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Dream of Flowers in the Desert

The garden’s waterlily pool

In the land of dreamers, every new venture starts as a dream. Fitting this legacy, three friends in Eilat who loved the desert landscape joined together to fulfill their dream: establish an organic nursery in the southern Negev desert.

Twenty years ago, in 1998, the friends obtained permission from the Ministry of Agriculture to use an Israeli army post adjacent to Eilat, which had been abandoned after the Peace Treaty with Jordan. At their own expense and with no help from benefactors, they started to transform their vision into reality: an organic nursery to acclimatize plants to the hot desert conditions. The friends worked diligently using shoots from bushes, shrubs and trees native to Israel - lemons, oranges, arava maringa and acacia. The dream materialized, and within ten years the nursery expanded into a botanical garden, where non-indigenous exotic trees are being planted from seeds obtained from Asia, Africa, Australia and South America.

Located on the northern edge of Eilat, the Botanical Garden is a tropical oasis in the barren desert surroundings. The man-made watering system uses brackish water to maintain a maze of streams, waterfalls, pools, over 1,000 species of plants and exotic trees, and even an artificial "rainforest" where a foggy mist covers the forest and cools visitors on a steamy day.

Along the winding paths are handmade wooden swings and benches for rest, the remains of the abandoned army post where you can explore the trenches, and lookouts with stunning views across the Red Sea to the mountains of Jordan.

I visited The Botanical Garden of Eilat last December, with very little information about the place. On my return to Tiberias, I felt that either I had peeked into a magic garden or I was dreaming. There were canopies of lush foliage and so many unrecognizable trees and fruits I wanted to learn more. Hesitatingly, I contacted the garden via email. Yoram, one of the founders, returned my message and graciously spoke with me, telling me the names and explaining the properties and uses of several of the now acclimatized trees and their fruits.

In mid-March, before the heat of summer started, I returned to the botanical garden, reinforced with the information I had gotten from Yoram.

I entered the botanical garden and was greeted by a friendly receptionist, paid a modest fee and received a numbered brochure of the garden's highlights.

The garden path bends left, passing palm trees when the panorama widens, opening to a stunning view of the northern end of the Red Sea and the mountains in Jordan.

Nothing however could have prepared me for what stood ahead - the legendary baobab tree. Since I was a small child and read Antoine St. Exupery's classic story of The Little Prince, I have been in awe of the majestic baobab. Unlike the little prince who wanted to uproot the trees, I had dreamed of seeing these noble giants in their natural habitats: Madagascar or mainland Africa. Here however, in my own country was the baobab: this one, a small precious eighteen-year-old tree that Yoram told me had been planted from a seed from Africa. It has not borne fruit yet.

Baobab is the familiar name for each of the nine species of trees in the genus adansonia digitata; six species live in the drier parts of Madagascar, two in mainland Africa and one in Australia. They are characterized by their thick bottle-shaped trunks and sparse branches high on top of the trunk, making the trees appear as if they have been planted upside down, giving rise to one of its nicknames "the upside-down tree". Baobab trunks are hollow and can sometimes be large enough to entertain or imprison people inside. One of the largest, in South Africa, known as "Big Baobab" has a circumference of 47 meters (approximately 154 feet) and room enough for 60 people inside.

Baobabs are the oldest seed-producing trees in the world, whose stunning flowers open at night and for one night only. They have earned themselves a cornucopia of colloquial names, including the previously mentioned "upside-down tree", the "monkey bread tree", because the fruits resemble loaves of bread which monkeys climb to eat, and the "tree of life", due to its longevity. Some baobabs are more than 2,500 years old; the oldest recorded over 6,000 years.

Baobab fruit is valued for its nutritional benefits. The fruits contain seeds within an edible pulp and are a source of B vitamins, antioxidants and have six times the amount of vitamin C as oranges.

In the last decade, researchers have reported that the world's ancient baobabs found in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa are either dead or dying. The exact reason is a mystery; climate change has been suggested as the culprit. It is not that they have reached the end of their life span; baobabs live thousands of years. One of the oldest in the study was approximately 2,500 years old.

