Curses to the ranger who told us we had to leave, as I was just about to dive in and get a bit of waterfall shower action.

We hadn’t seen enough. How could we have? We are mad, crazy plant enthusiasts, who need more and more to quench the thirst, so we pressed on to the botanic gardens at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz. I really wish we’d had more time there, as the light was already fading when we arrived, and the place defied logic. It was like being in the tropics – for Ein Gedi is blessed with a very special micro climate – towering palm trees, masses of season-defying brash colour, honey-sweet scent thick in the air around every corner. It was like we had walked into the Caribbean!

I decided that now was a time for a dip in the Dead Sea. Like any typical Englishman on his holidays, one must attempt the most obviously-touristy things at the most incredulously inopportune moments. It was only 9 pm; the night was still young, and a clammy 27 degrees celsius. The approach was not good, it was obviously pitch black, the changing rooms were locked and so I was reduced to disgracing myself in the dark, but I persevered, as did my looking-in-the-opposite-direction-while-flashing-mobile-phone-torches companions. Getting in was not easy. This was no beach. This was a rocky nightmare, and after I made it out a few metres over the evil rocks, next came the salt-crystal lumps of pain and punishment. It was not easy going, and I had all the agility of a new-born giraffe. On roller-skates. With many un-masculine yelps, and several red-blooded curses, I made it over, and got my float on, and drifted away under a starry sky.

Asphodeline aestivus in full flower

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Gareth Gilpin, our current travel scholar, continues his exploration of Israel, its botanical richness … and its food!

Sara (one of the 2013-4 scholars) and I were very lucky to be spending the day with the vivacious and lovely Ofri, who picked us up early (early for me) so we could get the most out of the day. The plan was to head over to the nature reserve at Ein Gedi, but we had quite a few mini adventures and distractions along the way! Early on we pulled up at a petrol station, and we started to walk behind it and climbed a stony hillside. You would never expect to see such a beautiful sight behind such a grubby, in-the-middle-of-nowhere place – but there it was, the whole hillside was festooned with Asphodeline aestivus in full flower. Apparently these are quite common in Israel, but I had never seen this species of Asphodeline before, and to see it in such wanton abundance was stunning. Mental notes were made to source this beauty for my company back home, and then introduce it to the landscape/design trade, for this plant was a marvel, and would surely go down a storm in England. We pored over many other curiosities and miniature beauties just coming into bloom, some of them absolutely tiny works of art.

We detoured a second time when Ofri spotted somebody selling food from a roadside kiosk, that he insisted we try. The seller was pleased to see us, and after lots of chatting back and forth he starting pulling all sorts of things out of his boxes. We had a long, brown, rectangular lump of something that looked like bean curd (served with a very spicy relish and tomato salsa). I can’t remember exactly what it was, and can’t even begin to guess at its name, but it was delicious, truly gobble-it-all-up delicious. That was slightly awkward as Sara and I were sharing a portion, and you could tell that neither of us wanted to pass up any opportunity to reach back in for another piece of the tasty brown slab. Then we were offered some wobbly white stuff, that used to be made from some kind of orchid, but was now synthetic – it was like the seller was going out of his way to make his food seem/sound/look as unappealing as possible, and then like a magician he abracadabra’d it all into deliciousness. This was served with copious amounts of sugary rosewater and coconut which finished the little road snack off nicely.

Yet another detour ensued, this time roadside, just opposite the Dead Sea. All I wanted to do was run to the other side and get my float on, but these two had other plans. My time would come. We scrutinised the area, wandering back and forth, marvelling at tiny pockets of richness, and calling each other over. Every time we saw something new, Ofri’s book would come out and the search would begin. People driving past must have thought we were lunatics. But we knew what we were doing, and we were happy doing it. We met a fellow madman/botanist on the same patch of dirt, who was thrilled as he had found some tiny specimen that was ultra-rare and that he hadn’t seen before. He couldn’t wait to post a picture quiz on his botanical forum for people to try and guess the identity of the plant, but he said Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir (as I’m sure you all know, Scientific Director at JBG) would be banned from entering. Wise words.

This adventure will continue in another blog soon …

The JBG’s Rare Plant Collection

Ziziphora tenuoir

Ziziphora tenuoir

American-born Sara Perzley graduated from the RBG, Edinburgh.  She is one of the 2013-4 scholars of horticulture at the Gardens, supported by the British Friends of the JBG.  Here she writes about her work with the rare plant collection.

Many visitors to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG) have strolled past the beds of rare and endangered plants in the garden.  What they may not have realized, however, is that the contents of these beds represent only a small fraction of the Gardens’ total collection of rare plants.  While it would be ideal to have the entire collection on public display, practical considerations prevent this, and most of the rare plants are kept behind the scenes in the propagation nursery, visible to guided groups only.

