Wooden Heart: Meet Israel's Number One Tree Healer

Gitit Ginat
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Gitit Ginat

The little one” or “the baby” − a tiny arbutus or strawberry tree ‏(ktalab, in Hebrew‏) − still doesn’t look like a real tree yet. It is sprouting branches and small leaves next to the trunk of its “father,” which has been around since the World War I era and is now dying. Alongside the little one, however, an “elder brother” is thriving. It was successfully cloned from the parent tree after several failed attempts, thus realizing an ambitious objective: the creation of new life from the ailing parent, with the help of devoted human attention and fertilizer.

This arbutus family is the only sign of life among a sea of tombstones in the cemetery for British Army dead on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. The dying tree − huge, beautiful, black and reddish − has bent-over and spreading branches. The so-called elder brother, five years old, looks more horizontal and is now a little over a meter in height. The little one, just sprouting, reveals no hint of the tremendous drama that caused it to bloom.

The older sibling was brought to life, as mentioned, after a long series of treatments, but the baby is a total surprise. It is just over a month old and grew on its own, without the loving, skilled and anxious intervention of agronomist Oded Yaffe. Yaffe could well be the only person in the world who has succeeded in cloning offspring from a mature arbutus. About two months ago he visited the British cemetery to check on the five-year-old; the baby was not yet extant. Now Yaffe is walking around it with great excitement, amazed at its apparently spontaneous birth.

Yaffe is one of the most experienced and best-known agronomists in Israel, although he has no academic degree in his field. In the past, when he lived on Kibbutz Ein Yahav, he studied internationally developed methods of propagation and used them to help develop the agriculture of the Arava Desert. Today, in the Shelef agricultural laboratory, located in an old building on Kibbutz Givat Brenner, he is preparing to request an international patent for an ecological spray, based on cooking oils, that can be used as a pesticide. Meanwhile, he provides laboratory and consulting services to local farmers, other researchers, gardeners and private clients. The latter call mainly to report on an ailing tree in the backyard, a battered and miserable tree in the street or a neglected and exhausted tree at the side of some road. Although Yaffe is an expert with a reputation for developing various types of crops, his heart − in other words, most of his emotional, financial and even existential attention − is lavished on trees.

His delight at the diminutive arbutus in the Jerusalem cemetery is the last and joyful stop on a journey that began with fears of disaster, frustration and humiliation. That same morning, not far from his laboratory, Yaffe stopped his commercial van opposite the Ayanot Youth Village, next to a public area with a bench and a picnic table. Behind him stood a sabil − i.e., a stone structure with a drinking trough for camels and donkeys, from Ottoman times − and three gigantic, wonderful but neglected sycamore trees.

Yaffe looked at them, heartbroken. A few years before, he had passed by and stopped when he saw an ancient sycamore at the side of the road that was on fire. A contractor had been working there and set the tree alight because he decided that it interfered with paving the road. Yaffe argued, not to say went crazy and shouted, until he managed to stop the contractor and extinguish the fire.

Behind the tree he discovered a huge thicket of thorns. “I crawled inside and discovered a seating area and two additional giant sycamores, over 150 years old,” he recalls now. “On one I discovered a sign in memory of three soldiers, two of whom I knew. I paid NIS 3,000 to clean up the area and then also discovered the sabil. I restored the place with the help of people I enlisted from the vicinity, and since then I’ve continued to take care of the trees. I approached the head of the regional council and told him I didn’t have time to take on the task, and asked him to take care of it.”

‘A disgrace!’

Since then, apparently, the council hasn’t lifted a finger . The current condition of the largest sycamore, the one with the sign, elicits a furious reaction from Yaffe.

“Look what a disgrace − a disgrace! What should I do now? Clean it up again? At my expense? I’m going out of my mind. This could drive you absolutely crazy. But I’ll do it; I’ll enlist people. We have to rescue this tree. It’s broken. I said long ago that we have to prune it. Had we done so, we wouldn’t have to rescue it now. I’ve worked on it for days [in the past] ... What it needs now is rehabilitation. Trees like to be rehabilitated. They feel it when they receive treatment.”

What do you mean they like it? How do you know that they feel?

