From Jerusalem to Wisley

In this blog post, James Miller is going to share a growing collaboration between RHS Wisley and Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. He and the Wisley Alpine Team have been working on this little collaboration for the past three years.  James was a Curatorial Intern at JBG, back in 2015, from January to mid-May. Now he is a Horticulturalist (Horticultural Award) in the Alpine Team at RHS Garden, Wisley.

“The experience at JBG was really brilliant. I was based in the nursery and helped to look after some of the amazing plant collections, including the geophyte and the native annual collections. Geophyte is a broad bracket term used to describe a plant storage organ used to conserve water and nutrients; encompassing bulbs, tubers and corms, for example. The opportunity to make trips to see plants in the wild was really an invaluable experience and built my botanising skills greatly. The staff at JBG are very generous and involved me with many exciting cultural experiences as well as trips across Israel and Palestine at the weekends.

Over the past three years or so Ori Fragman Sapir, the Scientific Director at JBG has visited Wisley. He has given excellent informative talks to the staff and students, as well as kindly bringing seed with him. We have also been using the JBG Seed List (Index Seminum). Here at Wisley, we have managed to successfully grow several of these plants from JBG seed. From the first batch of seed in 2017, the annuals were the first to flower; the blue lupin, Lupinus pilosus (this lupin is called Lupinus digitatus by the RHS) and the campion, Silene palaestina. These plants proved useful in Alpine Display and the Rock Garden. These annuals flowered in their first spring, in the summer, the perennial Salvia bracteata and Salvia palaestina bloomed. The Salvia palaestina, delighted many people, with its masses of white flowers, which to my nose, had an aroma of lime cordial. I used the S. bracteata on the RHS Diploma student identification test in 2019.


Pictures from left to right:  Lupinus pilosus (Lupinus digitatus) growing at Wisley, James Miller working in the Alpine House at Wisley, Salvia palaestina also growing at Wisley

Bellevalia webbiana, flowering for the first time at Wisley, April 2020

Bellevalia webiana flowering for the first time at Wisley

Geophytes have also been very successful, with a very high germination rate. Some of the first bulbs to germinate were Bellevalia desertorum and B. webbiana back in 2017 B. desertorum requires a very dry dormancy, as it is from very arid environments; so we find it wants to go dormant earlier than many of the other bulbs, in Asparagaceae, hyacinth or asparagus family bulb collection here at Wisley. Excitingly, B. webbiana has flowered for the first time this year in April.

Gagea chlorantha, was one of the first geophytes grown from JBG seed to bloom. Its cheery bright yellow star shaped flowers close up at night and open again after sunrise. We have found that G. chlorantha is an excellent plant for Alpine Display, as it has spent approximately six weeks in display each year, for the last two winters. Several Colchicum species, have germinated, including Colchicum hierosolymitanum and C. stevenii. Interestingly, the species name ‘hierosolymitanum’ means pertaining to Jerusalem, coming from the Latin name for the city; Hierosolyma. Other geophytes germinated from JBG include; Sternbergia Clusiana, Pancratium maritimum, P sickenbergeri and various alliums, including the showy Allium tel-avivense, A. israeliticum and the striking blue A. hierochuntinum.

I am very excited about seeing the irises which we have grown from seed flower.  They include Iris grant-duffii, which is doing growing very well in sand plunges. Iris grant-duffii, likes to be kept very damp, when actively growing, as it is from seasonally marginal or wet areas, which dry up in the summer months. The reticulate Iris, Iris vartanii and the Oncocyclus iris, Iris atropurpurea germinated in 2019 and are particularly exciting prospects. If you would like to follow the seeds’ progress, you are more than welcome to follow my new professional Instagram account @miller_jamesm, my blog called My Wardian Case or look out for one of my plant society talks.”

Spring is here

This week’s ‘Voice from the Gardens’ comes from our nursery-propagation intern, Steve:
“Spring is finally here in Jerusalem. The almond trees have begun to flower, the anemones are in full bloom in the fields, and the lupines are shooting up their flower buds at the botanic garden. We’ve nearly finished sowing our seeds, and many plants have been pricked out and potted on, waiting to flower and collect their seed. We spent a few days clearing and cleaning a space next to the nursery to display all the rare and endangered plants together. We’ve also started cleaning and planting the rare plant display beds in the garden.
IMG_6152 rare plant collection at jbg_sz

The rare plant collection in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: S Zelno

As the urgency to sow, prick out and pot on has subsided, I’ve been able to help in other parts of the garden. I’ve continued to curate and label the geophytes collection, as well as help with a large cutting project in the nursery. This month I’ve also had the opportunity to work in the tropical conservatory, helping build a green wall on tropical ferns and begonias.
Best of all, I’ve had the chance for several trips to see plants in the wild. I’ve taken two trips with the Friends group here at the Gardens to see the wild anemones and other spring flowers like Iris palaestina as well as two trips with Dr. Ori— one to see wild flowers blooming in the desert and another to see the black Iris atropurpurea on the coast outside Jaffa. Both were unbelievable sights.
Looking forward to more mild weather and spring blooms.
IMG_5981 anemones _sz feb19

Anemones flowering in the countryside.  Photo:  S Zelno

IMG_6204 iris altropurpurea _sz jan19

Iris atropurpurea  Photo:  S. Zelno

Seed collecting from our rare plants

Brandon, our current propagation intern, writes about his current work …

Having worked at the Jerusalem Botanical Garden for over three months, I can now say that I have settled in. What I do day-to-day varies slightly but currently my job is primarily seed collecting.

One of the greatest aspects of managing the rare plant collection is ensuring that plants propagated from either seed or a vegetative state live long enough to produce viable seed. As most native Israeli plants are annuals, most of our plants here at the nursery begin growing or are planted in the autumn or winter when the rainy season begins and then by the end of Spring, when the temperatures increase and rain becomes more sporadic, plants are triggered into senescing. This natural cycle dictates what work needs to be done at the nursery and when.

Below is a perennial, Salvia multicaulis that I have collected seed from today. This Salvia, native to Israel is extremely rare, being found only in the Judean Mountains.

salvia multica

At the flowering stage with violet-blue flowers (photo Brandon George)

salvia multicaulis 2

When the flowers fall off, the bracts remain on the flowering stem and it is within these bracts that the seed develops (photo Brandon George)

salvia multicaulis seeds

Each single bract contains only one seed (photo Brandon George)

Each single bract contains only one seed (from what I have seen so far collecting them) which makes the collecting process for this plant a bit time-consuming. Fortunately, here at the Gardens, we have a fantastic group of volunteers who clean and store seeds, making my job as an intern much easier.

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.


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.

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.