A large proportion of rare Israeli native plants, and Israeli native plants in general, are annuals, completing their entire lifecycle over the course of a year.  This makes evolutionary sense in a climate with a hot, bone-dry summer.  Instead of developing adaptations such as water storage organs or the ability to go dormant for a season, nimble annuals simply begin growing after the autumn and winter rains, and quickly flower and set seed by late spring or early summer.  Although the plants themselves cannot survive through the dry season, their seeds can, and are ready to start the cycle over again in the autumn.

While this is a streamlined, efficient strategy from the point of view of the annuals, it makes for quite a lot of work for whoever is looking after the collection of rare plants at the JBG. At the moment, that would be me!  I have spent my first several months at the Gardens sowing seeds, pricking out seedlings into larger containers, and of course, documenting the entire process in the plant records system.

As there is not enough space or time to plant all of the rare annuals out in the Gardens, most are kept to grow in buckets in the nursery, where they can be monitored and where their seeds can be easily collected to be sown again next autumn.  The collection serves as a living gene bank for rare species, and occasionally some of the plants grown in the nursery are given to nature reserves to bolster or replace populations that have diminished or been lost.

One of the important records kept about the rare plant collection involves the percentage of seeds that germinate from each species sown.  Many of the rare annuals germinate easily and quickly, approaching 100% germination, but others are more tricky, with less than 1% germination.  For some species, germination can be aided by using techniques such as soaking the seeds in water before sowing or chilling them in a refrigerator.  Data on how to propagate rare plants, most of which are not cultivated in gardens, can be difficult to impossible to find, so it is important for botanic gardens to keep their own records and notes for the future.

So far this year, a total of 127 rare species have been sown, spanning the alphabetical gamut from Acinos rotundifolius to Ziziphora tenuioir.  Most of these are Israeli native plants listed in the Red Data Book: Endangered Plants of Israel, a catalogue of the 413 plant species that are most threatened in this country. However, the collection also includes a few rare plants collected in other parts of the world by JBG scientists and colleagues abroad.  More rare seeds will be sown in February, from plants that prefer warmer growing temperatures and would not have been happy germinating during the middle of a Jerusalem winter, especially one that included a major winter snowstorm!

Waking up in Jerusalem ….

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Waking up in a warm, sunny climate is a wonderful thing when you have escaped England in January!  My day started with a tour around the JBG, first led by Tom Fogel, the scholarship co-ordinator, who introduced me to everyone there, and then by Dr. Michael Avishai (the Emeritus Scientific Director) as well, who insisted that we commandeer one of the golf buggies.

Early on I detoured into the nursery and was shown the ropes by Maya – super enthusiastic, bubbly and in control of the show nursery manager – who has created an oasis of plant life in such a small space, with cuttings/plugs/seedlings/stock plants/grown-on stock packing out every possible area. Apparently the ground cannot be used to put pots directly on to, since at night the kamikaze porcupines go on the rampage, and tear the place up.

Then I began one of the most interesting and engaging tours that I have ever been given!  Michael gave the most personal and fascinating insight into how a botanic garden and a person (read: character, for Michael is truly a character!) can become fused into one. They are like a symbiotic organism, or maybe the JBG is his child that he has nurtured over the years. In any case they are inseparable, and it’s kind of like the chicken and egg conundrum – you can’t have one without the other; and it doesn’t really matter which came first. It was a pleasure to spend so much time with this great man, and to feel his passion and care – it made me feel very, very lucky to be given this opportunity to work at the JBG, and proud too.

By midday I was ravenous. I had skipped breakfast thinking my visit to the JBG would be brief. It wasn’t, but my brain was certainly full from the amount it had been fed during the last few hours! I headed to the Old City in search of food.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have no sense of direction, cannot read a map, remember nothing of the way from which I came, and have fantastical notions on the route I must take next. I spent over 30 years in London and still cannot make a journey on public transport without becoming embroiled in some battle to just make it from A to B, a kind of desperate survival. The journey is never simple, nor short, and sometimes it isn’t even successful in the end.  Sometimes I just give up. The point of all this is to really stress that I was deeply cynical about making it to the Old City. ’30 minutes’ they said. ‘Take the bus 19, 32, or something else’ they said. ‘All you have to do is stay on this road, go straight, make no turnings, and you will be there’ they said.  ‘It is so simple and easy, you cannot miss it!’ they said. Yeah right, just you watch me.

After 30 minutes of taking my chances, my jaw actually dropped as I suddenly looked up, and there was Jaffa Gate!  I decided to go off grid, and just followed my feet for a while, gaping at everything in a kind of wide-eyed awe.  Eventually, in the Muslim Quarter, I realised I’d been going round in circles – for about an hour, and must have passed the same fountain at least 6 times.  In the end, I got to know it, and every single street around it, really, really well. I settled for lunch in the Muslim Quarter since I accepted I didn’t know the way out, and for a while there was a quiet satisfaction as I feasted and hydrated, and then recharged on Arabic coffee (which I can’t stand, but I felt obliged to drink it. Damn my English politeness).

