Working in Jerusalem: From the ground up

Batsheva Kantor recalls 28 years of nurturing the Botanical Gardens.

January 25, 2010 15:02
4 minute read.


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When you enter the Botanical Gardens in Givat Ram, the path that leads into the 250-dunam property is lined with a striking array of color and scent. This season's floral fanfare comprises such blooms as anemones, cornflowers, pansies, narcissus, jonquilles, chrysanthemums, Echinacea, phlox and hollyhocks in varying shades of purple, pink, mauve, white, burgundy and yellow.

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The beautiful bounty is the handiwork of Batsheva Kantor (formerly Mink), curator of the display plant sector of the Gardens. In fact, not only is she responsible for the arrangement of the array, but she has also culled and cultivated many of the plants herself.

In 1982 Kantor, then a new immigrant from Sussex, England, was hired to do research on native plants in Israel to see if they could be used in local gardens. At the time, the Botanical Gardens was a workshop under the auspices of the Hebrew University. "They were just starting to build it, to plant the first 20 dunams. All the rest was wild and rough ground," recalls the 64-year-old.

She went around the country collecting and compiling native plants in order to make a seed bank. After assessing which plants would be compatible with Israeli gardens, she would introduce them into the Botanical Gardens to grow them there, with the seeds then recycled into the wild.

She also went to construction sites and dug up any rare plants she could find before they were bulldozed into oblivion. "The blue lupin was practically extinct," she cites as an example. "I got a handful of them. Now 10,000 of them come up every year at the Gardens."

According to Kantor, there are approximately 3,500 species of plants in the country, of which 150 are endemic - i.e., found only in Israel. "This country has more plants per square kilometer of land than anywhere else in the world," she asserts.


Kantor also worked with seeds received in a free exchange with other botanical gardens.

A great source of pride for Kantor are the two Tabebuia trees flourishing on the premises. "The Tabebuia, from South America, is one of the most magnificent trees in the world," she says. Ten of them had been given to the nursery; but after eight had died, the curator asked Kantor to see what she could do with the last two. "I planted them," Kantor recounts. "For the first three years it was touch and go. The next year all the branches were breaking, so I bandaged them and they started to grow. Now every spring, people come from all over to see these trees, which are 12 years old."

In 1995 Kantor took on the position of curator of the display plants. In that capacity, she incorporates wildflowers with display plants to achieve decorative diversity. Her criteria for what to plant each season are threefold: which ones are the most attractive, which ones flower the longest and which are the most interesting. She also tries to plant as many different varieties as possible.

Kantor always had a green thumb, although her early career was spent not on the ground but in the air. When she lived in the US, she worked as a stewardess for TWA. When she was 24 her husband died, and she moved to the countryside in Sussex with her two young daughters and worked on local farms, where she was told she was "a natural." Her interest piqued, she studied botany and horticulture at Plumpton College of Agriculture and the Glass House Research Institute and graduated with distinction.

She then began to grow hothouse crops for a living, such as tomatoes, lettuce and lilies. Although her plants were thriving, her girls were growing up in an isolated area, which was not good for their social development, she says. So in 1981, as a dedicated Zionist, she decided to move the family to Israel. "I thought every Zionist worked the land. I expected them all to be chopping up the land and growing crops," she laughs in retrospect.

She also laughs when she recalls her official interview at the Botanical Gardens. When she arrived in Israel, she applied there for a job. The director said there was a research position available but no money to pay her. Disappointed but not disheartened, she enrolled in ulpan and enjoyed an active social life with the friends she made at the Mevaseret absorption center.

Eight months later, she was invited to the Botanical Gardens for an interview. Dressed in her British best, she went to the meeting in a white silk suit. The director looked at her and said, "Do you expect to work in that?"

"Why, have I got the job?" she responded.

Now, 28 years later, dressed in loose-fitting gardening garb, Kantor is semi-retired.

She rides her bike to work from her home in Nahlaot, where she lives with her husband, Richard. She works two and a half days a week, preparing and digging the soil, adding compost and planting and weeding. And she always welcomes the help of volunteers.

Today, one-third of the display plants come from the nursery of the Botanical Gardens; one-third are gifts from Danziger, the largest grower in Israel; and the other one-third is purchased from local nurseries through the money she raises. "Every year just before Rosh Hashana, we have a fund-raiser at the home of Susan Fried, where we sell orchids for NIS 50 to NIS 130," she says. But she has to dig deep, as "It's not a Jewish thing to give money for plants. People donate to education, not vegetation."

But what many people don't realize, says Kantor, is that the Botanical Gardens is an important locale for learning. "We have schools from all over the country visiting, as well as students from universities in Israel and abroad."

It is important to support such environmental studies, she insists, because "You cannot go against nature: It fights back, and it has the last word."

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