The irony of the successful growth of the baobab in Israel's Negev, simultaneously with the death of the ancient trees in Africa, cannot be overlooked.

Finally pulling myself away from the baobab, I turned right to explore the abandoned army trenches that led up to the lookout point, affectionately dubbed "The Lovers Nest".

Close by, the long stone staircase descended into a jungle of foliage with unrecognizable trees and a wadi of waterfalls and pools, complete with a man-made rainforest. I rested on one of the nearby benches, recalling my phone calls with Yoram and the information he had provided me about the now acclimatized trees, which have been transformed into useful crops in the Negev: the marula, the neem, the noni, and the acacia javenica, most of them available for sale at the garden's nursery.

Two views of Botanical Gardens baby baobabs

Most familiar of these exotic trees is the marula, used for a variety of purposes. Unfamiliar in Israel until recently, this tropical tree bears fruit with nutritional and medicinal benefits. The marula is a tall single-trunk leafy tree, indigenous to the woodlands of Southern Africa and Madagascar. Standing 9-18 meters high (approximately 32 to 60 feet tall), it is valued for its ripe plum-sized edible yellow fruits, which have a pleasant tart taste. Marula juice is produced for nutritional benefits, with four times the amount of vitamin C as orange juice. These sought-after fruits in Israel, growing wild in Africa, are used in making marula oil and skin cream. Recently I bought a bottle of marula oil shampoo when visiting New York. The increasingly popular marula drink, a creamy fruit liqueur, tasting of chocolate dipped strawberries with hints of mango, vanilla and caramel, is a welcome gift to anyone's dinner party. The marula, an unexploited native of South Africa, is now a valuable industrial plant crop in Southern Israel.

The noni tree, native to Asia, Australia and the Polynesian Islands, is another example of the botanical garden's achievement in the acclimitazation project. Known by several names - achi, morinda, and Indian mulberry - the fruit is yellow greenish-white in color and layered with a pebbled surface. Noni's ripe fruit is said to have a characteristic cheese-like odor.

The noni tree has been used for thousands of years in the Polynesian Islands to treat numerous health problems, including burns, diabetes, inflammation, viral and bacterial infections. Today the fruit preparations in Israel are sold as noni juice or in dried 'fruit leather' form or dry extract capsules.

The neem is also a tropical tree with medicinal properties. It hails from the Indian subcontinent and Burma. Also called the 'Indian lilac', it is a tree in the mahogany family. Jokingly referred to as the "one-man pharmacy", neem's medicinal properties are used against leprosy, eye disorders, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. The neem in its native environment is a wild leafy fast-growing tree, producing shade and leaves for tea. The fruits resemble olives with kernels inside. The most popular plant product is "neem seed oil" which is valued in the western world as a safe insecticide, popular with organic gardeners.

After leaving the lush "jungle" area and the rain forest, I rested near the mesmerizing waterlily pool. The day was growing very warm. I climbed quickly via the cactus path to see still another view of the Bay of Eilat and then headed for the exit, passing another of the garden's highlights, a date palm tree grown from a 1,250-year-old seed that was discovered in an archeological dig at the Dead Sea.

At the organic farm-nursery close to the exit, all trees that have been adapted to the Negev climate are for sale (except the acasia javonica), along with pottery, flower pots and assorted garden flowers. The botanical garden is open all year; the months between June and late September are very hot.

Whether it was the tug of the baobab tree for one last look, or the calm of the waterlily pool, I knew when I walked from the garden, that this could not be my last visit. When the summer's heat subsides, I hope to return. The dream of three friends, twenty years ago, is part of the bourgeoning phenomenon in southern Israel of acclimatization and adaptation of plants and trees that exist in other climate zones, and that have been transformed into useful crops in Israel's Negev desert.

The Botanical Garden of Eilat: tel. 08 631 8788; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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Sunday, 25 February 2024

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