Yaffe: “This may sound bizarre, but I have proof that I’m not detached from reality. I’m a man with his feet on the ground, with a private laboratory and a worldwide spray patent and decades of experience in agronomy. And still, when I come to a badly ailing tree and examine it for signs of life, I feel that it knows that someone has come to take care of it. I feel that its response to my concern enables it to rehabilitate itself. Sometimes I come home to my wife and say, ‘Tamar, I don’t even know if it’s the materials I inject or my concern. Is it because of me or because of the work, or a combination?’”

Maybe it’s just the materials injected into it.

“True, but in my opinion there’s another dimension here. It feels that I’m there, that someone is taking care of it. After all, it can’t be otherwise. If someone were to come and inject fertilizer without talking, without soul, the tree wouldn’t be rehabilitated. The tree enjoys the treatment, like a human being.”

You once wrote that trees take revenge. How do they do that?

“When you uproot citrus or evergreens, they emit white fungi that don’t leave the garden or the area for years.”

And do you think it’s a deliberate act of revenge?

“Definitely. Definitely.”

So you feel about trees the way others feel about pets?

“For sure. When someone comes and buys a BMW and caresses it and is proud of it, what is he actually doing? There are people who caress cars. How eccentric can I be when I caress trees?”

Does this sycamore recognize you now?

“I’m sure. It knows that I’m here.”

Don’t you think people will make a laughingstock of you, the way they unjustly do to rescuers of abandoned dogs and people who feed street cats?

“No. Today there are already researchers who aren’t afraid to say that trees understand what is done to them and their environment. Scholars were embarrassed to say those things for years, but I grew up without that embarrassment. My mother and father caressed the trees in their orchard and today my grandchildren caress the trees. So I’m not embarrassed to walk around with a stethoscope. I’m not embarrassed to caress a tree, to take care of it, to walk around it. The more people talk about this the better.”

Yaffe turns around and walks to the sycamore, angry. “Look at it. It needs treatment again. All these ‘leaks’ here are wounds. And we have to bring a pruner, to build supports. Look at this branch: It will definitely break. And it’s not a matter of a lot of money [to prevent that].”

Yaffe opens the trunk of his van. There are fertilizers and hormonal substances there, alongside his work tools, all in apple-pie order in crates and containers. He pulls out an old black case that opens like an accordion, like the leather suitcases seen in television shows about 19th-century doctors. Inside are various tools, intravenous solutions, hypodermic needles.

“When I approach a tree I bring several tools: With a hammer and chisel I begin to remove injured parts that have to be taken out because pests have settled under them and have begun to damage the tree. From experience I recognize these areas based on the texture and color of the bark and the sound of the chisel tapping on living and dead tissue. I start an infusion into the living parts. When you do this, you have to ‘trick’ it the way you trick a child when you give him syrup: To get them to ‘drink’ the pesticides and hormones, I add iron and fertilizer to the solution − like raspberry or chocolate.”

Limitations and fantasies

Yaffe begins tapping on the sycamore with a chisel and hammer. He wears a stethoscope and listens carefully: From the living parts there is an echo that sounds like concrete has been tapped. From the dead ones there is a different, unclear, hollow sound.

How much of your own money have you spent on this corner, so far?

“Between NIS 20,000 and NIS 30,000. And now everything has to be redone.”

“Your own money” means your wife’s, too. What does she say about these expensive rescue activities?

“She has always supported me.”

Is it possible that the regional council knows that you’ll continue to spend your own money on rehabilitation and that’s why it does nothing?

“It’s possible.”

And you can’t let it go?

“Absolutely not. I can’t abandon the tree. It’s part of a large boulevard of hundreds of ancient sycamores planted between Gaza and Jaffa. I don’t know when and by whom. You can see some in Tel Aviv, in Ayanot, in Ashdod, in Ashkelon. They’re not in good condition. When I visit clients in the area I visit several of the trees too and take care of them, but there are hundreds. Hundreds. I can’t rescue all of them.”

