Saving Israel's Wildflowers: The Campaign That Bore Fruit

Who was behind the hugely successful 1960s campaign to save Israel's endangered flora, and does the initiative need reinforcing today?

It’s been a familiar routine for years: Every Saturday, thousands of families head for the hills so they can hike through carpets of blossoming wildflowers. The social networks are replete with photos drenched in rich colors below and sunlight above. But what may seem obvious today was not always the case in the past.

Fifty years ago, several wildflower species were facing near-extinction, but a determined handful of individuals from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Nature Reserves Authority led to dizzying success in a realm in which environmental protection efforts had previously failed: modifying the behavior of the general public. One successful explanatory advertising campaign back in the 1960s, which to a great extent has survived all subsequent changes in Israeli society, succeeded in persuading multitudes of locals to stop picking wildflowers and simply enjoy nature.

Although this is a minuscule country, it possesses an impressive variety of wild plants. About 10 years ago, botanists cataloged no fewer than 1,005 different species in a single square kilometer in the Jerusalem area. Overall, Israel has close to 2,300 species of plants. For comparison’s sake, the plant kingdom of England, whose area is six times larger than Israel, numbers only 1,750 species. Moreover, dozens of species found in Israel can only be found here, and nowhere else in the world.

Some of these rare species may not be particularly impressive or beautiful − and may have never been of special interest to hikers or flower-sellers − but quite a few of them with interesting blossoms and the potential to be reintroduced as ornamental plants, or to fill window boxes, were once the victims of the phenomenon of prolonged and systematic picking.

“Everybody picked wildflowers,” wrote SPNI cofounder Azaria Alon in his 2012 autobiography “Man and Nature” ‏(in Hebrew‏), in which he described the bitter fate of the plants. “Every parent and teacher encouraged the children to pick flowers ... Children stood at the roadsides selling bouquets of anemones, narcissi and cyclamens. Flower-shop owners went into the field and picked the flowers themselves or sent people to do it. The iris and tulip were on the verge of extinction. The lupine was harvested and shipped in pickup trucks to the shops.”

Just before these flowers permanently vanished, change arrived, thanks to the establishment of the country’s first two environmental protection groups: SPNI and NRA ‏(a government-affiliated organization that later became part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority‏). The directors of these organizations understood the existential dangers wild flora were facing, and the first mission they undertook was to grant them protected status under the law − something that did not exist at that time.

In 1964, the first legislative breakthrough in this regard came when the Knesset passed the Nature Reserves and National Parks Law, which included a section related to the protection of nature. Yet, according to Uzi Paz, who was director of the NRA at the time, this was not enough.

“What was missing from the law was a section ruling that the sale of wildflowers must be banned,” he says today. “I approached author S. Yizhar on this matter. At the time, he was a member of Knesset, and he initiated an amendment to the law that also stipulated a ban on the sale of wildflowers. Thus, the legal basis for their protection was created.” When details of the law were publicized, they included names of flowers designated as protected, and therefore not to be picked.

Nevertheless, Paz and SPNI professionals realized quite soon after that the law was barely worth the paper it was printed on. It was then they began thinking it would be best to concentrate on educational and informational public activities, and less on enforcement of the regulations themselves.

“The law alone will not protect the flowers,” a 1964 SPNI pamphlet stated. “Our plan is to bring awareness of wildflower protection, in a variety of ways, to large sectors of the public, through press conferences, colorful posters, short films screened at schools and explanations on the radio.”

The nature organizations were not the first to launch this type of information campaign. In a study of environmental campaigns in Israel, part of which appeared in the journal Horizons in Geography last year, the University of Haifa’s Benny Furst notes that parties within the Haifa municipality and companies like Blue Band, owned by businessman Reuven Hecht, preceded the authorities and funded the production of posters in which the public was called upon to stop the flower picking.

“I happened to see posters, of flowers that had to be protected, while on the train to Haifa,” recalls Paz. “It was then I realized that it could be a convenient means of reaching the public at large.”

That was the start of an intensive information and education campaign, which continued for several years. A series of informational pamphlets and colorful posters depicting flowers were distributed throughout the country, and SPNI and NRA professionals began to work with every possible institution in order to persuade their directors to join in the effort.

“I remember meeting with the commanders of the Israel Police, and it did not go so well,” Paz recalls. “At the time, they treated us like we were village-idiot tree huggers. We also brought judges by bus for a tour of the Carmel, in order to explain to them the importance of enforcing the law.”

Nevertheless, Paz says there was no need for nationwide deployment to reach the broader public. “Access to the plants was fairly low, and there were relatively few picking sites at which we could explain the message to the people. On Mount Gilboa, for instance, there was only a dirt trail, and it was difficult to reach the area.”

In his book, Alon states, “All of this activity was carried out without budget, without publicists, only through the dedicated efforts of nature lovers. The most important activity was in the education system. For the purposes of spreading the information, we enlisted teachers in schools and kindergartens, and the message was passed through them to the children. The latter began to prevent their surprised parents from picking protected flowers.”

In his study, Furst notes that although the NRA was in touch with an advertising firm, called Hanitzotz, which proposed several slogans for the information campaign, their collaboration did not ultimately come to fruition. Instead, the slogan that was ultimately decided upon was the one proposed by Paz: “Go out to the landscape, but do not pick” ‏(in Hebrew, the slogan rhymes: “Tzeh lanof akh al tiktof”‏).

