Sometimes it seems that the Israeli autumn exists more in songs than in reality. It’s not always easy to connect the summer, which stretches to infinity, and the songs about the golden autumn, with the falling leaves and the melancholy. It’s true that the sky is bluer now, the clouds are pink at sunset, there’s an evening chill on the roof, and still – is this autumn?
Literary scholar Prof. Ziva Ben-Porat once published a lovely booklet about the disparity between the autumn in poetry and in people’s awareness – an autumn of falling leaves, melancholy, birds migrating to the wide open spaces and departures – and the autumn that is visible at the moment from the window, with autumnal squills and wagtails, a refreshing coolness and citrus fruits. Sometimes it seems that these are two different seasons, and still the conclusion is clear: There is an Israeli autumn. Even though it doesn’t have a particularly good reputation, and many even tend to dismiss it, claiming that it’s a lyrical import from Europe. After all, there they have a “real” autumn. But the Israeli autumn really is wonderful. Different, but of unmatched beauty.
October and November are the Israeli autumn at its best. It’s not hot and it’s still not cold. There’s only a little rain and you can go on the best trips. Many begin hiking the Israel Trail during these days, from north to south.
A good season of autumn foliage creates beautiful sights. It’s hard to find that in Israel, and sometimes you have to wait patiently until the end of November and even early December. A simple option is to search for the deciduous fruit orchards, mainly apples. The Metula area, for example, is a good choice. Another solution is to search for the Israeli terebinth (“ela” in Hebrew) and the Atlantic terebinth, both of them common and widespread in Israeli wooded areas, with breathtaking colors in the autumn. Although they are covered with leaves all year round, their color changes in November and turns red-orange. Because the Israeli terebinth often looks like a large, round and leafy bush, the changing colors lend it the dreamy appearance of a brightly colored cloud.
Large terebinths grow in Ein Kobi in the Jerusalem hills, and in the Hoshaya forest and the forest of HaSolelim nature reserve, south of the Beit Netofa Valley. In the Jerusalem botanical gardens there are impressive terebinths in the Mediterranean section.
Of course, none of this compares to the foliage you see in New England. The difference is in the size of the trees and the impression they make. A similar experience and a beautiful display of foliage can be found in Israel in the gigantic Oriental plane tree. This tree is considered rare in Israel – there are only several hundred of them in nature. The plane tree changes color relatively late, usually only in December, but it’s worth the wait. The large green leaves turn yellow and then brown. A soft and pleasant carpet is spread over the ground and you can see autumn at its best.
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Oriental plane trees grow on the banks of perennial streams in which water flows all year round, mainly along the Betzet and Kziv streams in the Western Galilee, and the Amud, Snir (Hatzbani) and Hermon (Banias) streams in the Upper Galilee. A few grow in the Judean Hills.
In the Ein Hemed National Park in the Jerusalem hills there are a few dozen giant plane trees, which were planted there many decades ago. This week they already started turning yellow and there’s a pretty brown carpet on the ground.
Ancient olive trees
In Israel olives are harvested in October and early November. The olive groves are pretty and bustling during this period. In many places where the harvesting is still manual, they spread huge carpets – colorful nets – under the trees, shake the branches, cause the fruit to fall and then gather it into large containers.
South of Deir Hanna in the Galilee there are a dozen trees thought to be the most ancient in Israel. Opinions about their age are divided, but the local residents say that these are 2,000-year-old trees. That would make them older than the trees in Gethsemane in Jerusalem, which are considered to be the oldest in Israel.
The tradition of the olive harvest, which transcends religion and ethnic origin, is local, Israeli-Palestinian. The fact that the olive harvest has come up in recent weeks in political and violent contexts, with settlers trying to prevent Palestinians from harvesting their olives, is making this autumn more bitter than its predecessors. The human rights organization Yesh Din has filmed 25 incidents related to the olive harvest since the start of the harvest season: theft of olives, arson and chopping down olive trees, and violent attacks against the harvesters. To date over 400 incidents of chopping down trees have been reported, as well as some 50 cases of arson.
Margareta Walczak, a plant ecologist in the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, explains that most of the wild plants in Israel blossom at the end of the winter and in the spring, when the ground is wet and temperatures are comfortable. The dry autumn is not a convenient season for blossoming. And still there are the brave ones, which insist on blossoming in autumn of all times, before the rain or with the first rain. The plants that are now in bloom avoid the tremendous competition for visits from the pollinators in the spring. These are the best of them:
The sea daffodil is one of the most beautiful autumn flowers in Israel. These are its glory days. It’s worth searching for it before it disappears. A good place is the Hof Hasharon National Park (between Shefayim and Ga’ash). On the edge of the cliff, there are breathtaking sea daffodils in bloom. It’s easy to find them thanks to the large white bell-shaped flowers, which are fragrant and full of nectar. They’re open mainly at night and pollinated by night insects. The sea daffodil is unique in being able to withstand the ocean spray and to deal with high concentrations of salt.
The Stern’s meadow saffron is one of the clear heralds of autumn. The pink flower blooms between October and December, before the rain, and is widespread in hilly areas. One can see lovely clusters of the Stern’s meadow saffron every autumn in Khirbet Madras in the Judean foothills, about a kilometer southwest of Tzafririm.
The winter crocus is the most common of the eight species of crocus that grow in Israel. It’s easy to find the white flower in all the hilly areas. The winter crocus is a plant endemic to the Levant and outside Israel it grows only in Syria. It usually begins to blossom after the first rain in November and it can continue to flower until February. Large numbers of winter crocuses blossom every year in Khirbet Madras.
The sea squill is always considered the harbinger of autumn, but it starts blossoming as early as August and only stops completely in early October. The autumnal squill, which is not the same as the sea squill, is a tiny geophyte (with a bulb), and its stalks grow to a height of only 12 centimeters. The flowers are pretty and lilac-colored, with a darker vein on the bottom. The autumnal squill is common in Israel. You should look for it, for example, in Ramat Hanadiv near Zikhron Yaakov, where there are huge clusters in November.
Yellow sternbergia are small yellow flowers that blossom from now until the end of November. They are especially beautiful in the southern town of Yeruham, because the desert emphasizes the courage of a small yellow flower daring to make an appearance in the heart of the arid expanse.
This week there were 30 pelicans sitting early in the evening in the waters of the reservoir opposite the Vickar observation point in Emek Hefer. They looked somewhat lonely and bored, like guests who arrived at the party too early. In previous seasons I encountered thousands of birds there in autumn, crowding together in the water. Perhaps the reason for the paucity of participants is that this year only about a quarter of the usual number of fish was put into the water reservoirs. The reason was a shortage of available fish and budgetary limitations.
Half a billion birds cross the skies of Israel every autumn. They fly south, to the warm countries, and stop here in order to eat something. Watching thousands of cranes who come for an overnight stop in Lake Hula, or hundreds of pelicans who glide in exemplary order to land in one of the reservoirs in Emek Hefer, is an exciting experience even the thousandth time.