by Julie Baretz
Julie Baretz is a licensed tour guide who lives with her family in Jerusalem.
Nayot is a quiet, unremarkable residential neighborhood not far from downtown Jerusalem; to most passers-by, a small strip-mall appears to be its most salient feature. However, many people are unaware that the entrance to one of Jerusalem’s magical contemporary treasures - the University Botanical Gardens - lies unassumingly between the supermarket and the gas station on Yehuda Burla Street.
The Gardens were established in 1953 as part of the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University.
The climate in Jerusalem - with its hot, dry summers and cold, rainy winters - allows for the cultivation of plants from a wide variety of habitats. In fact, in addition to displaying plants from around the world, the Botanical Gardens also serve as a testing ground for many of the plants introduced into horticulture and forestry in Israel.
Strolling through the Gardens, it is easy to forget the presence of the city; the urban landscape is largely obscured by the undulating hills of Jerusalem’s topography and the rising foliage of trees and plants from all corners of the earth. The Gardens’ thirty-two developed acres house over six thousand species of plants, arranged according to regions: South Africa, Europe, North America, Australia, South-west and Central Asia and the Mediterranean Basin. (In the future, the Gardens will extend to an additional fourteen acres to include Japanese and Chinese gardens and a South American section.) Don’t be intimidated by the quantities, the varieties and the Latin names in the Botanical Gardens. If an information-oriented tour is your preference, audio-guides are available.
Each week at the Gardens is a new experience, as the seasons’ progression is expressed and reflected by a myriad of leaves, flowers, seeds, bark and pods. Winding paths and a generous smattering of benches allow both panoramic vistas of the ever-changing palette and quiet hideaways to contemplate, illustrate or meditate. Indeed, the gardens playfully court spiritual dimensions, gently teasing thoughts of nature and the universe. The Shinmin stone, set under an English Oak tree (Quercus robur) west of the Visitors’ Center on a hillock leading to South Africa, is a fine place to search for inspiration. Read its short, Japanese inscription, take some time to ponder its meaning and allow its echoes to accompany you on your exploration of the Gardens.
Another sub-theme woven throughout the gardens is water: a lake, a waterfall and two small ponds embody the life-blood that sustains all living things visible in the Gardens – plants, animals and human beings. The Haimaki and Rachel Cohen Lake appears as you leave the parking lot behind you and first step into the Gardens. Nestled in a small dale, the lake is a seeming apparition that powerfully effects the transition from gritty cityscape to primeval Jerusalem. Take advantage of the restaurant overlooking the lake; its patio is an ideal spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal while observing the black swans, the turtle family and the Nymphaea alba, in a stunning array of colors during the summer months. Chances are good that you will spy at least a few of the forty-six species of birds that visit in the Gardens throughout the year.
A short walk up the Magnolia Avenue brings you to the David Tchorz Waterfall. If you continue along the path toward the northern boundary of the Gardens you will also find the Ruth and Max Guggenheim-Braunschwieg Pool and finally, the Sunlight Pool, tucked away in the tail of the Mediterranean Basin. Each is a quiet surprise of cascading waters, statuesque reeds or giant goldfish flitting between lotus flowers, and each beckons you to linger alongside it a bit longer.
Throughout your wanderings in the Gardens you will encounter Chapungu, a series of over fifty sculptures situated in Europe, North America and Australia. Chapungu is the South African
Bataleur eagle, an ancient symbol of Zimbabwe. The Shona, an indigenous tribe,believe Chapungu to be a messenger from God and a protecting spirit.
The statues are the fruit of an ongoing Zimbabwean project, founded during the country’s war of independence in the 1970s, which encourages artists from the Shona to express their culture, beliefs and traditions in stone. The sculptures were created by dozens of native artists and are deeply influenced by ancient African artistic traditions originating in Zimbabwe. They describe people, animals, ghosts and spirits and scenes from African mythology and everyday life. Additional sculptures were designed under the influence of modern art and express the changes that have taken place in Zimbabwean society during the last forty years.
The sculptures are grouped in the Gardens according to four themes: Spirit, Legend, Nature and Man. The exhibition in Jerusalem is temporary, but owing to the current political instability in Zimbabwe a closing date has not yet been set. Chapungu will be part of the Gardens’ landscape at least until the end of 2002.
Save some energy for the short, uphill climb to the Florence Dworsky Tropical Conservatory. Built in 1985 at the behest of an orchid enthusiast, the conservatory houses an impressive collection of plants native to the tropical rain forests on both sides of the equator. The unique climatic conditions which allow these plants to flourish in the rain forest have been recreated here: the absence of seasons, twelve daylight hours all year round, high temperatures between 65-85 degrees and constant rainfall.
The rain forests are home to ninety percent of the world’s plants and animals; in addition, vegetable oils, paints, spices, fibers, wax, rubber and about twenty-five percent of the drugs
prescribed by doctors originate in these tropical habitats. The Conservatory is designed to present a microcosm of the rain forest. Inside you will find plants from each of the three
stories in the forest: the tree canopy, the middle level and the forest floor.
For a taste of the dizzying heights to which the trees aspire, crane your neck to find the uppermost reaches of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), already pruned down, tickling the inside of the Conservatory’s dome. Take a close look at the giant bamboo shoots against the wall (Bambusa vulgaris variegata). Originating in southeast Asia, this plant is the fastest growing in all the plant kingdom – it can grow as much as eight inches a day! (Its growth progress has been noted on one specimen in black marker.)
Dinosaurs would have walked amongst the Cycases (Cycas circinalis) - low, palm-like trees often referred to as living fossils. During the Jurassic era these plants, together with
ferns, covered much of the earth’s surface and many fossilized specimens have been found. Take a good look at the plant’s features and see if you can discern between the male and female
If you’re up for a challenge, try and locate the following plants, all of which originate in the tropical rain forest and whose products can be found in most household kitchens: coffee (hint: the fruit is red); vanilla (a climber); rice; and bananas (looks like a tree but isn’t really). See if you can identify Nepenthes alata, a carnivorous plant which traps small animals in its pitcher-shaped leaves and digests them in order to compensate for the lack of nitrogen in the forest floor.
And lastly, don’t miss the orchids. The orchid family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom and the most physiologically sophisticated, although the thousands of species from the Sahara desert to Antarctica all share the same basic characteristics. Inspecting the details of these sensuous flowers in their natural habitat, it is easy to understand how the pursuit of these plants has driven people to theft and murder. Each individual flower is a composition of form and color unmatched by any human creation. The variations are unlimited, as they are bred all around the world for a huge spectrum of characteristics.
In the tropical rain forest orchids are epiphytes – they do not grow from the ground, but rather on other trees; they absorb water and minerals from the air via their roots and leaves. In
the Conservatory you will find orchids integrated throughout the entire display of plants.
The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are located off Yehuda Burla Street.
Directions: From Highway #1: At entrance to city continue straight, passing Binyanei Hauma on the right. Continue straight through several traffic lights for about a mile. After passing the Monastery of the Cross on the right, turn right at the next traffic light onto Herzog Avenue. At next light turn right onto Yehuda Burla Street. Go straight through one more light and turn left into the Botanic Gardens parking lot, just before the Supersol supermarket. Buses 17, 19, 31, and 32.
Web site: The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
Visiting Hours: The Gardens are open daily from 8:00 AM to sunset. Tropical Conservatory opening hours: Sunday 2:00 PM -4:00 PM, Monday-Thursday, Saturday, 10:00 AM -4:00 PM, Friday 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM.
Entry fees apply.