I then tore all over the place, making random turns, taking sudden detours. I think I covered it all. Some of it I covered with a zealous thoroughness, e.g. I saw the Western Wall four times (twice of these were by accident). I watched the sun set.  I left.  I returned.  I walked around the walls on the outside. I went in again. Then I decided I must get back. It was late by the time I got back, much later than I thought, and it was only a couple of hours later when I realised I hadn’t needed to  change the time on my computer when I arrived last night; it had done it automatically, and then I put it forward 2 hours. I did not wake up gracelessly late this morning; it was actually quite acceptable. I had not lasted 8 hours in the Old City; merely 6. But, I had suddenly gained two extra hours – from nowhere – and how often does that happen?

I don’t even have the energy to attempt to describe the Old City, and how can you, anyway? The place is full of contradictions. Beauty and squalor; ancient history and gaudy right-now; friendliness and rudeness; wonderful smells and incredible stinks; cosmopolitanism and separatism; joyous celebrations and sad resignations. It is a beast of an experience. An awesome, mind-boggling, emotional, rough-riding creature that takes you on its journey, for you are just a spectator, a visitor gazing from the outside in.

I must get myself a black hat …

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Gareth Gilpin,  our latest scholar, is on a four-week travel scholarship to the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to continue his on-going professional development,.  Here are his first impressions, having just arrived in Jerusalem:

Having left the safe confines of the New Forest in sleepy Hampshire, England, at 4am, tearing across the M25 in savage rain, and battling my way to Luton airport in-between endless parallel pairs of articulated lorries, I somehow made it there in one, very frazzled, piece. Check-in was an interesting insight into what I could expect in Israel; I hadn’t seen so many orthodox Jews in one place since mooching around the streets of Stamford Hill back in London as a young’un. I felt quite scruffy and under-dressed by comparison.

While nursing a mild envy of the hats (I must get myself one of those for back home), I gazed in wonder at this quite sizeable group praying, nodding, and chanting in the direction of the plane – it was quite a sight, and quite wonderful.  I felt relieved that I had paid extra to secure a window seat, and stared in amazement at the snow-capped mountains we passed over.  They were stunning; next trip, snow-capped mountain climbing.  With the hat of course.

I was met at Tel Aviv airport by the very charismatic and chatty Tom Fogel, whose knowledgeable conversation was a marvel to engage with.  We spoke for the entirety of the taxi ride to Jerusalem, and was so engrossed that I only managed a few glimpses of wonders that we passed – almond trees festooned in bloom like I had never seen before; lemon trees laden with fruit, some kind of prune/cherry/plum plantation that was a blanket of blossom.  Spring was here!  And the weather – wow! To an Englishman who had fled the dull, dark, dreary days of a particularly wet and gloomy Winter back home, I suddenly regretted the amount of woollen jumpers and thick, corded trousers I had packed! I needed shorts and t-shirts, and sun cream! 20 degrees C of glorious, balmy heat, with crystalline blue skies, mmmm mmmmm – I am going to like it here.

Despite being distracted by fascinating conversation with Tom,  I did get to witness the driving in Israel – an area I wanted to be wise on asap, as I had hoped to hire a car a few times at the weekend. Suffice it to say that I hope they hire out articulated lorries, made from fierce, heavy metal frames, that shun cars from getting too close. This must be what riding in the Indy 500 is like. I simply must ensure I hire some kind of super truck at the very least. It has to be possible.

Against the apparent odds (and near-misses), we made it to the flat, and I met my fellow housemates during my 5 week stay. Sara and Jordan are both on 12-month scholarships, and are both of that cheerful, sunny, upbeat American disposition that makes Brits like me feel wooden and apologetically-uptight.  Very hip, very cool, and all down on the good things and must-sees of Jerusalem.  Sara cooked an incredible take on an amazing Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, which was a sumptuous feast for the senses. We were joined by Ofri  Bar, the former JBG Scholar Co-ordinator and his partner Alon, who were both the life and soul of the small party! Outrageous and wickedly funny, they were both amazing company, like some kind of double-act. Within 3 hours of my arrival to the flat I had been very, very well fed, was in excellent company and spirits, and had even tried my first Israeli red wine – which was delicious!

Also, plans have already been forged to meet Tom at the JBG tomorrow, who is very keen to show me around and make all the introductions – can’t wait! There was talk of heading over to Ein Gedi on Saturday, which is something that was near the top of my list of ‘must-do’, with the possibility of going via Masada which is another ‘must-do’ right up there, and with this wonderful heat I am looking forward to floating in the Dead Sea, reading my book, while soaking up some rays.

After my tour of the JBG tomorrow with Tom, and taking some time to become familiar with the people and the gardens themselves, I plan to head to the Old City. I want to walk, and walk, and walk, until I have burned off this evening’s calories firstly, but mainly until I feel like I have become deeply and most happily lost in what I imagine to be the most exquisitely atmospheric, heady, and engulfing labyrinth of history that exists.

I can’t wait!