After Repeated Failures, New Effort to Revive the Legendary Balsam Plant Shows Promise

Balsam, once the source of the region's most sought-after perfume, disappeared from the local ecosystem centuries ago

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Saplings of the balsam plant that have been cultivated in Kibbutz Ein Gedi's botanical garden for the past two years are a first test of the possibility of bringing the legendary bush, which flourished in the Second Temple period, back to the Dead Sea region, two scholars told a Jerusalem audience yesterday.

Speaking at a conference organized by the Elad association in Jerusalem's City of David, Prof. Zohar Amar and Dr. David Iluz of Bar-Ilan University described their research into the plant's identity.

Balsam cultivation on Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Credit: Michal Fattal

Since the 1970s, there have been several failed attempts to acclimate the plant believed to be balsam, one of ancient Palestine's most economically significant plants, to modern-day Israel. But the staff of Ein Gedi's botanical garden are optimistic that the current effort will succeed.

The plant is mentioned dozens of times in ancient sources, from the Bible to the Talmud, as well as in Greek and Roman writings. The most prestigious perfume known in the ancient Near East was produced from it, and it was also known for its healing qualities.

The balsam plantations in the Dead Sea area were under direct royal control, and the methods of cultivation and production were a closely guarded secret and a powerful political tool. For example, the balsam groves in Jericho became a bone of contention between Cleopatra of Egypt and Herod the Great. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in the second century CE, Jewish fighters uprooted the plants so they would not be captured by the Romans.

Amar and Iluz said yesterday that not only was the plant difficult to raise, but the production of the scent required great skill, since the fragrance was produced from the sap, which is very volatile and had to be trapped after the bark was sliced.

As has happened to many products in our time, balsam production came to an end when imports from the Far East began. After the Muslim conquest of the country in the seventh century, commercial ties were forged with Asia and the local market was flooded with cheap perfumes.

Most scholars today identify balsam as an African species, Commiphora gileadensis, or one of its relatives. The identification is based both on the phonetic similarity between the plant's name in Yemen, kataf, and its name in the Talmud, and on the description of its characteristics in ancient sources.

One of the first attempts to acclimate the plant was made at the end of the 1970s by Prof. Yehuda Feliks. He managed to obtain a few balsam plants from Saudi Arabia through a prominent Arab intermediary. However, the transplant did not take.

Two more failed attempts were made using seeds from Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, in the 1990s and in the last decade.

In 2003, Dr. Michael Avishai brought seeds from England, and the saplings planted at Ein Gedi sprouted from these seeds.

The complex research Amar and Iluz conducted has botanical, archaeological and historical elements. And now, with the help of the staff of the Ein Gedi botanical garden, the plant is being cultivated in the hopes of producing the legendary perfume once again.