Dry Israel blooms in a short spring Pilgrimage: Israelis get back to nature during a 10-day period when their generally dry land erupts in flowery splendor.

Sun Journal

April 18, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NORTHERN NEGEV, Israel -- The jewels of an Israeli spring bloom on a desert hillside flanked by a busy highway. Black irises grow in clumps beneath high-tension wires, their iridescent petals luring nature lovers like the bees alighting on their velvety interiors. When botanist Ori Fragman leads a spring trek, he saves the best for last -- these wine-dark flowers unique to Israel sprouting amid rocks and desert scrub.

"My beloved ones," Fragman says. "They bloom for a day or two."

Short-lived and stubborn, fragile and fecund, they reflect the contradictions of a Middle Eastern spring. And they reflect why Israelis venture out in the few short weeks nature allots them, to view a sparse, scorched landscape that suddenly becomes verdant and lush.

"It's a small escape from our daily life that is really very pressed here," says Noga Watter of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country's prime environmental education group.

The Tel Aviv-Beersheba road attests to the surge of green in this season of irises, desert tulips and Asian buttercups. The two-lane highway leading from Israel's secular seaside city to the country's desert capital in the Negev cuts through rolling countryside fleetingly as green as the emerald fields of Ireland.

White and yellow mustard flowers grow alongside green fields of wheat; the eye recalls the impressionistic landscapes of Monet. By May, the Middle Eastern sun will have burned the hills to the color of sand and dust, leaving the acacia, olive and pine trees as the only spots of green.

But the climatic cycle just now offers a green bounty: blue lupines near Bet Shemesh in central Israel; a forest of pink and violet cyclamens in the north near Haifa; a variety of wildflowers in the desert.

"Every year people go back to the same places to see 10 days of flowering," says Fragman, the botanist who leads nature hikes in Israel. "They are like places of pilgrimage."

The spring pilgrimages are the manifestation of a bond between the people and the land, a connection forged by faith and wars. A major Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, takes its name from the Hebrew phrase for "the land." A national park in the southern Galilee identifies its trees with corresponding biblical verses.

"Considering how thick-skinned Israelis are perceived to be, and how harsh they are perceived to be, the way they melt at the sight of a wildflower is a sight to be seen," says Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, editor of Eretz, the geographic magazine of Israel. "And I've seen it many times."

Fragman makes his living in the natural world. A child of the city, he wrote his master's thesis at Hebrew University on the autumn crocus and is studying for a doctorate. A big man with an agile gate, he dons a hat in the style of a French Foreign Legion cap, with a flap to protect his neck from the sun. He slaps on sunscreen and walks toward a hillside from the highway and speeding cars.

To the untrained eye, the Pura Nature Reserve appears to be an overgrown patch of weeds, an anomaly of green in the desert. But Fragman pronounces it a "treasure," a bounty of herbs and wildflowers. The hill blooms with red Asian buttercups and yellow chrysanthemums, a mauve-colored daisy called scorzonera and pink "shimshon" sun roses.

He points to the tiny lavender flowers of the stork's bill. "It only flowers for a few hours. By noon, its petals fall. The next day, another new flower. You see the fruit, why it's called a stork's bill," Fragman says, holding up a bill-like seed pod.

And there, the cow's tongue, a purple flower with prickly leaves that resemble a cow's tongue. And there, afternoon irises that only open after noon.

"Look at the white stork," he calls out, pointing to the winged bird soaring above. "They are migrating back to Africa."

The reserve is nature in miniature, the flora delicate and small, some with flowers no larger than a thumbnail. It requires patience and attentiveness to appreciate the blossoms growing among the wild herbs. And there are herbs aplenty -- wild barley and woolly sage, fennel and germander. "Good for the stomach," Fragman says.

"What smells good for us and tastes good for us is terrible for insects -- and keeps them away."

The red Asian buttercups in the field have replaced the anemones. Red poppies will soon replace the buttercups.

"Come see the brown squill," he calls out, above the chattering of a crested lark.

Of the wild desert tulip, Fragman explains that the flower is native to the Middle East. It is tiny and flowers close to the earth, unlike the imports from Holland.

Israel, a country that can be crossed from east to west in 90 minutes, boasts 2,800 species of flora, more than England. The variety is a result of Israel's Mediterranean and desert climates and its location at the juncture of three continents.

Picking wildflowers has been outlawed for three decades. The ban was the Israeli nature society's first major education campaign back in the mid-1960s. And it worked.

"You can look at nature as one big genetic book that only 5 percent has been read," Fragman says. "A book that can help us in the future, so why burn the book before you read it?"

Fragman is a purist. He objects to Israel's long-standing campaign to plant trees in the desert, to make the Negev green.

"I'm against covering areas with planted trees. Because most of the flowers don't flower in shade," he says, noting a grove of pines in the distance. "Why does it have to look like Switzerland with all these pines?"

After 10 years of guiding, Fragman prefers the starkness of the desert, the spareness of its beauty, and its solitude.

"There's a saying in Hebrew, 'Every thistle in the desert is like a lily,' because it is alone and has to survive and adapt to all this harshness," he says. "When I go hiking, I don't want to be with many people. I just want to go sit on my mountain and absorb the quiet."

Pub Date: 4/18/97

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