Not your regular garden variety

At Mount Scopus, botanists have preserved as many of Israel's native plants as they could.

flower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
When was the last time you gazed in awe at the petals of the multicolored eastern golden drop? Sniffed the delicate fragrance of the Ramon marjoram plant? Or feasted your eyes on the regal petals of the stunning blue sage? You can view all three of these rare delights (and hundreds more) on a marvelous spring walk through the Mount Scopus Botanical Gardens at the Hebrew University. The gardens, cared for almost singlehandedly by director Mimi Ron, cultivate and preserve Israel's natural heritage for the generations to come. And, in the case of flowers that are either rare or slated to be wiped off nature's map, to recall the glories of the past. The Botanical Gardens on Mount Scopus were established in 1931, six years after the foundation of the first Hebrew university in the world. From the beginning, and unlike the gardens developed much later at the University's Givat Ram branch in west Jerusalem, the Mount Scopus grounds exhibited only flora from the Land of Israel - in habitats designed to be as natural as possible. The creator of the gardens was Alexander Eig, born in Russia near the end of the 19th century. Eig was an incorrigible teenager who refused to attend school, preferring to wander about in nature. At their wits' end, his parents decided to send him to the Mikve Israel Agricultural School in Israel. But the studies were in French, which he didn't understand, and even there he played hooky. Finally he quit school altogether and began working as a gardener in Tel Aviv. One of his clients was Haim Bograshov, principal of the famous Herzliya Gymnasia (the first modern Hebrew high school in Israel). Aware of his gardener's intelligence, Bograshov convinced Eig to enroll in the Gymnasia. There he met his soul mate, budding botanist Eliezer Factorovsky. Both boys spent all their spare time in the fields, writing down the names of every plant, tree and flower outdoors. Factorovsky died of tuberculosis at the age of 24; Eig went on to become the director of botany at the brand-new Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Convinced that his students could learn about flora only by examining it firsthand, he insisted on the construction of adjacent botanical gardens. He picked an excellent spot, 826 meters above sea level on the edge of both the Judean Desert and the Jerusalem Hills. This unique location allowed both desert and Mediterranean plants to flourish. During the War of Independence, Mount Scopus remained in Israeli hands. Convoys traveling through east Jerusalem to the Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University were constantly attacked by Arabs. On April 13, 1948, 78 medical personnel on their way to work were massacred by Arabs; afterward, both university and hospital closed their doors. When Jerusalem was reunited 19 years later, renovation and construction began at the university (and the dilapidated gardens). The university's ground level was lowered by seven meters to the level of today's road; the rocks to the left of the entrance placed there to keep mud and flora from washing into the university became perfect for exhibiting plants that grow in crevices and on cliffs. As time went on, however, the garden was often shamelessly neglected. Then, a few months ago, work was completed on a non-circular wheelchair-accessible path leading through a portion of the gardens and to several of its main features. Designed by Ran Marin and developed by the Jewish National Fund, the gardens also have a new entrance - complete with pretty but bumpy stones and two babbling brooks. Ron believes that the botanical gardens are the only way we have left to teach people about Israeli flora, especially since botany is only rarely taught in high schools and universities. "How many people recognize more than a few dozen of Israel's 2,400 wildflowers?" she asks. Nine hundred species are exhibited here in the botanical gardens - a good start! Late winter and early spring are the most beautiful seasons for strolling through the botanical gardens on Mount Scopus. On the rocks to the left of the entrance the Syrian golden drop (matzitz suri) should be in bloom. This droopy plant with yellow buds grows only inside rocks. Indeed, if seeds fall into any other habitat they simply will not grow. Tall stonecrop (tzurit gevoha) and pendulous pink (tziporen mistalsel) are also found only in rocks; they can sometimes be seen on the Arbel cliffs near Tiberias or the prehistoric caves on Mount Carmel. Like its name, the tri-colored wall snapdragon (loa ari tziliani) thrives inside walls - in Israel, particularly in the walls of buildings in Tiberias, Acre, Jerusalem, Safed and Jaffa. Since these are all cities in which Crusaders dwelled, Ron theorizes that the Crusaders may have had seeds in their cuffs and shoes that fell on the ground when they walked. And where the seeds fell, flowers grew. Run your hand up and down the bark of the eastern strawberry tree (ktalav) to see how pleasing it is. The bark, a lovely deep red color 11 months of the year, peels in the 12th to reveal its green insides. Take a look at the flowers, which resemble little upside-down pots. When an insect flies onto one of the petals, it climbs upside down in order to collect the flower's pollen. The beautiful yellow and white three-leaved toadflax (pishtanit meshuleshet) used to be everywhere in the open fields; now it is rather difficult to find. Another flower to look for is the stunning purple and gold blue sage (marva kehula). My favorite is the Eastern golden drop, or somkan meutze, with long, drooping blossoms in yellow, gold and deep purple. Take a whiff of the air: The bright yellow spiny broom (kida se'ira) with its very strong fragrance is blooming with a vengeance. Seen all over the hills of Judea, the Carmel and Galilee, the spiny broom will soon lose its leaves. That's right - it sheds in summer instead of winter and appears only as a mass of thorns. Your stroll will take you to all kinds of habitats, like the Undergrowth (bata) - an area of bushes and short plants reaching at most a meter and a half in height. Or the Negev Highlands, where you will find the Ramon hyssop. This tiny plant, like common hyssop, has a delicate fragrance and is wonderful in tea. Nearby, the Negev feverfew (ben hartzit hanegev) has an awfully strong smell. Indeed, what Israelis call "flit" - used to get rid of bugs - is often made from this plant and others like it. The coastal habitat features some extremely rare foliage. Jaffa toadflax (pishtanit yaffo), white and deep purple, is one of the rarest plants in Israel. Airplane dock (humat ha'aviron) is found only on Israeli shores and nowhere else in the world - and is in danger of becoming extinct. Look at the fruits of this upright little plant - they look like tiny Pipers. While the botanical gardens are unique in featuring only foliage from the Land of Israel, they offer several other wonderful - and even unique - attractions. A two-story guard tower is a modern replica of the biblical watchtower described in Isaiah (Chapter 5) that also served as a temporary storehouse for crops reaped by Israelite farmers in the Judean Hills. It was built as a memorial to four Israelis and the chairman of the Jordanian-Israeli Cease-fire Committee, Lt.-Col. George Flint, ruthlessly cut down by Jordanian bullets on May 26, 1958. Walk all the way to one end of the gardens to an observation deck with a wonderful view of the Judean Desert, the Moab Mountains and a small portion of the constantly expanding village of Isawiya. On a clear day you may even be able to spy the Dead Sea. And, of course, you don't want to miss the historic burial complex dating back to the Second Temple period (see box) that is the jewel on the gardens' crown. Until they close at 3 p.m., you can even enter two newly cleaned and restored burial caves. The gardens are open on weekdays from 8 a.m. until dusk. Entrance is free of charge. For more information call (02) 588-2596. Groups can get permission to visit on Fridays if they call in advance; in addition, by calling in advance people unable to climb steps can bring a car to the gardens' entrance (otherwise, you must go into the main entrance, climb many steps and walk through much of the university). Special note: Although people in wheelchairs, strollers and using walkers may find the rocky entrance and some of the paths difficult to navigate, the gardens are definitely worth the effort. Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. For more information, see