Trip Of The Month: Ein Gedi Botanical Garden

Trip of the Month – Ein Gedi Botanical Garden

            Adam and Eve may have been exiled from the Garden of Eden, but at least a few of their progeny were fortunate enough to return. These lucky souls live at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, founded on the desert slopes of Judea in 1953. So luxuriant and diverse that it was proclaimed an International Botanical Garden in 1994, Kibbutz Ein Gedi is a tropical paradise in which the tiniest houseplant reaches mammoth proportions and the most modest of bushes shoots into a tree.

            The Botanical Garden was born when pioneers decided to make the desert bloom. Along with date palms and grapefruit they planned to sell in the local markets, the settlers industriously planted flowers in little plots right outside their doors. The gardens succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and agricultural institutes were fascinated by the little settlement’s achievements. Soon these institutes began bringing specimens of their own to the kibbutz, wondering how they would hold up in the desert.

The results were incontestable:  a unique combination of climatic conditions combined with smart irrigation produced foliage that was more successful at Ein Gedi than in their original African or Mediterranean homes of origin.  Today the kibbutz boasts over 1,000 species – more types of foliage than are found in Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens.

Visitors are welcome at Ein Gedi, despite the fact that the path takes you right through the kibbutz. In fact, this is the only International Botanical Garden that encompasses a thriving, living community and even people who ordinarily avoid botanical gardens will find this particular one of interest. Here there is a human factor as well: farmers on tractors and oldsters in scooters pass you on the path, toddlers play on the grass, and the modest dwellings are surrounded by imaginative sculptures created by amateur kibbutz artists.

            On your Garden walk, take time to treasure some exceptional views. To the east, the Dead Sea peeks out from beyond the kibbutz foliage and shines a brilliant, hopeful blue. To the west, stark brown desert cliffs provide a striking backdrop for lush Garden foliage. Hopefully you will find, as I did, that the tranquil kibbutz ambience, its paradisiacal plants and the contrasting scenery are a comfort to our troubled souls.

Small desert species like the Sodom Apple tree grow very tall at Ein Gedi. Note the cork-like covering on its bark, insulation that keeps it cool. As a result, water soaked up from beneath the ground doesn’t evaporate.  Inside the fruit of the Sodom Apple tree is almost empty, containing only hairy seeds. When the weather gets warm and the fruit is ripe the apple pops open.

Parts of the plant are poisonous, but long ago people produced wicks from the hairs. They did so by rolling them around and dousing them with olive oil. Since Sodom apple wicks are not particularly stable, Jewish sages prohibited their use in Sabbath candles. That’s because fires may not be lit on the Sabbath, and should the flame flicker and die the candle could not be rekindled.

Ein Gedi residents are proud of their baobabs, a species of tree which features prominently in the famous children’s book The Little Prince. Identified by their very thick trunks, white flowers and strange, elongated fruit, baobabs at Ein Gedi are often even bigger than their cousins growing in their native habitats in Africa and Madagascar. Interestingly, the trunk holds an enormous amount of water, making it extremely successful desert foliage. Some people think Arab traders introduced the tree to countries around the Indian Ocean about 500 years ago; it is possible they took the fruit with them to prevent scurvy.

An African legend tells us that the devil once picked up the baobab, pushed its branches into the ground and left its roots hanging in the air – and Africans call it the “upside-down tree”.  Because the fruit closely resembles a loaf of bread, the baobab is also known as the “monkey bread tree”. That’s because, they say, monkeys who eat it end up with a high! Actually, birds and animals shelter in its branches and are nourished by the fruit; people use the bark fiber for making rope, baskets, musical instruments strings and waterproof hats!

Ein Gedi’s giant montsera, which originates in the tropics, is a waxy, dark green plant. Montsera is Latin for “monster” and the name probably refers to the plant’s strange, claw like leaves. In some parts of South America people participating in religious ceremonies hold montsera leaves in their hands to drive away evil spirits.

Trees known as Flamboyant, Flame Tree, and Peacock Flower bloom in April with fiery reddish-orange flowers Originally from Madagascar, although practically extinct in its native land, the trees add stunning color to the gardens.