The Giant of the Negev: The Battle Over Israel's Eucalyptus Trees

Though eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia to drain swamps, today there's debate over whether they're true citizens – or just invaders

Eucalyptus tree at Moshav Tlamim.
Moshe Gilad

I set off on a brief pilgrimage and Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day), which was celebrated last week, was a good excuse for it. I encountered a thrilling sight. The gigantic eucalyptus camaldulensis – also known as the river red gum – that looms in a small valley south of Moshav Tlamim in the western Negev. It’s about 30 meters high, its trunk is seven meters in circumference and its uppermost part is particularly impressive: extremely broad and laden with branches. Its immense, solitary silhouette is conspicuous from afar.

Trying to reach the tree by car is a futile endeavor; one must necessarily take a short walk there, fifteen minutes long. Along the muddy path is an almond tree, now in blossoming show-off mode. It’s worthwhile approaching the huge eucalyptus slowly, in order to take in its dimensions. Afterward the thing to do is to sit under it for a while; indeed, a great feeling of tranquility descends upon those who linger in its shade.

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The tree’s isolated location, and the conditions in which it grows, in a valley slightly lower than its surroundings and thus a bit hidden from view, make it possible to totally disregard everything else in the vicinity. No buildings or roads are visible from here; there is a barbed-wire fence, however.

To reach the tree we passed through Tlamim, exited by the moshav’s always-unlocked back gate and drove about a kilometer south on a good, paved road. There, next to what looks like a factory under construction – but which the workers there say will soon be a high-tech chicken coop – we left the car near the Hatzav stream and walked about a kilometer. Looking for a gigantic tree is easy. It sticks out from a great distance. It has no competitors here: All the other trees in the neighborhood – almond, sycamore, tamarisk and jujube – look like smiling garden gnomes.

Experts believe that there are about 700 different species of eucalyptus trees in the world. The genus originates in Australia, but beginning in the 19th century, the British brought the trees with them to various places, including their colonies, around the world and they acclimatized well in every continent to which they were brought. The most common species are the eucalyptus gomphocephala and the eucalyptus camaldulensis (called eucalyptus hamakor in Hebrew because there’s a makor, or beak-like protrusion, in the center of the blossom), like the one near Tlamim.

The lovely 1998 novel “Eucalyptus,” by Australian author Murray Bail, describes an estate in New South Wales where a rather strange farmer grows every species of eucalyptus he can get his hands on. His collection holds afew hundred varieties can be found there, and the farmer promises that he will marry off his daughter to anyone who is able to name them. Here’s Bail’s depiction of the tree: “The gum tree has a pale ragged beauty. A single specimen can dominate an entire Australian hill. It’s an egotistical tree. Standing apart it draws attention to itself and soaks up moisture and all signs of life.”

Root of eucalyptus tree in Moshav Tlamim.
Moshe Gilad

Bail also devotes considerable attention to the connection between appearance of the eucalyptus and the “Australian national character.” When it suggested that the “ghost gum,” considered to be the quintessential eucalyptus, is not really a eucalyptus at all – the author warns that “a young nation has shallow roots and the slightest disturbance can throw out the equilibrium, patriotically speaking. Nationalism is nothing less than clutching at straws.”

The first eucalyptus trees arrived in this part of the world in the 1880s. Karl Netter, the founder and first director of the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school, near Jaffa – the first such institution in the country – led the planting campaign. He brought a few eucalyptuses of the camaldulensis variety with him from Algeria, and with that the grove at Mikveh Yisrael was the first to put down roots in the Land of Israel.

The prevailing view at the time was that eucalyptus trees could be effective in draining swamps. That notion, however, was later totally refuted – the tree turned out to be very frugal in terms of the amount of water it needs, and soaks up – but not before the Jewish National Fund and the British Mandatory authorities planted hundreds of thousands of them. JNF data from the pre-state period until recent times indicate that the total area covered by the eucalyptus camaldulensis was 80,000 dunams (20,000 acres, almost twice the area of Tel Aviv). The past decade saw a significant shift in this trend. Between 2011 and 2016, only 3,700 dunams of eucalyptus groves were planted here – 80 percent of them in the country’s south, among them species that thrive in arid conditions.

Encounter and expulsion

In the 140 years since the first eucaplyptus “made aliyah,” it has become a popular symbol of the Zionist enterprise. The Arabs called it the “tree of the Jews.” They thrive on the banks of the Jordan River and across from Kfar Sava city hall. On Shapira Street in Petah Tikva, next to my parents’ home, a vast lemon-scented gum eucalyptus, which we called the “white tree,” still stands.

One legend that has sprung up about the trees holds that Eli Cohen, who engaged in espionage on behalf of Israel in Syria in the 1960s, advised his Syrian friends to plant large groves of eucalyptus around their army’s bases and fortifications, supposedly for purposes of camouflage – and thus “marked out” the facilities for his Israeli handlers.

