Every year the Western Negev explodes in red. Along the border with Gaza, kalaniyot, known in English as anemones, burst from the ground and cover the rolling fields with a plush carpet of red.
But it didn’t always used to be like this. A little over a decade ago, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael/Jewish National Fund realized that bringing sheep herds throughout the western Negev cleared the grounds of underbrush that in the summer dries out and becomes dangerous kindling for wildfires. But the natural grazing had an unintended side effect: by removing the competitive underbrush, the kalaniyot bloomed with almost violent force, transforming pastoral desert fields into splashes of brilliant red. Sheep, apparently, don’t like kalaniyot, leaving them alone to multiply with force.
Local residents realized they could harness the beauty of the flowers for economic gain as well. Eight years ago, the local council, in cooperation with KKL/JNF and a coalition of environmental and community organizations launched the Darom Adom (Red South) Festival. Stretching from January to the end of February, depending on the flowers, the festival draws approximately 300,000 visitors per month, according to Livnat Ginzbourg, the tourism coordinator for the Northern Negev Regional Council. These visitors pump hundreds of thousands of shekels into a little-visited area of the country that struggles financially.
The grazing also benefits the Bedouin shepherds, who bring 20,000 sheep to graze throughout the western Negev each summer.
“People walk around in the summer when everything is brown and dead, and all they see is destruction,” Talila Livshutz, the Community and Forest director of the JNF’s Southern District, said on Thursday as she wove through patches of kalaniyot in the Shokeda Forest. She pointed to the dead skeletons of eucalyptus trees, which withered after a ten-year drought that ended last year. “People don’t understand why we invest all this effort into creating green spaces [in the Negev]… Then suddenly nature shows us that she didn’t forget us. Everything that we did all year pops up and blooms and it’s so beautiful.”
On Thursday, Livshutz, who has worked in the area for 12 years, marveled at the steady stream of people passing through the fields. A girl in a princess costume ahead of Purim frolicked among the flowers as her sister, dressed as a bumblebee, posed shyly for pictures. Families picnicked among the trees, their blankets an island in a sea of red. She noted that the Darom Adom Festival has become almost “too popular.”
Two weeks ago, a sunny weekend drew 100,000 people in two days. The quiet rural roads had trouble absorbing the crush of people desperate for glimpses of red, and traffic jams snarled major roads for hours.
Ginzbourg, of the Regional Council, said the area has not experienced any decrease in visitors due to the recent Gaza operation, when the area was the target of more than 1,000 rockets. “Who remembers Operation Pillar of Defense?” Ginzbourg asked. “That’s old news. It’s so quiet and the weather is so beautiful.”
This year’s summit passed about two weeks ago, when a Darom Adom volunteer said the fields were “so red that it hurt to look at them.”
Kalaniyot are found across Israel. In the north, the flowers, which closely resemble poppies, are red and white. But in the South, the kalaniyot are only red. Livshutz says that’s because the southern kalaniyot are “less spoiled” and can survive the harsher desert climate. It’s also much more dramatic to see so much vibrant red among the naturally pastel landscape.
Now, the western Negev is synonymous with the seasonal red flowers. “We didn’t really plan on this,” said Livshutz of the sheep grazing that led to the flower’s explosion. “But we realized that the flowers were giving us a clue: let’s develop this for tourism, and use it to help the South. Now it’s a huge celebration.”