Yaffe may be aware of his limitations, but in his fantasies he would like to rescue as many trees as possible. There’s a good reason why he is called “the tree saver,” a nickname that appears occasionally in local gardening blogs. The sycamores opposite Ayanot are not the only orphans he has protected. There are dozens and perhaps even hundreds of them in the north, south, east and west of the country. Some were in critical condition: Yaffe stopped the car in front of them, in the middle of a trip to a client or when carrying out some sort of project, and decided, once again, to adopt this child, too. To date he has spent hundreds of thousands of shekels on rehabilitating trees all over the country.

The phone in his van had rung as we left Yaffe’s lab. A young woman was calling, saying, “My tree is sick.”

Yaffe: “Tell me what’s wrong with it.”

“Worms on the branches.”

“Do you know what kind of tree it is?”

“I think it’s an Australian tree. It has red leaves in the autumn.”
“Brachychiton?” asked Yaffe

“Send me a picture by e-mail. I may be able to tell you how to treat it without having to come.”

A man from Herzliya Pituah called to report that “the trees look much better.”
“That doesn’t make me happy,” replied Yaffe. “You have to continue spraying. Don’t rest on your laurels only because the tree looks good. I don’t want you to stop spraying, because if you do it will be worse.”

“I promise I won’t,” the man said.

“Great. That way we’ll be able to still be in touch,” Yaffe answered.

“Gardeners, as professional as they may be, can’t handle every problem because they don’t have sufficient knowledge,” he explains afterward. “I’m their professional support. They turn to me and consult. Sometimes they refer clients to me. I give a lot of advice free of charge because I like people to take care of their trees. When I feel that people are having difficulty paying I try to accommodate them, anything so the trees are cared for.”

Are you the only one offering this service today?

“I’m the only ‘tree healer’ in the country with a private lab and decades of experience. There are lots of firms that know how to inject therapeutic materials into trees. Their counterpart in the world of human therapy would be a nurse, who is familiar with a specific issue and knows how to handle it. But knowing all the disciplines related to healing trees, visiting a tree, looking at it, taking samplings from it to a lab, diagnosing the disease, deciding on the treatment method − those are things that only a few people in the world know how to do. I have so far come across the names of a Japanese and an American who heal trees similarly. Only in recent years is there beginning to be a demand for this degree of professionalism. Now academic programs are being set up abroad.”

Life without Kadoorie

Oded Yaffe was born in 1945 on a farm in Yarkona, a moshav in the central part of the country, and grew up in a family of three siblings, all of whom became plant specialists.

“My older brother Naftali was a forester who helped plant half the country” during its early years, Yaffe explains. “Afterward he was sent to plant forests in the Negev from Kiryat Gat to the Yatir region. My middle brother, Aharon, works for Hazera Seeds, where he developed methods for producing and growing seeds. Today he manages the database of genetic materials used in the vineyards and avocado orchards in Israel.

“But my father, our first teacher, was not a professional tree man. He immigrated in 1919 after learning how to pave roads in Poland. When he arrived here he went to work in quarries near Tzemah ... Afterward he was a supervisor of road work in the Tel Aviv municipality; he was a kind of autodidact road engineer.

During his vacations in Tiberias he toured Lake Kinneret and the surroundings, and collected tree seeds from all over the country. We had mango and avocado and passion fruit and feijoa ‏(pineapple guava‏) and pitango in the backyard. Then he joined the Haganah [the pre-state Jewish defense force] and the British Army ... He traveled to Egypt for three years to stop the Nazis. My mother remained alone in our orchard, and I used to watch and learn from her. From both of them I learned in my childhood how to prune, water, graft and fertilize trees. How to sow and measure, cultivate, create an air bubble below the ground so the roots will have oxygen.

“I was born in the orchard; as a toddler I would wade in the irrigation pond. I grew up learning irrigation methods. As a young boy I dreamed, like many other moshav children, of going to study at Kadoorie [agricultural school]. I passed the entrance exams, but my father decided I wouldn’t study at Kadoorie because it’s a general agricultural school. He wanted me to study at a regional agricultural school, Gananut Veshatlanut [lit., gardening and nursery] because I could acquire a profession there. I was very angry at him: He spoiled my dream of studying in the most prestigious agricultural institution at the time, and sent me to a relatively unknown school. But today I know that he arranged a lifetime profession for me. In Yarkona, a small moshav, not famous like Nahalal, I learned a profession in my backyard. To this day I use methods that my father improvised.”

