Israel’s Garden Tour
Short on water, long on inspiration, know-how and hard work, Israel has created beautiful gardens that exude a magical, quiet peace. You can wander self-guided trails and be touched by the biblical essence, listen to the murmur of the trees.
The Talmud tells us it is forbidden to live in a town that has no garden or greenery. Yet in Israel, creating and watering that garden has been a challenge.
Helen Frenkley, former director of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, explains that at the beginning of the 20th century many areas of Israel were desolate because of sheep and goats overgrazing and the Turks having cut down trees for railroad ties. Years of neglect meant that when the State of Israel was created, swamps had to be filled, landscapes recultivated.
With a lot of work and know-how, the countryside has been restored. Israel is not only a desert, but also a wide variety of vistas that enjoy a huge diversity of native species—over 2,600 orders of plants. As Helen Natanel, a landscape architect working in Gush Etzion, states, “Though our lawns are not always green, we enjoy an incredible variety of plants and trees.”
Israeli gardens are still evolving—a fusion of native plants and those that have been introduced. But in a country where water is at a premium, there is a problem with watering non-native species such as roses and grass, so solutions have focused on planting more local species—like the pistachio tree—which grow slowly and can weather the long dry Israeli summer.
Gardening in the Middle East has traditionally centered on the edible and medicinal, but there are many places that display plants solely for their beauty. A variety of public gardens have been established, many with the cooperation of universities, displaying native vegetation and preserving plants and trees from all over the world that can survive here. These gardens encompass re-created biblical landscapes, oases in the desert, sources of medicine and places that refresh us with their beauty. Here are some worth visiting.
Neot Kedumim is not technically a garden, but it is a unique national treasure. Ten minutes from Ben-Gurion Airport, near Modi’in, the reserve is comprised of 625 acres of hills and valleys dotted with groves of shimmering gray-green olive trees, date palms, willows, vineyards, carob trees, other assorted plants and trees as well as ponds.
Visitors wander down the many self-guided trails, past signs with quotations from Tanakh that connect the landscape to events and stories in the holy writings. For example, next to the station for mandrakes, a plant whose branched root resembles the human body, is a citation from Genesis 30:14: “And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrake in the field and brought them to his mother Leah.”
Ancient olive presses allow a visitor to learn how an olive is crushed and pressed to produce oil for anointing and for illumination; a sundial shows the difference between the Jewish lunar year and the solar year.
Everything in this remarkable landscape—including 250,000 trees and shrubs as well as reservoirs—has been reintroduced, planted or built to re-create the physical setting of the Bible.
Neot Kedumim has a remarkable collection of sukkot on display to demonstrate which are kosher and which are not. (In a two-storysukka, for instance, the bottom level is not kosher.) The largestetrog in the world was grown here.
During the holidays visitors can wander the trails. You can even get married on a special wedding trail. This is also a place that welcomes special-needs children for their bar and bat mitzva parties.
Conveniently located near the center of the city, the University Botanical Gardens in Jerusalem allows you to visit a staggering variety of wonders. Jerusalem is a meeting place of not just people but of continents, and this garden, created in collaboration with the Hebrew University, takes advantage of the city’s geography connecting the cold climate of Europe with the warmer Mediterranean weather.
The theme of the gardens can be simply stated: “The entire world is my garden.” As Jerusalem is a diverse city with immigrants from all over the world, the Botanical Gardens also offers its own vision of coexistence—foreign plants thrive alongside native species.
Easy to navigate because of the well-marked trails, the gardens also offer a train up and down the steep hills. From almost everywhere you can see the small lake in the center.
Visitors should not miss the on-site Dworsky Conservatory that features tropical plants, many of which, like the people of Jerusalem, learn to live in extreme conditions. The conservatory includes a forest canopy of climbing vines, banana plants, bamboo and cocoa plants, coffee trees and ferns among other plants and flowers. One bed contains carnivores such as the aptly named pitcher plant, whose leaves act as insect traps. There are other plants called epiphytes that must root in the air to get the light they need.
Outside, walk a bit farther and explore the Yehuda Kirstein section of medicinal plants, including spiky aloe, fragrant lavender, rosemary and mint. There is a special trail in the park for the physically challenged. The garden is a great place to wander and to marvel at the way Jerusalem is able to nurture such stunning diversity.
In Jerusalem, you can also go to Wohl Rose Park, nestled between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. It has meandering trails perfect for strolling, a deep lily pond and a dazzling array of cascading bushes of white, red, lilac and pink roses (in season), including species like red triumph and muchada. There’s even an impressive waterfall set in the rocks and a garden of the nations with vegetation from countries like the Netherlands and Japan.
You can sometimes see tai chi students practicing near the pond. Don’t miss the Jerusalem bird observatory, located in the former nurseries of the garden.
An hour and a quarter drive south from Jerusalem along the Dead Sea you arrive at Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens; people actually live here. It all began as part of Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s landscaping. Trees and vegetation were planted around the modest homes, creating a green richness that was not only inviting but also magical in its growth.
