Cityfront: The giving trees

Jerusalem’s first tree survey will preserve the city’s oldest trees so they are not lost to development.

Cypress trees 521 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Cypress trees 521
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
There’s a tree that stands in the middle of Hanevi’im Street near the Russian Compound, alone on a traffic island like a lone sentry in a sea of cars. Taxis and buses whiz by and, until someone points it out, the tree pretty much blends into the background of a bustling Jerusalem intersection.
But the tree still stands, protected by the traffic island as a result of a tough battle waged by environmental activists determined to save Jerusalem’s oldest trees.
In an effort to save more trees, the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is collecting the stories of this tree and thousands of others in the first Jerusalem Tree Survey, to create a comprehensive list of trees in the capital that need to be preserved.
“Our relationship with trees is terrible,” says Tal Rubin, the coordinator of the Jerusalem Tree Survey at SPNI.
“Yes, we teach kids about Tu Bishvat. But in Japan, if a tree is sick, they bring it flowers and care for it. In haredi neighborhoods, they nail laundry lines to trees.”
“This specific tree has become invisible,” says Rubin, pointing to the lone tree on the Hanevi’im traffic island. “We can pass it a thousand times and not think about how it helps us, how it improves our attitude, how good it is for us to see a little green.”
The object of the tree survey is to document the city’s oldest trees in an organized manner so there will be an exhaustive list to consult when someone applies for a building or renovation permit. Currently, there are tree inspectors whose approval is required for building permits.
But sometimes people purposefully cover the trees with chemicals that poison them, forcing the inspectors to pronounce them dead and allowing building in certain areas that may not have been approved otherwise. Other times, building will commence with the intent to salvage a specific tree, but workers dig up so much of the roots that the tree dies anyway.
Creating a comprehensive list gives the city a base from which to work: they will know the state of the oldest and grandest trees, and it will help regulate the city’s bureaucratic processes with regards to approving construction in areas with trees slated for preservation.
Kfar Saba and Herzliya have already completed tree surveys, according to Rubin. The SPNI is also working on a tree survey in Tel Aviv, and Haifa is undertaking the most comprehensive survey, which will document every tree in the city and take five to six years to complete.
Jerusalem’s tree survey, which will cost roughly NIS 150,000, was made possible by a donation from the Goldman Fund. The Jerusalem Municipality, the Botanical Gardens in Givat Ram, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry are also collaborating on the project.
Seven inspectors hired by the SPNI will canvass all of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods on foot, documenting the largest trees. The inspectors are also examining botanical surveys, to determine whether previously documented trees are still standing, as well as aerial photographs from the British Mandate period.
The inspectors will ask locals which trees have been part of the neighborhood fabric or have stories behind them. Some trees that will make the list are obvious: the mulberry tree in Nahlaot mentioned in a Yossi Banai song, or the ancient carob tree in Ein Kerem that was the last stop for pilgrims before reaching the Old City. Others are less obvious – a row of cypress trees in downtown Jerusalem next to the Bishop’s House that featured prominently in a 100-year-old photograph of the area and is considered part of the preservation status of the historical building.
Jerusalem’s tree survey started in November and is expected to conclude this September. The SPNI will present the list of trees to the city and the Agriculture Ministry so it can be used as a working document for planning in the capital. “The only way to deal with these things is knowledge,” says Rubin. “When we have more knowledge, we can plan better.”
The survey will identify individual trees rather than areas with trees slated for preservation. This is due to the emphasis placed on the importance of preserving each tree, not just maintaining the same overall number of trees. “You can’t cut a tree down and plant a new one and think that it’s going to be the same thing,” says Rubin.
Understandably, the oldest trees in Jerusalem are in oldest neighborhoods: Rehavia, Yemin Moshe, Talbiyeh, the German Colony and the haredi neighborhoods. The trees outside of residential neighborhoods were cut down by the Turks for construction and fuel.
This year on Tu Bishvat, the SPNI hosted a night of “The Stories of Trees,” a family event for sharing stories about some of Jerusalem’s trees and asking the public for their own stories about trees. Rubin stresses that according to Jewish tradition, the proper time to plant trees is actually Rosh Hashana, because the saplings need a full winter of rain in order to survive. The survey will be finished just in time for the fall holidays.
For Rubin, documentation means more than just protecting the trees from current construction and development. It’s a way of honoring an integral part of Jerusalem that most of us take for granted. Stately, towering trees are as much a part of the urban landscape of Jerusalem as ancient stone buildings or the walls of the Old City. But they’re a part of the city that few people notice or appreciate until they are gone, victims to expanding buildings and parking lots.
“We will be able to save the majority of the trees on the list,” says Rubin. “But if we don’t have this list, there won’t be any of them left.”
Share your story with SPNI of your favorite tree at SPNI’s website

Cypress: In Sergei’s Courtyard, the part of the Russian Compound where the SPNI’s offices are located, and in the Valley of the Cross near Rehavia. The Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross, which has its own majestic cypresses, marks the spot where the cypress tree that is believed to have been used for Jesus’s Cross grew.
European nettle tree (also called honeyberry): In the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus, which also has a beautiful Greek mulberry tree.
Oak: Beit Safafa lays claim to one of Israel’s oldest oak trees.
Olive trees: Gethsemane, a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, home of the gnarled 2,000- year-old olive trees mentioned in the New Testament.
Fig: On Hanevi’im Street. Rahel the Poetess lived here for a brief time in the 1920s and wrote poems about a pear tree and a fig tree in her courtyard. Both trees are still standing and the fig tree continues to bear fruit every year.