May 2, 2013 admin


‘It’s the cyclamen; it won by a narrow margin over the anemone’, Ori told us. ‘Before the Beijing Olympics the Chinese asked every country to submit the names of their national flower and their national bird. We didn’t have either. There was lots of discussion and a huge ballot over email.’ It’s amazing it didn’t end in a coalition, with some pious herb like the horseradish holding the balance of power.
Ori Fragman-Sapir is the head botanist at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens; he was speaking at a remarkable event at the home of the Israeli Ambassador, where his talk was partnered by an equally excellent presentation about Kew’s Seed Bank. 
I’ve always loved cyclamen, or rakefet in Hebrew. It flourishes in Britain too, growing in clumps underneath the pine trees in our garden. But it invariably reminds me of the Galilee, where, half-hidden in the clefts of the rocks, with its broad leaves of dark and milky green and its pink and purple, flowers it brings life and joy to the whole hillside.
We saw pictures of the bright Sternbergia too, (of special interest to those of us who inhabit the Sternberg Centre for Judaism, and which I’ve tried, but failed, to grow here in London.) It’s rare now in Jerusalem, but safe within the gardens where its yellow trumpet flowers spread in ever-widening circles beneath the trees.
But you can never get away from security. That’s how the prophets of Israel saw gardens. Some of them, like Amos who was a sycamore-dresser, were in fact horticulturalists, but the growth of Israel’s plants and trees was always also an image of something greater, of how justice, goodness and peace were to flourish in the land. Then, and only then, would it be God’s garden indeed, meriting the early and the latter rains in plenty, and the dew in the months of drought. Would that this could be so, and all the citizens of Israel, and of its neighbouring countries, could inhabit their lands in peace!
Plants have their security needs too: habitat, climate range, the insects often unknown to us which enable them to grow. Twenty percent of the world’s species are under threat. A rare campanula was recently saved from extinction in Israel by the Gardens, after a flash flood washed it away from the only site where it’s known to grow. Fortunately, seeds were gathered and the plants were propagated at the gardens. Kew’s seed bank aims to collect and preserve for generations thousands of samples of every kind of seed on earth. It’s the largest such project in the world, – a horticulturalists Noah’s Ark in which our future is treasured up – just in case.
We tend to think of the land as ours; it’s we who decide what to plant and what to uproot. But that’s not the ultimate truth. ‘For mine is the land’, says God, as we read in the Torah tomorrow, ‘and you are strangers and sojourners with me’. Poor God, I sometimes think, who has had to entrust all this beauty to us, who often pay it far too little heed.  
Yesterday was a wonderful reminder, both of the beauty of this world, and of our dependence on its plants and trees for our very lives, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the joy which makes life worthwhile.

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