After his army service Yaffe moved to Ein Yahav: “We were young people in the middle of the desert, surrounded by salt and heat, with one road, no telephones or electricity. After a week it was decided that I would be the agronomist. I learned important lessons from the complex challenges of the Arava. Together with my brother Naftali, who was the forestry director in the south at the time, I prepared an area for a forest that would serve as a barrier from harsh desert storms. Some of the trees there died because of the salinity of the soil ... When we built the permanent settlement of Ein Yahav my brother decided to create all the gardens from Ein Gedi to Ophira. Thus, we learned to develop gardens in the Arava and also consulted with experts.”

Yaffe speaks lovingly about his brother. “All the forests we see in the Negev are forests planted under Naftali’s supervision and initiative,” he says. “He was one of the four foresters who planted trees in the country [in that era], each in a different region. In 1981 he was en route to Ein Gedi and a young guy in his father’s BMW hit him and he was killed. Every time I travel to the Negev, I stop at one of Naftali’s forests, sit, drink coffee and light a pipe, and in that way I renew my connection with him.”

Meanwhile, for his part, Oded Yaffe has gone on to develop many methods of propagating and treating trees in that area, some of them trailblazing: “I copied technologies that already existed and adapted them to my own needs: In the Arava I developed a method of growing vegetables under netting; I was the first to develop hothouses there. When I returned to the center of the country I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with examinations of plants in the laboratories. I could send a diseased tomato to the Volcani Institute [of Agricultural Research] and after two weeks receive a reply that confirmed whether or not it was diseased. But [they] couldn’t tell me whether its condition was related to the condition of the ground, or a parasite, or any other cause. That’s why I started Shelef on Kibbutz Givat Brenner − a comprehensive lab that operates eight different labs. Today, if I examine a diseased tomato, I can check eight different parameters − diseases, viruses, bacteria, etc.”

Have you ever sat in a classroom?

“Of course. I sat for years in classrooms where they taught about diseases, soil and pests, but I never took the exams. They didn’t interest me. I came in order to learn.”

The fact that you don’t have a degree never caused you a problem?

“To a certain extent it causes me problems every day. Lawyers in courts where I serve as an expert witness on agriculture and trees occasionally try to take advantage of that fact and claim that I’m not an agronomist. The judge will usually repeat many times: ‘Please read Mr. Yaffe’s resume and then we can go on to the next stage.’ He is well aware that the lawyer who is trying to stop me is the same lawyer who used my services previously. Lecturers in the university and inspectors in the Agriculture Ministry were my students. I’m not sorry that I have no degrees. But I think that people have to study.”

‘Atrophied’ thinking

Yaffe travels all over the country and encounters trees dating back to the beginning of the Zionist enterprise. These trees, he observes, are in crisis.

“Beginning with the return of the Jews to Israel in the 1880s, people brought tree seeds with them. People bring such seeds with them everywhere, and that’s how trees from Europe and North Africa came here, too. The trees planted in the moshavot [farming communities] in the 1920s are undergoing a severe crisis today. They grew in small yards next to small houses, and in recent years, because the houses are being demolished or expanded and new highways are being paved, these trees are being hit or are suffocating. The pine, eucalyptus and cypress trees that my brother and his friends began to plant in the 1950s with the help of the laborers of the Land of Israel − immigrants who came from Europe after the Holocaust, and those who came from Arab countries − are undergoing a similar crisis. Some of those trees are dying. Maybe because of their age, or because of the pests and diseases.

“We have found ourselves with these trees, which are 70, 80 and 100 years old, and we see that it’s not easy for them here. When asked how long the trees of the Jewish settlement will live, I reply that I don’t know. I’m an agronomist of the Land of Israel and have no idea about the lifespan of a tree that does not originate here − an ‘immigrant’ tree that came from Europe or Africa. I only know what its condition is, and it’s not good. If that’s not enough, we are suddenly hearing complaints about the fact that ‘trees are making a mess.’ People once sat under the trees, which provided shade. Today they have an air conditioner and the trees that shaded them are suddenly creating a mess. People are willing to chop down the tree so it won’t dirty the metallic paint on their car. From every direction, our trees are going through hell.”

