Pope Francis, who arrives in Israel at the end of May, has just received a special gift -- seeds of the white Madonna lily of the type that existed during the time of Jesus two millennia ago. The seeds were developed in the lab of Dr. Michelle Zakai with the help of Asael Ram at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
According to Christian tradition, the lily was connected to the Annunciation during which the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. The Madonna lily, according to Christian iconography, symbolizes the virgin birth of Jesus in the spring. The flower appears in many Italian Renaissance paintings of Christian themes that were painted by the great artists of the day.
According to the New Testament, the Annunciation occurred in Nazareth, where a church was built to mark the event. Annunciation Day, marked this year on April 3, is being marked by Catholics around the world. But Madonna lilies that grow wild in Israel and bloom at other times.
The seeds were presented to the pope by University of Haifa's master degree student Inbar Blum, who is studying the management of natural resources and the environment. Blum also gave the pope a book, published by the Tourism Ministry, on the travels of pilgrims in the footsteps on Mary in the Holy Land. The delegation that visited the Vatican was lead by Blum, who said the pope was moved by the gifts.
The event took place at the end of a semester of studies at the Sapienza University of Rome, sponsored by Israeli and Palestinian universities and UNESCO, in which both Israeli and Palestinians studied.
The BGU researchers are cultivating the white Madonna bulbs under special hothouse conditions to make the flowers bloom in April, when Christians mark the Annunciation. The fact that the lily has now bloomed and that its origin is in the Holy Land gives it special significance for Christians, said Zakai.
Inducing plants to flower unnaturally at certain times of year means improved sales. Many natural flowers sprout in the fall but flower in the spring and summer, when environmental conditions ensure the maximum pollination and seed development. These plants have a mechanism that makes it possible to 'measure and remember' the cold of winter and translate it into an operating system for blooming in the spring and summer, Zakai said.