The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens

Today the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are hardly world class, but tomorrow it could be.

Work in progress: The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Work in progress: The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Today the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are hardly world class, but tomorrow it could be.
At 12 hectares, they are on the small side as botanical gardens go; Kew Gardens in London is 10 times bigger. Yet the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are large enough to include a number of distinct collections of regional plants and also to provide enough space for roads, paths and pavilions, as well as for an indoor tropical conservatory and several simulated water features, including streams and lakes.
The gardens are set on the side of a hill adjacent to the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, for which they originally served as a strictly research and teaching resource for the biological and horticultural courses offered there. Thus they were not originally developed with great architectural landscape design values in mind, and they have still not made the transition to their highest potential level of public interest and accommodation.
Perhaps that is why, when I recently visited mid-morning on a weekday, I was among only a half-dozen ambulating visitors, except for a group of elementary school children and a number of adults having brunch at the on-site restaurant, which enjoys a lovely view of the lotus-covered lake. True, I came between the most colorful seasons, which are in late fall, when the leaves are turning, and in early spring, when the wildflowers are blooming, but this is perhaps the best time to evaluate the gardens in terms of their basic appeal or lack of appeal, which includes not only the botanical features but also the hardscape elements.
The most disturbing hardscape element in extensive portions of these gardens are the large patches of bare earth between the plants, which I found myself noticing more than the plants themselves. In a dry sun-baked environment like ours, if these large empty spaces are not covered with well-maintained dark mulch, they appear washed out and poorly tended and fail to allow the featured botanical specimens to stand out as they should. I am told that these large bare patches are full of seeds and bulbs that bloom in the spring, but that leaves three-quarters of the year when you are left looking at only glaring hard-packed dirt.
Another important aspect of hardscape is the roads which serve as major walkways in the gardens. These roads now primarily consist of broken faded asphalt, which not only is ugly but – on a hot day, without the cloud cover present when I made my visit – must be positively enervating, particularly since most of them wind uphill. They should be repaved and covered with awnings to offer welcome shade for visitors. Such shade would also help you focus on the brightly lit natural and man-made features off to the sides.
AT THE top of the gardens a renovated indoor conservatory resembling an astronomical observatory is not yet open to the public, but I got a peek inside thanks to an accommodating gardener. The key feature will be a planted wall with geometric blocks of tropical plants, which will presumably be drip irrigated or sprayed with mist. Whether this contemporary design formalism will move the heart as much as the cascading waterfalls and rainy lost-in-the-jungle ambiance of the tropical aviary house at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is doubtful, but hopefully it will at least be colorful and intellectually appealing in its own contrived way.
Outside the tropical conservatory a bridge-like span of steel and wood provides an inviting architectural reason to stroll across it, even though there is not much to see horticulturally from its dramatic elevated vantage points. There is also a nearby children’s play area with clean bathrooms, at least when they are as little used as on the day of my visit.
The long northern section of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is the oldest and contains an extensive and varied collection of oak trees, around a number of which a handsome new elevated wooden picnic deck has just been completed and, along with associated improvements, is to be called the Morton L. Mandel Oak Mile, in honor of the 97-year-old arts-and-design-minded philanthropist whose handsome new Leadership Training Center is currently being built adjacent to the gardens.
The Mandel Oak Mile is an example of the sensitive development that could be applied to upgrading other sections of the gardens and will offer a prime new attraction for visitors, especially those who bring their own lunch rather than have it served to them for many shekels at the lakeside restaurant.
The Mandel Oak Mile borders the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens’ conifer collection, which includes a splendid Atlas Mountains pine whose extremely long fallen needles cover an enchanting curved trail that weaves around a roadway recently resurfaced with blacktop to good aesthetic effect. Emerging from this area, you enter an exquisitely detailed wetlands with perfectly scaled wood-floored viewing platforms and well-coordinated stone paths.
It was a joy to gently push aside the soft clusters of dark-pink-colored grasses overlapping these paths, as I made my way down the hillside to some elevated seedling beds that were tastefully laid out. Next to these a bucket-trap mill wheel creaked not unpleasantly, as it spun around to distribute water to a make-believe stream which fed into the large lily-pond at the entrance to the gardens, where a large events center is soon to open.
Given its size and setting, this event center’s architecture might have benefited by being more naturalistic, and I found it rather bulky and standoffish.
Back at the entrance, I bought two packets of wildflower seeds and observed that there was no written guide to the gardens available in English, although according to the attendant such an English guide is coming soon. So, too, is a new gardens’ ticket and gift sales building of hard white Scandinavian Modern styling, which seems an inappropriate introduction to what lies ahead or a relaxing way to end your visit.
My overall impression of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is as a work in progress that could be greatly improved with some significant gifts and endowments to make up for some of its present deficiencies. As a botanical garden is inherently hands-on and worker-intensive, the fact that there are only five gardeners for the entire complex suggests that a truly useful donation to the gardens or to the Jerusalem Foundation on its behalf would be to at least double that number of full-time staff.
I can assure benefactors that their contributions will be handsomely noted on distinctive black placards, which appear throughout the gardens and which I consider one of its most effective design elements, along with plant identification signs in shades of brown rather than in jarring black-on-white, as are found at other botanical gardens like the one on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, about which I will write in a future column in this series.
The writer has written on design for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He recently made aliyah.