Botanising Israel, an epic adventure of war and wildflowers, part 1

Back in February I watched with baited breath as the small blue green shoots of an Iris pushed their way through the gravel topping on their pot. The Iris in question wasn’t any old Iris, it was my only plant of a species called Iris mariae.

Iris mariae is one of the Oncocyclus group of Iris. Of the Iridaceae, Oncocyclus have possibly the most showy flowers in relation to the size of plant. They mostly come from southern Europe and the Middle East and due to overharvesting, for the cut flower industry/western horticulture, many have become critically endangered. This much is true of my Iris mariae. It is found only in the westernmost part of the Negev desert and a small area of north-eastern Sinai and is becoming increasingly rare. Inbreeding, poor ‘conservation’ land management, political unrest and the illegal trade for horticulture threaten it greatly ( the one I have comes from long time cultivated plants in the UK).

It worried me greatly that I was going to be leaving such a plant here in Britain whilst I went swanning off to Israel, but the purpose of my visit was greater than the needs of one plant. I was heading to Israel to visit some of my Iris’s wild relatives and to see what I could do, from here in the UK, to help them.

My partner Ben is an Israeli you see, and over the years I have come to love this little problematic country. About the same size as Wales, but long and narrow, Israel features a massive range of climate zones. From Alpine conditions (Mt Hermon has some permanent snow patches) through to extreme desert, and situated at the point where Africa meets Asia and Europe, Israel supports huge biodiversity. It has over 2800 species of plants which, when compared with Wales’ 400+ species, is a vast number for such a small country.

Many of its species of plants are annual or bulbous/tuberous geophytes and their flowering and subsequent setting of seed is entirely dependent on the countries winter rain. We were heading there in early March in the hope of seeing the spring flowers and in particular the Iris in flower.

First stop though was the Kibbutz which Ben is from and we arrived there to stories of ‘there’s been no rain this year’ and ‘you won’t see many flowers’. Certainly the reduced number of flowers was evident in the north. Onwards we went on our botanical exploration of Israel. We wanted to see as many of the habitats as possible, look at soil structures, which plants were found together and in particular the habitats that the Iris are found in.

I think it’s easier if I let the flowers themselves tell the rest of this story……

Salvia dominica with the Sea of Galilee behind.

Salvia dominica with the Sea of Galilee behind.

The first trip was to Ofir’s lookout, a strategic vantage point used as a gun emplacement in times of war that looks out over the Jordan valley.

Cyclamen grow in the cracks in the gun emplacements concrete!

Cyclamen grow in the cracks in the gun emplacements concrete!

Euphorbia heirosolymitana

Euphorbia heirosolymitana

Tulipa agenensis

Tulipa agenensis

Ephedra foeminia was tubling over the fences providing sanctury for many other plants.

Ephedra foeminia was tubling over the fences providing sanctury for many other plants.

The view from Ofir's lookout towards the Kibbutz

The view from Ofir’s lookout towards the Kibbutz

 

Furula communis dominates the landscape

Furula communis dominates the landscape

Lupinus pilosus grew in drifts on the slope down to the Galilee

Lupinus pilosus grew in drifts on the slope down to the Galilee

Gagea commutta

Gagea commutta

Gynandriris sisyrinchium was our first contact with a Israeli Iris on this trip

Gynandriris sisyrinchium was our first contact with a Israeli Iris on this trip

We then moved on to visit a wonderfull waterfall and slightly different environment at a place called Wadi Gilabon

Acanthus siriacus put on a wonderful show as we left Ofir's lookout.

Acanthus siriacus put on a wonderful show as we left Ofir’s lookout.

Asphodeline lutea greeted us at the begining of the path to the wadi

Asphodeline lutea greeted us at the begining of the path to the wadi

And on the slope down into the wadi Styrax officinalis was in full flower

And on the slope down into the wadi Styrax officinalis was in full flower

Lamium moschatum

Lamium moschatum

Possibly Muscari neglectum?

Possibly Muscari neglectum?

Hyoscyamus aureus

Hyoscyamus aureus

The waterfall

The waterfall

Cerinthe palaestina

Cerinthe palaestina with its lovely spotty leaves

 

Silybum marianum wasn't yet in flower but a little later would dominate the roadsides and grasslands

Silybum marianum wasn’t yet in flower but a little later would dominate the roadsides and grasslands

The sun set as we were walking out from the wadi and tired we looked forward to the next days trip to the Gilboa iris nature reserve on Mount Barkan in the hope of seeing some of those endangered Oncocyclus. To be continued……..