The campaign gradually began to yield results, writes Alon, even though a rigid enforcement regime was never adopted. “Step by step, the public’s objections diminished,” he writes. Within a few years, “the results began to be noticeable. Open spaces that had been emptied of flowers began to blossom anew, and flowers that had been on the verge of extinction, like irises and tulips, began to proliferate. This was noticeable in the open spaces, and gave people a feeling that the ban on picking had indeed borne fruit.”

Over the years, the campaign to prevent flower picking has taken on near-mythological status, and it is still considered one of the most impressive successes of the environmental protection movement in Israel. In September 1998, the Standards Institution of Israel granted its “national quality award” to both the SPNI and the NRA, in appreciation of their activities. Many advertising executives describe the campaign to save the wildflowers as the most successful advertising and marketing campaign ever mounted in Israel.

“The case of the information campaign is a categorical illustration of the forging of cultural change through the action of a few players, who generated the change of a social structure,” Furst claims in his study. “The activities of nature protection organizations succeeded in fostering significant structural and cultural change, as they altered ways of thinking, values and collective behavior of a sizable sector in Israeli society. As it pertains to the attitude toward natural environmental resources, the significance of this change is of greater importance in light of the prior situation, in which picking wild plants was the accepted norm, and was not at all conceived as being a criminal offense.”

Impressive success

Paz does not feel, however, that the activities to save the wild plants can serve as an appropriate prototype for emulation in other environmental campaigns, noting that it had unique conditions. “What, to a large degree, did the work was the beauty of the flowers, which could be documented in photographs and drawings,” he argues. “Also, you must bear in mind that we were talking about prevention. Conversely, when it comes to activities such as cleanliness of open spaces, people are being asked to take positive action and collect and dispose of the trash themselves, and that is already a harder thing to do.” Still, he says that, “when it comes to leaving the area clean and being careful to walk only on the hiking trails, there has been an improvement. What’s more, activities in support of bottle and paper recycling in Israel have most definitely been an impressive success.”

Furst believes that even the success in preventing flower picking will not be maintained without ongoing maintenance in the form of educational activity. “The effectiveness of the cultural change that has taken place in regard to the picking of wildflowers has increasingly eroded in the past few years,” he writes, “despite increased environmental awareness in Israeli society.”

He found confirmation of this belief in the results of a survey conducted by the SPNI in 2007, which demonstrated that, even if the majority of respondents were aware of the ban on picking, 80 percent noted that they had observed others doing so. What’s more, half of the young people surveyed said that they themselves were in the habit of picking flowers. Conversely, among adults there was a clear statistical link between memories of the ‘60s-era information campaign and present-day wildflower-picking practices.

The threat to herbs

While there was great success in preventing wildflower picking, no real change has ever been made to protect herbs. Consequently, some of these species are still under threat today, due to harvesting of the plants in commercial quantities. These include, among others, the varieties from which the spice za’atar ‏(hyssop‏) is made, as well as the plant known as gundelia ‏(akkoub‏), which is used for making salads. In the case of these plants, inspectors of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority were unable to succeed through information activity alone and they began a systematic enforcement campaign. For example, a resident of Arabeh, an Arab town in the Galilee, was caught last year with sacks filled with 400 kilograms of gundelia, and received a fine of NIS 7,000.

On the other hand, in what would seem to be the closing of a circle of the historic rescue campaign, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of initiatives to restore wild plants into the heart of urban regions. For example, Tel Aviv has a municipal environmental-quality authority that assists local initiatives to restore wild plants to areas that were until recently empty of plant growth as a result of spraying, or that hosted plants that were usually found in neglected gardens and garbage dumps.

The result of several of these initiatives has been visible in recent weeks, when a carpet of wildflowers and plants covered two groves located on the outskirts of the neighborhoods Maoz Aviv and Zahala, where the local neighborhood committees organized for plant restoration activities. Among others, it was possible to spot locally unique species, like Tel Aviv garlic and Israel lupine.

“We are creating conditions here that enable the natural vegetation to recover and develop,” explains Liav Shalem, a landscape architect and ecological adviser to the environmental quality authority in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. “We got rid of invasive vegetation, we stopped spraying, and then, once we had created the conditions that would enable them to develop, we brought in wild-plant seeds.”

In recent years, however, another serious danger to the wildflowers has arisen − extensive construction. Numerous plans threaten to destroy natural habitats and cause irreversible damage to the plants’ ability to rejuvenate. According to the “Red Book” ‏(which documents species at risk‏), nearly one-fifth of plant species in Israel now face danger of extinction, most of them in areas where there are extensive development plans, such as the Sharon region.

The wild plants may be only one reason to protect the open areas, but members of the nature protection organizations know that what worked in the past will also work in the present, and the sympathy for − and public interest in − flowers is being enlisted in order to foil building plans. For example, the irises were drafted in a campaign to prevent plans for construction in the Gilboa region and on the coastal plain.

In the heart of Mount Gilboa, the construction of a new community was largely prevented due to concerns that it would harm the habitat of the Gilboa Iris − the plant that has become the symbol of nature protection in Israel.

Unsurprisingly, then, the photograph chosen to adorn the cover of Alon’s autobiography shows him lovingly hugging a gorgeous cluster of these very flowers, precisely like so many families that head out each Saturday to hike through the carpets of blossoming plants.

David Bachar
Tomer Applebaum
Yaron Kaminsky