Gardening: Like cedars of Lebanon

Cedar trees hold an illustrious place in our nation's history.

cedar tree 88 (photo credit: )
cedar tree 88
(photo credit: )
Not long ago, in the city of Safed, the residents of an apartment building petitioned the authorities to remove a cedar tree that was blocking their view. After the usual bureaucratic delays, their request was denied. Then, during the recent missile attacks, disaster was averted when a Katyusha rocket heading straight for their building slammed into the interfering cedar tree. Cedar trees hold an illustrious place in our nation's history. Before Jacob went down to Egypt, he stopped in Beersheba in order to take along cedar trees that had been planted there by his grandfather Abraham (Bereishit Rabba 94:4). The trees were replanted in Egypt with instructions to move them once again when redemption came. Ultimately, the wood of these trees was used in the construction of the Mishkan or desert Tabernacle. Much later, in the Land of Israel, in order to qualify to fight in Bar Kochba's army against Rome you had to prove your strength by uprooting a cedar tree (Gittin 57b). 200,000 recruits passed the test. The fall of Betar also involved a cedar tree. In ancient Israel, there was a custom to celebrate the birth of a boy by planting a cedar tree and the birth of a girl by planting a cypress. When a marriage occurred, the couple's huppa was fashioned from the branches of the trees of the respective bride and groom (Gittin 57a). It happened that Caesar's daughter came to Israel and was riding along when her carriage's shaft suddenly broke. Her attendants promptly cut down a cedar tree meant for a future huppa in order to make a new shaft out of it. The Jews at the scene became incensed and fell upon the Romans. This incident was reported to Caesar and, as a result, the Jerusalem suburb of Betar was assaulted and hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. As part of the purification ritual undergone by a metzora (a leprosy-like condition afflicting people who badmouthed others ) a priest would dip pieces or cedar and azov (zatar or marjoram) in blood from a slaughtered bird, which would then be sprinkled on the foul mouthed metzora. The cedar, a tall and mighty tree, was meant to remind the metzora that belittling others was a sign of haughtiness while azov, a low growing sub-shrub or ground cover, represented the contrasting trait of humility that the metzora should adopt. Speaking of azov and its relatives, Ruth Baks, who lives in the Old City in Jerusalem, sent me two references to lavender (azovyon or ezovyon in Hebrew) found in the Mishna. She wanted to know if I was aware of any Jewish customs or traditions that involved this highly aromatic plant, but I have yet to find any. She cites Shabbat 14:3, where lavender is mentioned in connection with plants that may not be consumed on Shabbat because of its curative effects on stomach worms (only essential medications are permitted on Shabbat). Next, she cites Negaim 14:6 which prohibits the use of lavender as an azov substitute in the mixture used for purification of the metzora. Both marjoram (azov) and lavender (azovyon) are members of the mint family, have a minimal water requirement, and are easily propagated from four-inch cuttings taken from shoot tips. Other mint relatives, propagated in the same manner, include rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano and, of course, every kind of mint: spearmint, peppermint or nana, bergamot mint, apple mint, and many others. Mints can be grown in full sun to partial shade. How much water does a fig tree require? Is it necessary to leave vacant soil around a fig tree and an olive tree or can each tree be surrounded by small plants? - Jeremy Karp, Jerusalem As you probably know, figs and olives are native to this part of the world and can survive on winter rain alone. However, to produce good crops they require supplemental irrigation. The best way to water a drought tolerant fruit tree such as a fig or olive (or even citrus) is with one weekly soaking. Install drip emitters around the tree's drip line, an imaginary circle given its name not because that is where drip emitters are placed but because that is where water drips off a tree when it rains. This drip line, which is where a tree's most actively growing roots are found, is located directly beneath the tree canopy's perimeter. If you do not want to install drip irrigation, take a very slowly trickling hose and lay it on the drip line, moving the hose every so often to make sure the entire drip line gets soaked. Mature trees should be soaked for six to twelve hours, once a week. When soil is wet to a depth of three inches, you have watered enough. Everything above refers to mature trees. Small or recently planted trees are different and may have to be watered often, even every day, depending on the weather, until they gradually become established. At this point, watering frequency can taper off. It is not a good idea to surround any tree with plants, at least inside the drip line, whether we are talking about fruit, ornamental, or shade trees. Shrubs or ground covers near a tree trunk can prevent oxygen from reaching the crown (where trunk meets roots), an area highly susceptible to asphyxiation and fungus attack. Also, if the base of a trunk becomes moist, it will not dry out due to proximity of other plants. Finally, when you have plants under a tree, you may have to water them more often than the tree requires, leading to excess water in the tree's root zone and soil borne fungus problems. The writer welcomes gardening questions from readers and will answer each one, whether by e-mail or in this column. If you have a question, send an e-mail to Please include your full name and location.