Until a few decades ago, the Jerusalem hills were a paradise for wildflower lovers. Hundreds of plant species covered the area in a rainbow of color. But as construction spread, many have disappeared.
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Recently, some species have returned, but under protection – in a section of the Nebi Samuel Park designated as a wildflower refuge. Such refuges also provide seeds for reintroducing plants to the wild if they become extinct outside the refuges. But given the rate at which open spaces are disappearing in Israel, it will become increasingly hard to find places to which to return them.
The Nebi Samuel refuge, designated for species from the Jerusalem hills and the West Bank, was inaugurated two months ago. There are also plant refuges in Mitzpeh Ramon and Tzippori, for species from the Negev and the lower Galilee, respectively. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority established all three with special funding from the government.
In addition, there are refuges started without government funding that the authority helps to maintain, including one operated by students and teachers in the Kfar Yarok youth village. University botanical gardens allocate space for endangered plant species as well.
Plant refuges have become essential, because, experts say, almost a fifth of Israel’s wildflower species are endangered, including some that are found nowhere but Israel. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority published a full list of these endangered species, called the Red List, about a decade ago.
The main reason these species are endangered is that construction is destroying their natural habitats. But intensive agriculture, which entails deep plowing and pesticide use, is also a factor.
The Nebi Samuel Park covers 3,000 dunams. Nature lover Nissim Primo, who volunteers there, has counted 600 wildflower species in it.
Dr. Margareta Walczak, a plant ecologist from the nature authority, said the Nebi Samuel refuge was established because West Bank species weren’t represented in any existing plant refuges, and the West Bank “is an important transitional region between the Mediterranean and desert regions.” The West Bank contains about 50 endangered species, and some are already flourishing in Nebi Samuel, including Chorispora purpurascens and Acinos rotundifolius Pers. The latter has apparently survived since the ice age on West Bank hilltops.
Nebi Samuel also serves as a site for researching plant development and plants’ resistance to changing environmental conditions, as well as educating the public. Some 300,000 people a year visit the park.
In Kfar Yarok, high school students are already reintroducing species to the wild.
“We grow 12 plant species characteristic of the coastal plain,” said Ronnie Shushan, the village ecologist. This year, he said, students planted several hundred Teucrium procerum – of which fewer than 200 are left in nature – at the Bnei Zion nature reserve. They also planted another rare species, Verbascum berytheum Boiss, and are monitoring both to see if they grow well in their new home.
“In the long run, our goal is to be left with only the cover of the Red List, without the pages detailing endangered species, because we hope they will no longer be needed,” said Amos Sabah, an ecologist with Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. But he knows this is unlikely, given the rapid disappearance of the open spaces these plants need.
“Half the endangered species are in the South Hebron Hills area,” said Amos Sabah, an ecologist for the Civil Administration. They have survived this long thanks to “traditional Palestinian agriculture, which doesn’t damage the ground and allows the wildflowers to live," he noted. "But this agriculture is disappearing and giving way to modern agriculture.”
Consequently, he proposed subsidizing traditional agriculture to preserve the wildflowers.
The danger facing wildflowers is evident from a report by a group of botanists about their recent tour of the northern West Bank, which they published in the online botanical journal Kalanit. The botanists visited a spot where they had found a rare species of iris last year. But since then, the site has been sprayed with pesticide in preparation for planting a vineyard, and the iris has disappeared. Elsewhere in the West Bank, the spread of roads and buildings is erasing wildflowers’ natural habitats.
In the PA, it’s hard to find experts conducting rescue operations like the one in Nebi Samuel. “We tried to make contact with Palestinian officials, but they weren’t willing to meet with us,” said Shaul Goldstein, the nature authority’s director general. But the greatest concentration of species unique to Israel is found on the coastal plain, where their habitats are also rapidly being replaced by roads and buildings. Often, all that remains to them is tiny nature reserves, like those hidden among the moshavim in the Sharon region.
From the heights of Nebi Samuel, Sabah pointed to a small valley to the north. “That’s land with a great many species,” he said. “But some of the area is already built up, and sewage flows into the open area. Here, it will be hard to reintroduce plants.”
Sabah urged the state to make haste to declare more remaining open spaces as nature reserves. Otherwise, the species in the refuge gardens will have no hope of returning to the wild.