Working in Jerusalem: From the ground up

Batsheva Kantor recalls 28 years of nurturing the Botanical Gardens.

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

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

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

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

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

According to Kantor, there are approximately 3,500 species ofplants in the country, of which 150 are endemic - i.e., found only inIsrael. "This country has more plants per square kilometer of land thananywhere 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 treesflourishing on the premises. "The Tabebuia, from South America, is oneof the most magnificent trees in the world," she says. Ten of them hadbeen given to the nursery; but after eight had died, the curator askedKantor 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. Thenext year all the branches were breaking, so I bandaged them and theystarted to grow. Now every spring, people come from all over to seethese trees, which are 12 years old."

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

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

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

She also laughs when she recalls her official interview at theBotanical Gardens. When she arrived in Israel, she applied there for ajob. The director said there was a research position available but nomoney to pay her. Disappointed but not disheartened, she enrolled inulpan and enjoyed an active social life with the friends she made atthe Mevaseret absorption center.

Eight months later, she was invited to the Botanical Gardensfor an interview. Dressed in her British best, she went to the meetingin a white silk suit. The director looked at her and said, "Do youexpect 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 shelives with her husband, Richard. She works two and a half days a week,preparing and digging the soil, adding compost and planting andweeding. And she always welcomes the help of volunteers.

Today, one-third of the display plants come from the nursery ofthe Botanical Gardens; one-third are gifts from Danziger, the largestgrower in Israel; and the other one-third is purchased from localnurseries through the money she raises. "Every year just before RoshHashana, we have a fund-raiser at the home of Susan Fried, where wesell 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 toeducation, not vegetation."

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

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