The immense eucalyptus tree we sat under in the Negev was probably planted around a century ago by local Arabs. Moshav Tlamim, a religious community, was established in 1950. About 10 minutes away, not far from Sderot, Kibbutz Bror Hayil was founded in April 1948, the last settlement to be established before the official proclamation of Israeli independence the following month. Each of these communities has about 1,000 members.

Until October 1948, approximately that same number of people, members of the Jabarat Bedouin tribe, lived in the nearby village of Ben Rifi, while about 3,000 other Jabarat lived in the larger village of Bureir, north of Bror Hayil. The residents of both villages were expelled from their homes during the War of Independence. Up until then, the gigantic and easily visible eucalyptus was used by shepherds from the two locales as a meeting point. The fresh droppings of cows, which pastured here a few days before our visit, suggest that some things haven’t changed in the 70 years that have passed. A few hours later, we learned that while we were sitting under the eucalyptus tree, an alarm was sounded not too far away in the communities near the Gaza Strip, warning of an incoming rocket. Next to the tree we didn’t hear a thing.

Five years ago, an emotional debate erupted when the JNF and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority classified the eucalyptus as an invasive species in moist areas and on the banks of streams; specifically, when the list of invasive flora in Israel was published, it included eucalyptus camaldulensis. That meant that it fell under the responsibility of a national program of the Environmental Quality Ministry intended to conserve biological diversity. Thus, in the summer of 2015, the parks authority began cutting down eucalyptuses along the Alexander Stream, north of Netanya, and in the Majrase-Betiha (Bethsaida Valley) Nature Reserve abutting Lake Kinneret.

Thousands of trees were felled, and many people were outraged and tried to save the beloved invader. Apiarists and farmers, fearing for their livelihood, demanded that the eucalyptus be protected. Other people argued passionately that the tree, though technically a migrant, was “flesh of our flesh” – an important feature of the Israeli landscape and something bearing historical and cultural value as a distinctive Israeli symbol. Scientists and nature protectionists published a petition titled “Don’t cut down eucalyptus trees.”

In 2016, Oded Cohen, who is an ecologist and expert in invasive species at the University of Haifa, and his colleague Joseph Riov, emeritus professor from the Hebrew University’s agriculture faculty, published an article in which they argued that the eucalyptus camaldulensis should not be considered invasive. Its environmental characteristics do not justify a comparison with other familiar, invasive species.

According to Cohen and Riov, “Invasive species are foreign species that spread rapidly in a continuous area or in a large number of centers, and which produce a dense population. The eucalyptus tree does not fit this definition.” They note that the natural growth rate of the eucalyptus in various habitats is extremely low, the radius in which its seeds are disseminated is limited, and their ability to germinate is weak – especially in the conditions that exist in Israel. Accordingly, the eucalyptus is very slow when it comes to taking root in new habitats.

In a conversation with Haaretz earlier this month, Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of the parks authority, explained his office’s position: “The eucalyptus is indeed an invasive species and therefore we will not protect it in any special way. In certain places, such as moist habitats and places with a great deal of water, eucalyptus trees cause damage. In sites such as the Betiha Reserve, they are multiplying undesirably, shedding leaves that produce chemical substances that contaminate the soil, and interfere with the decomposition of various materials. In the coastal plain they are replacing other local vegetation and are also liable to interfere there.

“A new study by ecologist Aviv Avisar proves that there is a huge decline in ecological diversity in regions where there are a large number of eucalyptuses. This demands that we undertake special agricultural management measures, and I hope we will continue to engage in this. I personally, and we as an organization, have nothing against the eucalyptus, but one must look at the environment in a comprehensive way.”

Do you understand the anger that is being generated with respect to the felling of these trees?

Dr. Shkedy: “Certainly. The eucalyptus is a large, impressive, beautiful tree. It has a wonderful scent. Obviously, I also love it. There is something moving about its size and power. And there is of course the historical memory – my father planted eucalyptus trees to drain the swamps. This tree has entered the Jewish heritage as a Zionist symbol. Ironically, the swamps disappeared, and now we are trying to rehabilitate and restore some of them to the landscape. The eucalyptus stayed with us and became a ‘founding father’ of the Israeli environment. But we must always remember that it is an Australian tree. Not one of ours.”

That last remark is disputed by a few popular Hebrew songs. Sixty years ago, songwriter Naomi Shemer inducted the eucalyptus into the hall of fame when she wrote: “The same silence, the same vista / The eucalyptus grove, the bridge, the boat / And the salty smell over the water.” Years later came the musician Ehud Banai, who sang about “a huge eucalyptus whistling Canaanite blues,” in a song that drew a connection between the eucalyptus and the ancient Land of Canaan.

One way or the other, everything looks perfectly all right when you’re sitting under the eucalyptus next to Moshav Tlamim.