Paradise in Emek Hefer

Utopia Park offers Israelis the chance to experience the elements of a tropical jungle.

utopia part 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
utopia part 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The rain was pouring down as we disembarked our bus and dodged the large puddles at Utopia Park, about 20 minutes north of Netanya. But that didn't stop our enjoyment of this beautiful and unusual site, not far from Kfar Yona. Utopia - Sir Thomas More's imaginary, ideal civilization - is defined as a place of perfection. In this case, Utopia Park is the perfect environment for tropical plants, and more specifically, orchids. The brainchild of a member of neighboring Kibbutz Bahan, the park opened in September 2006 and covers 30 dunams (over seven acres) including 4,000 square meters of under-cover tropical hothouse that can be enjoyed at any time of the year, rain or shine. On our arrival in the caf -reception area, our guide Michal explained that they have one of the world's largest collections of orchids and tropical plants. There are thousands of different orchids, including over 50 species and 100 varieties. Unlike most plants, orchids don't grow in the ground; rather, their roots cling to the sides of trees and rocks, and some even appear to hang in the air. Michal described the various plants we would see, the hanging cages of exotic birds and the walk-through cages of peacocks and hens, and we arranged to meet at the carnivorous plants section at the end of the hothouse. On our way to the hothouse we passed through a dark, dank mushroom cave that had been excavated to provide the perfect growth medium for a large collection of decorative mushrooms. We stood in the doorway to allow our eyes to become accustomed to the pitch black, then Michal pointed her flashlight in the direction of the unusual, remarkable, multi-colored and multi-shaped inedible mushrooms."Don't pick them and don't eat them," she warned. As we exited the darkness, the colorful, exotic park opened with a beautiful waterfall pouring down in front of our eyes. A myriad of waterfalls and pools in the hothouse contribute to the humidity, which is so important in a tropical environment. We wandered around, over bridges, down steps (for those who find stairs difficult, there are slightly longer stair-less routes) and through the cages of peacocks, enjoying the beauty and calming, muted sound of running water and birdsong. Well primed by our guide, we looked out for the flowers, plants and animals she had mentioned. "Look up there," Michal pointed to some orchids hanging beneath a bird cage. "Do you know where they get their food from?" We waited for her explanation. "Somehow or other, the birds know that they have to drop their droppings just there, so they land on the orchids and feed them." At the far end we sat in a small amphitheatre as Michal gathered her collection of carnivorous plants. Some members of our group had talked about fingers being nipped off, but she assured us that they weren't interested in humans. These plants feed on flies, mosquitoes and other flying or crawling insects that come within their reach. Each plant has its own method of attracting prey. The most famous and common carnivorous houseplant is probably the Venus Fly Trap. As its sensors note a passing fly, it opens its 'mouth' and snaps it shut around the unsuspecting victim. "Don't run your hand over the top of the plant to watch it open and close," said Michal, "because the plant doesn't like to be considered a freier (sucker). If you do that a few times and it realizes that it's being teased and there's nothing there for it to catch, it will simply stop opening and starve to death." There are others shaped like long narrow-stemmed jugs. These attract flies which fall deep down and cannot get out again. Some of the plants have a sticky substance that looks like dew and stops any passing insects from getting away. Others attract them with their enticing scent. Michal explained how the plants had evolved their unusual eating habits. "These plants developed in swamps where the water and soil are constantly moving, so they never had a chance to put down roots and absorb nourishment from the soil." In order to survive, she explained, they sought food from above - whatever they could catch. Ironically, although they originated in murky swamps, they now need to be watered with rainwater, purified or mineral water. Plain tap water - even if boiled - will not enable them to thrive and grow. By now the weather had cleared and we went outside to see the beautiful man-made reservoir that collects rainwater, which in turn feeds the waterfalls and ponds inside and is used to irrigate the plants. The vast outdoor park also features an animal petting corner and climbing apparatus for children, and there are several small hills: one with a maze; another, named Wild West Hill, with a collection of man-sized cacti similar to those in old Wild West movies. There is also plenty of room for running around and picnicking. Before leaving, you can visit the nursery and buy some plants and cuttings to take home. The prices are reasonable and you get expert, reliable advice thrown in as well. Whether you have dedicated green fingers or are the kiss of death to most plants, they'll recommend something that suits you. I should know - despite everything, my plants are still thriving several weeks later. Utopia Park (09 8782191) is accessible from Routes 2, 4 and 6, via Beit Lid and Kfar Yonah. Open every day 9 am - 5 pm, and on Fridays and the day preceding holidays 9 am - 3 pm. Entrance fee is NIS 49 for adults and NIS 35 for children aged 2-12. Groups of over 25 people should contact the site in advance. Special school/educational trips can be arranged.