A ficus planted in 1980, for example, with its enormous roots and wide trunk, looks as if it has been here for hundreds of years. An unusual combination of geography and climate—the location near the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth; filtered light; extremely warm temperatures; and special mineral water—encourages incredible growth.
The kibbutz features a variety of trees used for incense in the Temple such as myrrh; its seeds are scattered about by birds. There are over 40 different types of palm trees and unusual native plants like the Sedom apple, whose trunk is cork; the Bedouin use the silk around the seeds for natural wicks.
Some of the trees are precocious in their growth, like the baobab that was introduced here. The roots are so extensive that they keep pushing through the sidewalks.
Hadassah Hospital’s Dr. Sarah Sallon has begun a natural healing garden in Ein Gedi to cultivate rare and endangered species native to the Dead Sea area. Her team will research the medicinal powers of some of the traditional Middle Eastern plants that have been used in fighting infections. Soon you will be able to visit these greenhouses and observe her research.
There is a separate cactus garden with 1,000 species. And if you get hot and tired when visiting, try a dip in the kibbutz pool. Or better yet, stay the night at the guesthouse and go to a Dead Sea spa the next day.
Ramat Hanadiv, The Rothschild Gardens, is a living memorial. A sign reads: “Baron Edmond and wife Baroness Adelaide are interred in the crypt hewed from the rock of Israel.” Edmond, one of the European Rothschild family famous for their wealth and philanthropy, dedicated his life to helping settle this area and wanted to be buried here.
With hushed splendor and a glimpse of the sea, the garden near Zickhron Yaakov, with its formal entrance and walkways, could be in Italy or England.
Yet there is a quiet beauty that merges the Mediterranean setting with the more formal landscaping. There is always movement from shaded to light, from open to closed. Cypress guard the entrance to the graves of the Rothschilds, interred here in 1954. The cypress is shaped like a flame and is supposed to remind one of a candle or of a guard. But the grave, though at the center of the gardens, is also partially hidden. The emphasis here is on life.
There is a formal rose garden with cascades of yellow and red flowers flanking six pools that represent patriarch Mayer Rothschild and his five sons. There is also a palm as well as a perfume garden with raised beds of lavender and mint. Planted to enhance the natural sounds, each section of Ramat Hanadiv has a different tone: ruffling, rustling, murmuring.
A group of six disabled people works here and enjoys the fruits of therapeutic gardening, which insists that the pleasures of gardening and soundness of mind and body are linked. It is a place that nourishes the soul in a pleasurable world of smell, sound and color. There is a surrounding nature reserve with hiking trails that are more challenging.
Ramat Hanadiv translates as “plain of the benefactor.” Another translation is “a generous spirit.” This is a garden of aesthetic intimacy; peace can descend from its shadowed branches.
“This should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World,” a visitor remarked at the entrance to the palatial Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The splendor overlooks a wide expanse of the Mediterranean set in stunning contrast to the green of the gardens, the white stonework, the golden dome of the shrine. Centered around the grave of the Báb, the prophet of the Baha’i religion, cascading gardens on 18 terraces descend for two-thirds of a mile.
Set into Mount Carmel, the gardens are magnificent in their manicured symmetry, overwhelming in their grandeur. A steep set of stairs descends the mountain flanked by lush beds of red begonias or yellow pansies and highlighted by birds of paradise. Fountains grace each terrace and water flows down on each side of the staircase.
The garden seems neither Mediterranean nor Eastern nor European but an aggregate form that echoes the Baha’i message of unity.
It is a formal beauty, taking its plants and trees from whatever will grow there—oleander, rosemary, lantana, jacaranda and plumeria. Visitors must be accompanied in groups.
The heart of the Baha’i faith is here as are its headquarters. From almost everywhere in Haifa, you can see the shrine and its walkways shimmering at night like a jewel in the city.
On the road to Nahariya, the Baha’i Gardens in Akko is a decorative garden with four quadrants in the form of a circle surrounding the shrine of the founder of the Baha’i faith. There are many flowerbeds, usually of a single color. Olive, eucalyptus, cypress, orange and one very large, very old sycamore grace the garden. This garden is smaller than the one in Haifa, creating a more contemplative setting.
Associated with Tel Aviv University, the Tel Aviv University Botanic Gardens displays the indigenous plants of Israel—oak and pistachio trees of the Galilee—as well as plants from all over the world. It has a garden of tropical flora and a section with plants that are used for coffee, drinks, oil, wood and fiber. Don’t miss the root tower where you can observe what is usually hidden, the roots of the trees. The subterranean floor allows you to walk through root systems that grow downward from the top floor. It’s like walking in the woods, only you’re in a forest of roots of trees like olive and grape, cactus, cotton, of different widths, lengths and colors.
May is a beautiful time in Israel; the gardens are in bloom, each with its own surprises. From kibbutz to national treasure, the country is all decked out in its company finery.