Tourist Tip #226 Chew on the Misnamed Flower

At least you can with White Mustard, but beware the common giant fennel. It's poisonous.

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Of course Juliet was right: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Still and all, it would be nice if the folks who named some of these flowers had been a wee bit more accurate. The upshot is that we do not always know what to expect.

Perhaps the number one misleadingly named species in Israel is White Mustard (in Hebrew, hardal lavan), the 80-120 centimeter high roadside vegetation that has a very yellow flower. If you can still find the little seed pods adorning its stalk, pick off a couple and chew: you’ll get a burst of Dijon mustard zing that will put hair on your chest.

One flower you should avoid touching is the Common Giant Fennel (kelach matzuy), which looks like a mutant oversize (up to 250 centimeters high) lookalike of the innocent anise-scented fennel. But beware – this one is extremely poisonous. Shepherds know to keep their herds away from it. This reporter once tried to chew a few buds, only to find his tongue swelling up within seconds to the extent that breathing was compromised. Let this serve as a caveat to all nature lovers.

Sometimes floral ambiguity is not meant to fool humans. Certain flowers masquerade to attract bees and insects, thereby helping them to pollinate.

Take the bee orchid (in Hebrew dvoranit haktifa), which can be found until early May. Its buds are dead ringers for sexy female bees, and attract male bees who do their thing (don’t get any ideas: they are only taking pollen from one flower to the other).

Israel has 30 species of orchids, seven or eight of which mimic bees. The six leaves of this particular orchid provide a landing strip for the visitors. They even produce the smell of nectar but no real nectar. It’s a big flimflam game.

As long as we’re talking floral nomenclature, the word orchid comes from the Greek orchis, for testicle. Last year’s bulb lies next to this year’s bulb, and together could be taken for a pair of testicles. Hence the orchid took on an aphrodisiac connotation; when Greek men went off to battle, their women would send them off with sahlab, a drink made from the orchid root still popular throughout the region.

Don’t expect to find any orange tubers beneath Wild Carrot (gezer kipeah), with its showy off-white flower pan that can measure 30 centimeters across. Through a freak but beneficial genetic mutation, this species developed a large dark dot that resembles a large fly. Passing bees and wasps, seeking an easy kill, swoop down and pounce on the decoy, and in so doing help to spread its pollen. Known in North America as Queen Anne’s Lace, this is a distant ancestor of the edible carrot.

Orchids found in Israel.Credit: Moshe Gilad
A species of wild carrot commonly known as Queen Anne's Lace.
White Mustard
Common Giant Fennel
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A species of wild carrot commonly known as Queen Anne's Lace.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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White MustardCredit: Wikimedia Commons
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Common Giant FennelCredit: Wikimedia Commons
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