Pioneer of Desert Ecology and Agriculture – An Interview with Dr. Elaine Solowey



The Middle East is in turmoil. Many of its current conflicts have emerged from the concern of environmental security, which consists of energy security, water security, food security, land degradation and desertification. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael - the Jewish National Fund has contributed to all these fields over the past hundred years and more. Israel, which consists of mostly arid and semi-arid climate, has successfully confronted great challenges in turning the land into an agricultural miracle.


Artemsia, also known as Wormwood, known for its medicinal propertiesArtemsia, also known as Wormwood, known for its medicinal properties
Photo: Samuel Wilner


Dr. Elaine Solowey, a member of Kibbutz Ketura, and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, has been pioneering in the field of sustainable agriculture for several decades. There is no doubt that she is one of the world experts in arid land agriculture. Dr. Solowey emigrated from California to Israel in the early 1970s. Her interest in agriculture derives from growing up in an agricultural family that grew various fruits.

In her early years in Israel, she used to work at apple orchards in the Golan Heights. Soon after, from the very start of her life in the Arava Dr. Soloway started working in agriculture, first as the head of the date orchards, and later as a researcher experimenting with several exotic fruit trees, such as mangos and pomelas.
“I started to look for things for research”, explains Dr. Elaine Solowey. It was important to find plants that would be physiologically appropriate for the harsh climate. “I was brought species from other parts of the world”: from exotic islands of Africa to the Americas – Arganiya seeds were exported from Morocco, neems (Azadirachta indica) from India and marulas (Sclerocarya birrea) from Botswana.
However, the climate was problematic for some of the plants – such as pomelas – because they were tender plants and did not grow well, explains Dr. Solowey. Another great issue was the extreme heat and the water quality: most of the water in the Arava is pumped from the saline aquifers deep underground the valley.
The process of domestication is long and not easy. Not all the trees are suitable for the Arava region. Another example of these is the pitaya, also known as dragon fruit, which grows better on the Mediterranean coastal plain. According to Dr. Elaine Solowey the trees did not mind about the salinity of the water but the heavy solar radiation was a problem. Trees and plans from the desert are the ones that survive best in the hyper-arid climate of Arava.
In the past decades, the KKL-JNF has gone to great efforts to develop the desert agriculture. According to Dr. Solowey, KKL-JNF has done tremendous work. “I look at their work with amazement and pride.” In the early years the tree planting was not as diverse as it is nowadays. According to her forests are much healthier when they are done in mixed plantings. This is nature’s way.
KKL-JNF has contributed to the southern agriculture in many ways. Dr. Soloway particularly mentions the so called wind-breaker trees that KKL-JNF has given her. These windbreaker trees keep the sand from moving as the sand dunes are very unstable. “This is absolutely necessary and I have planted them for the last forty years”, says Dr. Elaine Solowey. One of the most popular trees that have been planted is tamarisk (Tamarix), which grows fast and survives with very little, low quality water.
In return, Dr. Solowey has supplied KKL-JNF nurseries with seeds and seedlings from several plants, such as argania and marula. Marula trees have been planted in limans, which is a formation of land that gathers water from the seasonal rainfalls and provides ideal conditions for certain desert trees and plants, as there is more water available than in the surrounding environment. There are several constructed limans in the Negev desert.
A liman in the desertA liman in the desert
Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
Trees - the source of food: According to Dr. Elaine Solowey trees are still underutilized source of food. “Trees protect and improve the soil and they conserve water. They are the keystone species of all ecosystems,” emphasizes Dr. Solowey. “I believe more in growing trees than growing vegetables”.
There are lots of desert plants that have medicinal properties. According to Dr. Solowey there are many plants in the ‘wadis’, dry river beds that are very powerful. “Now I am doing lot of work with medicinal plants. We have a lot to learn from these plants; we can learn how to cultivate them”.
Some of the medicinal plants could be water saving plants, quite valuable. “We should examine the possibility of turning some of our wild crops into cultivated ones, such as Artemisia plants”.
The Bible’s Methuselah in the 21st century: In the stories of the Bible, Methuselah was a king from a distant and ancient kingdom. He was an old man full of wisdom. The same name was given to a date tree that sprouted from an ancient two thousand year old seed discovered during the excavations of the historic Masada fortress near the Dead Sea.  “It was a true surprise that the seeds sprouted. Waking up old seeds was just a lucky guess.” Yet, according to Dr. Solowey date seeds can survive in certain conditions a very long time.
The meeting is nearly over. Dr. Elaine Soloway is enthusiastic about her work, and has several plans. She will continue to teach sustainable agriculture to the students of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. She also has a project of writing a new book with a title “The trees of fragrance and mystery”, and it should come out at the end of the year.
We are sitting in the library of Kibbutz Ketura. I look outside. Another day has passed and the sun sets behind the mountains leaving a loose trail of dark red and light red rays on the blue sky. There are few lonely clouds decorating the view. It looks as if the light of the day is escaping. Suddenly it is dark; the land will rest – waiting for the next day, surviving the heat. Tomorrow there will be a new day.