Noah's Ark on Mount Scopus

Touring the newly-opened botanical garden is a pleasurable experience, but also disturbing. The visitor passes by samples of sceneries that are gradually disappearing.

Mount Scopus in Jerusalem is nothing like Mount Ararat, but it contains a Noah's Ark just the same. The deluge did not carry it up there, it does not house any animals and it is not seaworthy. But its basic function, saving wild species from destruction, is something it shares with the biblical ark.

Today, this destruction is the result of man's actions as he annihilates plant species by polluting their habitats, destroying them or burying them under concrete and asphalt.

The Hebrew University's newly-reopened botanical garden is on Mount Scopus. The structure, which has been closed for renovation, is now more accessible and more inviting. It is also sending out an urgent warning.

The garden occupies no more than 25 dunams, or six acres, divided according to Israel's geographic habitats, complete with soil trucked in from various regions. The garden boasts more than 1,000 species of Israeli plants. About a quarter are rare, and several dozen are defined as facing extinction.

Touring the garden is a pleasurable experience, but also disturbing. The visitor passes by samples of sceneries that are gradually disappearing - along with the plant species they contain, some of which exist nowhere else in the world. Such is the fate of the eolianite ridge, known locally as reches hakurkar, the chromic luvisol (hamra) the costal dunes and the loess soil of the Negev. That is also the fate of the semi-desert bush, with its unique shrubbery, which grows all the way to the edges of the Negev.

Nearly every fifth plant species in Israel is under the threat of extinction, mainly because of habitat destruction or segmentation. Some of the rarest plant species, like Israel's indigenous sorrel, the Rumex rothschildianus, have survived only in one small area near the coast. The common corncockle is also in this garden. In the wild it has survived only in one part of the Golan Heights.

The seeds of these plants and others are preserved in the garden and can remain fertile for many years. In the future, they may serve as the nucleus for a reintroduction project.

Average Israelis who want to live in a house in the country and drive their SUVs wherever they please may wonder about the significance of the sorrel in their lives, and just what they stand to lose from its disappearance. Actually, those people should wonder what they care about the coastal dunes or winter ponds, and all the other views and areas that make Israelis love this land, that make them want to go and spend time outdoors. Do those Israelis care if their children never get to see all that beauty?

The small botanical garden in Jerusalem is every Israeli's opportunity to realize that the renowned success of the campaign to protect flora from flower-pickers was actually very partial. True, Israelis arrive in masses to habitats full of anemones and cyclamens without significantly harming the plants. The problem is that these plants are not rare and grow in protected areas. The humbler plants, which have survived to this day on their evolutionary ingenuity, are quietly disappearing - mostly outside nature reserves, abandoned to their fates.