Before They're Gone: Cherish the Madonna Lily Blossom in Israel

Madonna Lily, the season’s last great wildflower, can be seen in all its fleeting glory on Mount Carmel this week

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The Madonna Lily (seen here at the Carmel mountain, northern Israel) is a rare plant in grave danger of extinction.
The Madonna Lily (seen here on Mount Carmel, northern Israel) is a rare plant in grave danger of extinction. Credit: Moshe Gilad

Mount Carmel is beautiful now. The late spring, abundant rain and profuse blossoms make a stroll down Nahal Kelah very pleasant. These flowers are almost certainly the last ones we’ll see until next winter. The dry season will take over very soon, but right now the trail is lined with pink rockrose and tall yellow ferula, also known as giant fennel.

About 200 meters after you cross a stone bridge across Nahal Kelah, you come to a curve in the trail. Look to the left and you’ll see the flowers of the Madonna Lily. Everything you’ve seen and felt up to this point immediately pales in comparison. Your contented smile widens into a big happy grin. A few dozen tall and regal white flowers are all it takes to spark great joy. The strong fragrance that wafts from the flowers is most pleasing.

The Madonna Lily is a rare plant in grave danger of extinction. It originates in the eastern Mediterranean, but very few remain. It grows on hard chalk cliffs, in partial shade. It doesn’t do well in the heat or in too much shade. The ones currently in bloom on Mount Carmel are the southernmost in the world. A few more can be seen growing in the Upper Galilee, on Mount Peki’in and on Mount Shazor. The Madonna Lily blooms in late April and early May. This year it may be seen at its best for just a few more days. By the end of the month it will have completely disappeared.

As you stand there mouth agape above the Nahal Kelah riverbed, it’s easy to understand why this lily was chosen to appear on coins, decorative pieces, candle holders and other works of art in which it always symbolizes purity. The six-petaled flower has also been likened by some to the Star of David. That requires a good stretch of the imagination, but was enough to inspire certain commentators to link the flower (shoshan tzahor in Hebrew) to the lily (shoshana) that alludes to the Jewish people in Song of Songs (“Like a lily among the thorns, so is my love among the daughters”). In Christian tradition, the flower is associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and named for her: Madonna Lily.

This belief is probably one main reason the plant is nearly extinct in Israel. During the Crusades, large numbers of the flowers were uprooted and sent to Europe, where they were regarded as a holy adornment. Many Christian visitors, in later times as well, developed great affection for this impressive flower, and picked them and dug up the bulbs to bring home as souvenirs.

Since the Middle Ages, the Madonna Lily has appeared as a prominent motif in Christian art and manuscripts. Botticelli’s 15th-century painting “The Annunciation” features a delicate angel clutching a lily just like the ones now blooming on Mount Carmel. The flowers look even better when you see them live and up close.

A century ago, botanists roamed the country in search of the few remaining examples of this fantastic flower. It was considered the Holy Grail. Finding one made your reputation and brought widespread admiration. The first person to search successfully for the coveted flower was Noah Naftolski, a botanist and agricultural pioneer who was belonged to the Second Aliyah of the early 1900s. In 1925, when he was part of a botanical research team led by Professor Alexander Eig (head of the Hebrew University botany department and a founder of the National Botanic Garden of Israel), Naftulski found a Madonna Lily bulb on the Peki’in ridge in the Upper Galilee.

The story of the flower’s discovery on Mount Carmel is even more inspiring. The discovery is attributed to Tuvia Kushnir, who grew up in Kfar Yehezkel and was considered a prodigy. As a teenager, he attended boarding school in Yagur and frequently hiked around Mount Carmel. He found on one hike the bulb of a Madonna Lily and realized, despite his young age, the great importance of his discovery. He went on to study biology at Hebrew University. Kushnir was killed at age 24, when he was part of the “Lamed-Heh” – the 35 Palmah fighters killed in a convoy to Gush Etzion several weeks before Israel’s declaration of statehood.

“Even as a youth he stood out for his deep understanding of flora and fauna,” the Tzemah Hasadeh website tells about the young Kushnir. “He conducted on his own initiative various scientific experiments – grafting, crossbreeding, and with his keen observation he was able to make some remarkable findings. In his many hikes throughout the land he discovered different species and varieties of plants that were not yet known here. He attained over time comprehensive knowledge regarding all the flora in the country and botany. His teacher, Professor Adler, said that he found him to be a genius of the kind that only comes around once in a generation.” The Colchicum tuviae (sitvanit Tuvia in Hebrew, a tiny flower that blooms in winter endemic to Israel) and Iris regis-uzziae (iris Tuvia in Hebrew, a pale blue flower that blooms in winter and is endemic to the Negev mountains and Jordan’s Edom and Moav mountains) were both named for him.

Now comes the moment when emotions collide. The desire to see these rare flowers has been satisfied. The heat is intensifying, increasing our thirst. Getting back to the car entails a somewhat tiring climb. What shall we do? Can we just stand here and gaze at the marvelous lily a little longer? Okay, just five more minutes and then we’ll have to get moving.

To reach the spot on Mount Carmel where the Madonna Lilies are in bloom, drive to the Little Switzerland parking lot west of Road 672, which runs between the University of Haifa and Damon Prison. From the parking lot, walk for about a half hour on the red trail down Nahal Kelah. The flowers are about 200 meters west of the bridge that crosses the streambed.

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