Jerusalem, How Does Your Garden Grow?



Jerusalem is, of course, the ultimate city of refuge.

Literally or figuratively, no other city on earth so eternally symbolizes a safe haven as does Jerusalem. Even when life in David's City was itself dangerous, the concept prevailed: Jerusalem is a haven, a refuge, the unique personal home for Jews, from wherever they might hail.

As it happens, it's not only endangered and embattled people who seek out Jerusalem. Plants, too – green-growing things – are increasingly finding a safe haven here, a protected environment where they can flourish. Where? In the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

Up to now, the Botanical Gardens of Jerusalem have been one of the city's best kept secrets. Even locals weren't fully aware of the lush foliage and watery sanctuary that takes up 180,000 square meters (about 45 acres) in the heart of the city. Now, with the garden's ambitious growth plans under way, that's about to change.

The gardens are not new. They began in 1926, when the Montague Lamport family made possible the purchase of land on Mount Scopus for the establishment of a Botanical Garden for Hebrew University. Planting began in 1931 and continued apace until 1948, but when the War of Independence ended and Jerusalem was divided, everything stopped.

In 1954, a new university campus arose in Giv'at Ram, and again, adjacent gardens were planted, this time with about 800 species of plants, mostly conifers. In time, the university grew and needed the acreage, so again the gardens moved, this time to National City, not far from the Knesset. For the third time, a grove of conifers from North America was tucked into the barren, rocky soil.

It Doesn't Grow on Trees! 
Money was always short, and growing things takes time. Not until 1975 did the gardens begin to assume their modern splendor, and not until 1985 did they open to the public. But little by little, financial supporters and dedicated volunteers worked to create the gardens as a spectacular oasis in the midst of the world's most incredible city.

The gardens have mastered multitasking. It's a peaceful oasis, certainly, but behind the scenes, they're a hive of green experimentation. Jerusalem's variable climate supports an incredible range of plant life, so experiments – plus a living gene bank – serve horticulture and reforestation efforts all over Israel.

But it's as a place of refuge that the gardens assume their most unique role. Here, endangered plants from around the world can be rescued, replanted, nurtured and tended – maintained as a bulwark against extinction.

One beneficiary of the rescue effort is the yellow autumn daffodil, which was about to become extinct but was rescued from the path of construction. It now flourishes, glossy-leaved and healthy, in the garden's Central Asian section.

From a design standpoint, the gardens are also unique. Instead of having plants grouped by the more common family/ genus/species arrangement, the gardens display their foliage in distinct geographical sections – North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, Asia and the Mediterranean. The unique planting scheme is a bonus to visitors not only because of the beauty of harmonious plants, but also because of the practical demonstration – what grows with what.

It's wild to see some of the regional greenery growing perfectly well in the Middle East. Are you curious about what a Midwestern prairie grassland looks like? In the designated North American section, there's the bread basket of the world, right there. A variety of cereal plants, plus an array of ornamentals – Rudbeckia, Gaillardia, Liatris, Aster and Solidago.

What grows in the mountains of Mexico and Central America? Forests: pine, juniper, sweet gum, and at lower elevations, flowers – Dalia and Salvia. It's all here, in the middle of Jerusalem.

Plants from Central Asia thrive – the climate here is not all that different, and even the rocks and soil are somewhat similar. Asia is huge, of course, and encompasses everything from dense forests to deserts, but consider what grows in Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan: fruit trees – pears, cherries, apples, apricots – and flowering bushes, forsythia, honeysuckle and lilac. You can see and enjoy their heady aroma, right here.

In some places, nature is helped along a bit. In the Dworsky Tropical Greenhouse, cooling and heating systems create specialized climates for more tender plantings. A section of utility plants grows here – coffee, rice, lychee and vanilla – but kids love the Cycadales section. These are the plants that grew and thrived when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The Geophytes represent an important collection – more than 100 different bulbs or root-stem plants are here, and, for some species like the iris, they represent the largest collection in the world. Here, too, some of the "rescue transfer" plants are nurtured, like the large crocus plants (Sternbergia clusiana), which were moved here from construction sites for preservation.

If all this makes the gardens seem pedantic, too botanically self-conscious to be fun, think again. You're free to just wander the paths, enjoy the riot of color, the pools of water, the rippling stream, the waterfalls. Rest on a shady bench, ride an electric train for a while-you-sit tour. Ignore all the signs and labels, if you want. A rose is a rose is a rose, after all, even if you personally can't distinguish it from a sunflower.

Enter the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens from Yehuda Burla Street. There are guided tours in Hebrew, Russian and English (by appointment), plus bird-watching events, senior-citizen easy-walk tours, a gallery and Visitor's Center.

The gardens are open daily, but on Shabbat, only for holders of prepaid tickets.

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