A Garden Variety

After a redesign, Hebrew University's botanical garden is back in business

The botanical garden at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus, one of the first in the world to be recognized as an "ecological garden" - one designed for nature conservation - has reopened after extensive development work.

The garden serves as a "Noah's Ark" for Israeli flora, including many endangered species. It was originally planned by Prof. Alexander Eig, to reflect the flora of the country's different regions, with soil being brought in from every region, to nurture specific species. The garden also houses the graves of two of Zionism's founding fathers - Menahem Ussishkin and Yehuda Leib (Leon) Pinsker.

Environmental sculptor and planner Ran Morin undertook the garden's redesign, thanks to a donation from the Victor family, of Canada, following many years of a shortfall in funding for the garden's maintenance. The garden's redesign also included renovation of Nicanor's Tomb, an important archaeological site from the Second Temple period. The Mishna relates that Nicanor donated a pair of gates to the Temple. During the course of the work, one of the caves at the tomb site was recently opened to the public and new, wheelchair-accessible paths were built.

Plans exist for additional expansion of the cultivated area of the garden, which already has over 1,000 species of plants indigenous to Israel and the region.

Many of the species found in the botanical garden are very rare or even nonexistent in the wild, and some will be used for propagation so the species can be reintroduced to nature.

"There are several species here," says garden director Mimi Ron, "such as the Agrostemma githago [Corn Cockle], and the Linaria triphylla [Three-colored Toadflax], that in the past adapted themselves to farmers' fields, but which could not survive modern agricultural techniques and herbicides. We managed to find some Agrostemma seeds on Mount Avital in the Golan Heights, and brought them here."

Ron notes that there are extensive areas along Israel's coastal plain where some of the plant species were close to extinction due to urban development. Many of these are also found in the garden, including Rumex Rothschildianus Evenari (a rare species of sorrel), which survived in only one plant conservation area south of Netanya. The garden also has a collection of cooking herbs and medicinal plants. One of the plants unique to this area is the Paronychia argentea (silver nailroot), which was recently discovered to be effective in treating kidney stones.