Seeds of change in Israel

Israel’s location led to its long history as a destination of ancient trade routes.

Rare plants enthusiast Moshe Weiss 311 (photo credit: Jeffrey Barken)
Rare plants enthusiast Moshe Weiss 311
(photo credit: Jeffrey Barken)
ZICHRON YA’AKOV, Israel - Rare plants enthusiast Moshe Weiss often contrasts Israel’s agricultural perspective with Hawaii’s strict policies that keep non-indigenous plants from infiltrating a fragile ecosystem.
“If you’re surrounded by water, then it’s worth worrying what seeds come off a boat. They can disturb everything,” he says.
While giving a tour in Zichron Ya’akov of his eclectic private garden, a small plot that showcases exotic plant varieties gathered from all over the world, Weiss noted Israel’s peculiar geographic location amid Asia, Europe and Africa—which makes the country an inevitable crossroads for diverse plant species.
“When you’re stuck between three continents … what can you do to prevent foreign plants from spreading? The worst has already happened,” Weiss says. He has minimal concern that an introduced crop will turn out to be an invasive pest, and sees a promising future experimenting with newly imported plant varieties.
Israel’s location led to its long history as a destination of ancient trade routes. The Zionist movement of the late 19th century brought an influx of new non-native plant species to the region. One goal of the early pioneer movement was to enrich Israel’s agriculture with every possible plant species. After the founding of the state, the ministry of agriculture actively explored and screened crops for development funding.
Resourceful Israeli farmers capitalized on new plant species. One celebrated story recalls Yanni Avidov, who in 1955 managed to smuggle 75,000 date saplings out of Iraq, a country with no diplomatic ties to the Jewish state. The smuggled trees thrived, and today are a major Israeli export crop.
Thanks in part to success stories like that of Avidov, modern Israeli agriculture is built on the notion that farmers can grow anything, as long as they have the will. To be competitive as a produce exporter, therefore, Israelis carefully plan their growing seasons to provide specific products precisely at times when other countries experience shortages. In this way Israel fills multiple market niches. Israelis optimize their plantings to accommodate an ever-changing demand schedule. They implement “smart agriculture,” the systematic simulation of different growing conditions that can either encourage an early harvest, or postpone a crop’s maturation.
Israel’s most commonly exported fruits and vegetables include peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, spice herbs, kakis, oranges, grapefruit, avocado, pomegranate, bananas, grapefruits, passion fruits, guavas, and mangos. Data presented by Israel’s Fruit Grower Organization details a record crop in 2011, over 690,000 tons of fruit, according to the Israel National News.
Weiss recalls when fruits now common in Israel, like mangos and avocados, were a rare treat. Their successful cultivation in Israel raises a question: what is considered rare in a country that believes it can grow anything? Weiss answers by enumerating all fruits derived from tropical, sub-tropical or extremely cold climates.
When Weiss first began seeking rare plants for his garden, he realized Israel had received numerous waves of “aliyah” (immigration) from every corner of the world. These people had brought their favorite fruits and vegetables with them and they planted their rare seeds in isolated locations. For the new hobbyist, there is no need to smuggle any more. All one needs to find and cultivate rare plants in Israel is some knowledge of botany, and a sense of where to search for specimens.
Additionally, the Internet has heightened the global dialogue about plants. On account of its innovative methods, many countries consult Israel in order to attain creative answers to agricultural challenges. Through email and Skype, Weiss is at the forefront of this conversation. He is in contact with specialists, research centers, hobbyists and seed companies all over the world and helps facilitate the exchange of plant materials.
By this 21st-century trade route, Weiss has acquired the beautiful Pacay tree, a species native to Peru. Nicknamed the Marshmallow of the Andes, for its deliciously refreshing vanilla ice cream-flavored fruit, the tree has acclimated well to Israel’s dry climate. It grows beside another South American crop, the Brazilian Cherry, or Pitanga, a bushy plant that bears small red fruit with a sweet and sour flavor.
Asked whether these plants belong in Israel, Weiss replies by pointing to a small red berry hidden between the leaves on a green bush. “Try this,” he says, pointing to another South American plant known as Bunchosia Argentea. “It tastes like peanut butter!” The question, in fact, is irrelevant. Weiss feels that there is no harming the local ecosystem. “People here have been trading plants for 7,000 years.” In his private garden, he is at liberty to experiment on a small scale and he is encouraged to report his findings.
Weiss collaborates with other enthusiasts as a member of Israel’s Exotic Fruit Association, a group founded 20 years ago to propagate foreign crop species in Israel. Though they receive little funding, they often are invited to public events, conventions, and high-profile meetings with Israeli heads of state to showcase their exotic produce. As Israel expands its palate for rare fruits, members of this association provide research results and special crop previews.
Not only do Israelis look abroad for new agricultural produce, but they also look to their ancient past, hoping to revive biblical crops. When 2,000-year-old Judean date seeds were discovered in the ruins of Masada, researcher Sarah Sallon of Hadassah hospital enlisted the help of a botanist, Dr. Elaine Solowey, to germinate the archaic seeds. They succeeded.
Solowey currently lives in Kibbutz Ktora, a small agricultural community not far from Eilat, and she is an expert at developing crops for arid and saline areas. She is interested in biblical plants for their medicinal value, and for their potential as modern Israeli crops. As she highlights the success of the Judean date venture, Solowey describes a markedly different ancient landscape. “[Israel] was forested with oaks down to Ashkelon. The Negev was a savanna, and the Arava valley was a string of oases. This we know from the Biblical record. It was probably colder and there was more water in the Jordan valley than now.”
Israelis are eager to recreate the botanical grandeur of their homeland, but they also accept that geography renders them an intersection of world trade and a target for non-indigenous, even invasive, species.
Both Weiss and Dr. Solowey are comfortable with this development model, and they continue to work in the spirit of Avidov. They want to make the most of the land, are dedicated to research, and are eager to see Israel fulfill its destiny and enjoy its blessing.