Behold Israel's Answer to Japan's Cherry Blossom Season

No one in Israel can remember the last time there was such a spectacular profusion of poinciana trees as this year. The time has come to turn this red urban miracle into a global tourist attraction

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Royal poincianas in Tel Aviv.
Royal poincianas in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

The local flora are going wild. It seems like years since so many poinciana trees (Delonix regia) have been in such gorgeous bloom. It may never have been this amazing before.

The blooming of the poinciana trees is now at its peak. It happens all of a sudden and breathes new life into old and crumbling urban areas, right on the cusp of summer.

The poinciana is not very picky. It blooms on the street, in the garden, in the park, in the most modest housing project and the fanciest neighborhoods, in the suburbs, parking lots and forgotten alleyways, providing some brief moments of urban delight.

Some have attributed this unusual display to global warming, saying it accelerated the blooming of this semi-tropical tree. Others say there’s nothing new under the sun and that previous magnificent displays like this are just quickly forgotten, like other natural phenomena that come and go – like heat waves, floods or droughts.

On the other hand, if baseless conspiracy theories are more your thing, it’s possible that with their keen botanic senses, the poinciana trees are tuning into some looming catastrophe, some war to end all wars, like a mass tree-cutting campaign, unnatural extinction – by means of an especially cruel earthquake-prevention master plan, say. So, in readiness for a final battle, they are deploying their entire genetic stock all at once, in an exuberant, no-holds-barred Bacchanalian swan song.

Whatever the cause, the beautiful royal poinciana – also known in Hebrew as shalhav (maybe due to its flamboyance) – did not always grow here. It is an imported tree, like many of the cultivated trees around the Mediterranean Basin, where greener and more flowery supporting players were often brought in, sometimes to excess, to boost the authentic local vegetation.

The poinciana originates in Madagascar, where it grew in the wild in dry, deciduous forests. For the past few decades, it has been in danger of extinction in its homeland. In Australia, meanwhile, it has been declared an invasive species.

In Israel, the poinciana was at its peak from the late 1940s through the late '60s, when it was a favorite of many architects and landscape designers.

These days, though, when swimming pools abound and so many live in dread of various flora falling on and dirtying their parked cars, you hardly see any new poincianas being planted.

The poinciana is a deciduous tree. It grows leaves and blossoms in the spring-summer period, and doesn’t attract much attention the rest of the year.

It was first planted in this country in the late 19th century by the Templers in the Sarona colony, located in modern-day Tel Aviv. Sarona's trees, wide spaces and cute houses have now evolved into a hyper-designed trendy urban area.

The poinciana is especially common in the Jordan Valley, where it flourishes in the hot climate.

Even in average years its gorgeous blooms are the Israeli answer to New England's fall foliage or Japan's cherry blossoms, despite all the differences in temperament among these various botanic phenomena.

The blossoming of the poinciana trees in Israel really ought to be harnessed as a natural asset and added to the list of Holy Land tourist attractions.

An unrivaled place of honor in the history of the poinciana in Israel goes to landscape planners Lipa Yahalom (1913-2006) and Dan Zur (1926-2012), 1998 Israel Prize laureates who in their work together over six decades were largely responsible for creating the Israeli Zionist landscape.

For them, the planting of a vast variety of trees was inspired “by an ideology of planting a new identity in the soil of the homeland,” according to the book "Arcadia: The Gardens of Lipa Yahalom and Dan Zur," which chronicled their work.

With tremendous talent, Yahalom and Zur concocted the national landscape from English-style lawns, trees from Australia and Africa, from memories of Eastern Europe, and much more. All of this acclimated and assimilated, and became thoroughly native flora – at times at the expense of the local vegetation or wilderness – as if they had been here from time immemorial.

A quick drive around the Tel Aviv area to view the poinciana trees there is all it takes to bring you face to face with the brilliance of the work of Israel’s preeminent landscape planners, and to leave you astounded by urban nature at its finest.

The first stop was the Tel Aviv University campus in the north of the city, which is one of the duo's best-known projects. Poinciana trees are scattered seemingly haphazardly among the lawns, but they were actually placed there in just the right number and in perfect choreography with the green spaces and brutalist concrete university buildings. When the sun sets, they illuminate the evening sky, causing even confirmed cynics to gape in awe.

In a different kind of setting, in the housing project where I grew up in Givatayim (east of Tel Aviv), Yahalom and Zur somehow put together a paradise on earth out of the seemingly natural outlines of land behind the classic nondescript block-like buildings of the period.

Wide lawns, poincianas that are suddenly blooming now like there’s no tomorrow and purple jacarandas (that are just past their peak now) were brought together here in a perfect landscape pairing.

The trip would not have been complete without a stop by the poinciana in the yard of Lipa Yahalom’s home in the Ramat Chen neighborhood of Ramat Gan, also east of Tel Aviv. The house was designed in the late 1950s by his close friends, architects Ora and Yaakov Yaar, and stands out among the surrounding villas.

With its flat roof and low horizontal silhouette, it is practically invisible from the street. In the sloping backyard, Yahalom planted a tropical garden complete with ornamental pond and water lilies. But in the front of the house, over a small lawn, stands a tall and broad poinciana, whose canopy is now dazzlingly ablaze – a fitting homage to Yahalom’s work, shining like a seasonal memorial candle.

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