Saving Israel's Wildflowers

Although Israel is a minuscule country, she possesses an impressive variety of wild plants. About 10 years ago, botanists cataloged no fewer than 1,005 different species in a single square kilometer in the Jerusalem area. Overall, Israel has close to 2,300 species of plants. For comparison’s sake, the plant kingdom of England, whose area is six times larger than Israel, numbers only 1,750 species. Moreover, dozens of these species are endemic – they can only be found in Israel, and nowhere else in the world.

In Nov. 2013, the Anemone coronarie – depicted on the right stamp – was elected in a special competition and subsequently declared the national flower of Israel. The Cyclamen latifolium – depicted on the middle stamp – got to the 2nd place.

Fifty years ago, several wildflower species were facing near-extinction, but a determined handful of individuals from The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) – Israel's leading environmental non-profit organization – and the Nature Reserves Authority ‏(a government-affiliated organization that later became part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority‏) led to dizzying success in a realm in which environmental protection efforts had previously failed: modifying the behavior of the general public. One successful explanatory advertising campaign back in the 1960s, which to a great extent has survived all subsequent changes in Israeli society, succeeded in persuading multitudes of locals to stop picking wildflowers and simply enjoy nature.

Using a combination of legal means and educational measures, the organization managed to completely stop the widespread habit of flower picking – once and for all. This legendary campaign worked because it revolved around environmental education for children – the children taught their parents – and Israel was transformed. This initiative was so popular that it triggered the formation of SPNI’s Environmental Education division, which operates in schools across Israel today.

Some of the rare wildflower species may not be particularly impressive or beautiful − and may have never been of special interest to hikers or flower-sellers − but quite a few of them with interesting blossoms and the potential to be reintroduced as ornamental plants, or to fill window boxes, were once the victims of the phenomenon of prolonged and systematic picking.

“Everybody picked wildflowers,” wrote SPNI cofounder Azaria Alon in his 2012 autobiography “Man and Nature” ‏(in Hebrew‏), in which he described the bitter fate of the plants. “Every parent and teacher encouraged the children to pick flowers ... Children stood at the roadsides selling bouquets of anemones, narcissi and cyclamens. Flower-shop owners went into the field and picked the flowers themselves or sent people to do it. The iris and tulip were on the verge of extinction. The lupine was harvested and shipped in pickup trucks to the shops.”

Just before these flowers permanently vanished, change arrived, thanks to the establishment of the country’s first two environmental protection groups: SPNI and the Nature Reserves Authority. The directors of these organizations understood the existential dangers wild flora were facing, and the first mission they undertook was to grant them protected status under the law − something that did not exist at that time.

In 1963, the first legislative breakthrough in this regard came when the Knesset passed the Nature Reserves and National Parks Law, which included a section related to the protection of nature. Under its provisions, a few dozen species of wild plants were placed in the category of either "protected" (Hebrew: muganim) or "restricted" (Hebrew: shmurim) plants. Wild flowers designated as protected may not be harmed in any way – they may not be uprooted, picked, or sold. Wild flowers designated as restricted may not be sold or uprooted either, but the law allows a small number of them to be picked.

Based on an article written by Zafrir Rinat and published in Haaretz on Apr. 5, 2013.

The featured stamp series, issued in 1957 for Israel's 11th Independence Day and designed by Z. Narkis, is dedicated to three common and much-loved spring flowers of Israel: the anemone coronaria, the cyclamen latifolium and the narcissus tazetta. All three are protected plants.

Anemone coronarie –
The anemone coronarie is a very popular spring flower, carpeting the hillsides of Israel with red. They open with the sun and close at dusk.

Cyclamen latifolium –
The cyclamen latifolium is in flower from winter until spring throughout Israel. The flowers, white, rose, or purple, face downward for protection against the winter rains. The plant's circular tuber helps protect it from the often intense summer heat.

Narcissus tazetta –
The spring-blooming narcissus tazetta, with its white petals, can be found in abundance in the plains and valleys of Israel. Many scholars believe the Rose of Sharon spoken of in the Song of Songs may be the narcissus.

The preceding stamp series, issued in 1957 and featured with the Hebrew article, displays the following wild flowers:

Lupin –
In spring, the valleys of lower Galilee and the foot of the Judean hills are often covered with clusters of blue blossoms, sometimes so close together that they form a blue field. The papilionate shape of the blossoms makes their family connections immediately clear - they are papilionate leguminosae.

Of the five wild varieties found in Israel, the mountain lupin is the largest, and has the most striking color. It is an annual that sprouts at the beginning of winter, and is identifiable by its digitate, hairy leaves. In spring the tall inflorescences push up through the leaves and bloom for several weeks, the blossoms opening in sequence from bottom to top. The flowers then turn into large, hairy pods, each containing a number of flat seeds.

The lupin was known of old (by its contemporary Hebrew name) and is mentioned in the Talmud. The seeds of a related cultivated variety are edible when cooked, after removal from the bitter peel.

Lupin inflorescences used to be picked extensively and sold in flower shops, until there was danger of the species' complete disappearance. For this reason, the lupin was declared a restricted wild flower.

Swamp Orchid –
The swamp orchid was quite common along the edges of the swamps with which Israel once abounded. In early spring, flowering stalks sometimes more than 20 inches high, bearing a mass of purple flowers, would shoot up out of the heavy, wet soil. The plant is dormant during the summer, storing up nourishment for the following year's growth in one of the two bulbs of its root. As the swamps were drained and intensive farming methods adopted, swamp orchids became much rarer, and today they can be seen in only a few places.

The flowers are typical of the orchid family: a single labellum of the perianth is endowed with size and beauty, while the remaining five are also-rans. The flower has a spur and an inferior ovary. A special pollination apparatus causes the two clusters of pollen to adhere to the nectar-seeking insect that will deposit them later in another flower. Like all orchids, the swamp orchid is a protected wild flower.

Maria Iris –
The most notable of the wild flowers peculiar to Israel alone are a group of irises, with large and very beautiful flowers. These species and a few related ones grow only in the Middle East, along the narrow strip between the Mediterranean and the steppe zones. In Israel, they can be found all the way from the coastal plains through the northern part of the Beersheba valley, along the eastern edge of the hills of Judea and Ephraim, and on up to the Gilboa, eastern Galilee, and the Golan region.

All these irises are perennials; they have rhizomes and are dormant during the summer, their sword-like leaves sprouting at the beginning of winter. In spring, they put forth large, eye-catching blooms, each species with its own shape and color.

The Maria Iris grows in the sands of the northern and northwestern Negev. It has the most delicate flowers and leaves of the entire group; the leaves are grayish, and bent backwards like a scythe. The plant blooms in February and March, each stalk bearing a single purple flower. A few years ago it was not unusual to encounter patches of dozens of these irises, but they would be a rare sight today. The Maria Iris is a protected wild flower.