Yaffe says he passes through settlements dating back to the early days of the state, or next to trees planted in cities, and tries to convince the local councils and municipalities to water them. There’s no water, they tell him. Yaffe persists.

What irrigation solution do you suggest for trees in a dry country with a water crisis?

“There’s water in Israel. There’s purified sewage water, groundwater, desalinated water, well water. Israel still hasn’t done everything necessary to save water: On rainy days millions of cubic liters of water flow along the roads. On every street corner there should be a drainage pit that will channel the runoff into the groundwater. Anyone who has a backyard should have a cistern seven to 10 meters deep, so that the rainwater that comes down from the roof will drain into it and serve for watering and washing. Next to every urban tree we have to dig a far deeper pit than the present, shallow depressions. The restriction on watering private gardens also kills the trees, because they send out roots to the gardens. The law, without any real logic, forbids people from using shower water for irrigation. And still, I know of thousands of Israelis who bypass the law, and for good reason: They build a system that will drain all the tap water instead of letting it run into the sewer, and arrange a filter to clean the water, then they water the garden with a pump. Everyone should do that.

“Israel still has not replicated the excellent methods that work today all over the world. In Germany, for example, the drainage pipes for water have holes, and they don’t pass from one pit to another in a straight line ... With this method rainwater is channeled in the most efficient manner to the groundwater reservoirs. Under every new parking lot built in Germany there are huge reservoirs of rainwater. In Australia everyone has a small container for rainwater in the yard, with which they wash the cars and the floor and water the garden. A child knows from an early age that he doesn’t turn on the faucet in the shower to rinse his boots, but goes to that container.

“The generation of Abraham knew how to collect water under desert conditions. I myself learned how to plan irrigation in the Arava from trips I made in ancient Shivta [in the Negev]. The thinking about irrigation solutions in Israel is very slow, almost atrophied, and our culture is spoiled. Things have become easy for us. There’s no sense of loss. We need education, an infrastructure of schools of gardening and nurseries that no longer exists here.”

You’re talking about the systematic destruction of trees. How important is it to fight this?

“We have to be human to trees, too. I know, things are hard for everyone and I come and talk about rehabilitating trees for thousands of shekels. But trees don’t come at the expense of other things. We need trees and we need art. We need trees and we need medicine.”

Helping Palestinian farmers

A few months ago Yaffe helped the Gush Etzion Regional Council to rescue a 700-year-old oak tree in Alon Shvut ‏(lit. “oak of return”‏), which is named after the tree. He built iron supports to help the tree hold up its branches and then he injected it with medication.

Do trees here have a life entirely apart from politics? Do you also help Palestinians in the West Bank, let’s say, in cases such as the chopping down or burning of trees, or of confiscation of an orchard?

“Dozens of Palestinians from Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip turn to me to receive advice over the phone. We speak half in Hebrew and half in Arabic. Although I can’t bring samples from their land to my lab, I do my best to help from a distance. Five Palestinians from Judea and Samaria invited me especially to examine orchards that someone had poisoned. The poisoning was the work of a professional, a farmer. Someone who came with a drill, made holes in the trees and injected a highly poisonous weed killer. Within a short time he managed to poison hundreds of trees.”

If you help everyone it’s possible that you also helped the orchard of that farmer who poisoned hundreds of trees, or of other farmers who burned or chopped down or stole.

“True. It’s possible I also helped farmers who harmed Palestinian orchards. I’m a professional. Anyone who asks for help will get it. Young Israelis near Hebron invited me to plant a vineyard. I don’t believe in borders. I don’t talk about the hatred of Jews and Palestinians.”

In recent years Yaffe says he has become increasingly “green,” largely thanks to his son Uri, 33. “When Uri joined me in the lab he informed me that he wasn’t willing to work with chemical substances. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘I won’t do what you did, the way you sprayed in Ein Yahav without masks, without wearing shirts. I know that pesticides are poison and so we’ll look instead for green materials.’

“In the period after World War II many chemical pesticides were developed because people knew that the world would be hungry and had to be taken care of immediately. We grew up with that. We developed desert agriculture in the Arava and didn’t know that those chemical materials were dangerous. I sprayed without an undershirt. I mixed the materials without a glove, with my hand. We were a generation like that, the desert generation. We thought only about the survival of the crop. For 60 years we poisoned the planet, for 60 years we developed poisons because we were afraid of another major catastrophe, which would bring with it hungry people and disease. Only in the 1980s, when we began learning about the composition of these materials, did we begin to understand that they’re poisonous.

“The conversation with Uri took place seven years ago. Something awoke inside me, and I said, ‘Let’s go, start looking.’ That’s how we got to the Volcani Institute and to Dr. Samuel Gan-Mor. Shmulik said, ‘I have something, but we have to develop it.’ And that’s how it is that we’ve been working for the past four years on a new technology based on spraying with edible oils ‏(See box‏). It’s a marvelous and unique technology that enables us to market vegetables a minute after we’ve sprayed them, without poison and without pollutants. And the pests die.

“At the same time, during the past three years, we’ve been developing a mobile lab. It will be similar to ours [on the kibbutz], but will operate inside a vehicle that will travel all over Tanzania or India, or anywhere else in the world, and will offer services to farmers who request it.”

Life and death

Somehow, unintentionally, it turned out that our tour with Yaffe involved stopping at trees planted in memory of the dead.

“My brother’s generation planted trees, my generation is taking care of them and rehabilitating them,” he muses, “but ... trees are like human beings and you can’t prevent their death. The real issue is to plant. All the time, in every hole, without talking. Just keep quiet and plant. Like this arbutus: It was on the verge of dying. I looked at it and said I wouldn’t be able to stop the deterioration, so I would try to produce a replacement. I succeeded.”

Yaffe is asked to be photographed next to the “baby.” He crowds into the little area that he fenced off, in order to protect the arbutus trees, and brings his face close to the tiny scion. The photographer zooms in on the two of them: the adult man and the infant tree. The gravestones in the background disappear.

Eco innovation

Uri Yaffe is an autodidact like his father Oded, and an agricultural researcher. In 2006 he joined his father’s laboratory, seeking to launch various “green” projects.

“In 2008 we met with Dr. Samuel Gan-Mor, the head of the department of agricultural engineering at the Volcani Institute, and he told us that in the 1990s he had developed special equipment to create a mixture for spraying. That project was shelved,” Uri explains, “but Gan-Mor wanted to develop a project based on it.”

The younger Yaffe goes on to explain that “in every plant whose seeds yield oil there are ingredients that enable it to protect itself from pests. We examined these ingredients in various types of edible vegetable oils. We tried to focus on the oils most available on the market so that we would sell the sprays worldwide, rather than [just] locally. We checked one oil at a time, turned them into a spray and used it on vegetables, spices, flowers and citrus trees. We examined the degree of protection that the sprays provide against pests, learned what each oil is capable of doing and then began to try out mixtures of oils. In the end we got a mixture that is currently best suited to Israeli crops.

“The spray is effective against a very broad range of pests and diseases, which saves the time usually involved in administering several different ingredients, and therefore saves money, too. Since it is entirely nonpoisonous, it cancels out the need for a ‘waiting period’ before the harvest − that is, the days a farmer has to wait until fruit or vegetables are totally cleansed of a certain pesticide and thus ready to be picked. With the spray in question, the farmer is not restricted when it comes to harvesting. Last year we built our first plant in the western Negev, and at the same time we continue to study and do research.”

Recently the spray was formally approved by the Agriculture Ministry, which deemed it to be one of the most innovative products created this year in the country. The spray was also featured recently at the international Agritech exhibition.

Says Uri Yaffe, “The spray can replace many of the pesticides that are now being removed from the market in the Western world because they are poisonous and because of the demand for green materials. It can also be an excellent solution for the third world. The system that produces the emulsion from oil is also relatively cheap, and in the future we’ll sell it to private farmers. It will enable third world farmers who buy it to create their own spray instead of buying poisonous surplus products from the West.”

Oded Yaffe.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Yaffe at his lab on Kibbutz Givat Brenner. He has devised an ecological pesticide, based on cooking oils.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
The family of arbutus trees on Mount Scopus, Jerusalem. Apparently a case of spontaneous birth.Credit: Ilya Melnikov