1. General Characteristics of Palestinian Flora:
On account of the great diversity in the climatic and topographical conditions Palestine is peculiarly rich in the variety of its flora--the best authority, Post, distinguishes 3,500 species. The land as a whole belongs to the botanical area known as the "Mediterranean region," a region characterized climatically by very dry, hot summers and fairly mild winters. Plants here grow in spring, rest in the hot, dry season and grow again in autumn; the long-continued, scorching sunlight and the absence of water for five or six months at a time, lead to the destruction of vast quantities of seeds and young plants imported by various natural means and by human agency. Among these xerophile or drought-resisting plants, some of the most characteristic features are a thick, leathery rind admitting of little transpiration, e.g. cactus, stonecrops, etc., and the presence of bulbs, rigid stalks, or fleshy leaves, of which the flora of Palestine abounds with examples. Equally characteristic are dry, much-branched spiny trees or shrubs with scanty foliage and small leaves, such as the acacias and the thorny burnet. In connection with this last, it may be mentioned that, next to the strong sunlight and drought, the great enemy of vegetation over a great part of the "Mediterranean region"--emphatically so in Palestine--is the goat. He is one of the most destructive of animals, and as he has for long ages been allowed to graze freely all over the hillsides, it is not wonderful that in many spots it is only plants like the thorny burnet with its powerful spines which have survived.
The common plants of Palestine will be referred to in order shortly, but among those especially characteristic of the whole region are the olive and the fig, the ilex oak and the bay laurel, the arbutus and the sumach.
2. Plants Introduced Since Bible Times:
A number of trees and shrubs which have been imported into this region within comparatively recent times have become so acclimatized as to be today among the most noticeable plants. Prominent among these is the well-known opuntia or prickly pear, an introduction from the continent of America; so characteristic is this of modern Palestine scenery that it is a common feature in pictures by artists who have painted Scripture scenes in the Holy Land. The common variety, Opuntia ficus- Indica with its innumera ble sharp prickles makes impenetrable hedges round many of the village gardens, while the Opuntia cochinillifera, cultivated specially round Nablus and introduced from tropical America with the cochineal insect, is almost unarmed. The American aloe (Argave Americana)--quite a different plant be it noted from either the ALOES (which see) of the Bible or the well-known medicinal aloes--has established itself in many parts as a garden ornament and will doubtless in time become thoroughly indigenous. More important and more recent of introduction is the group of eucalypti or gum trees, of which some half-dozen varieties have been imported. As is well known, they all come from Australia, where they flourish in climatic conditions somewhat similar to those of the Mediterranean region. Seeds of eucalypti were first introduced into Europe in 1854, having been sent from Melbourne to Paris, and from that center they have found their way to all parts. The most common variety is the Eucalyptus globulus which is now to be found everywhere in the Mediterranean region. It was introduced into Palestine through the late Baron E. de Rothschild of Paris, and great plantations of it have been made specially in the neighborhood of the Jewish colonies. In the marshy plains between Sammarin and Caesarea over a million have been planted, and here, and also on the marshy shores of Lake Huleh, this tree has attained magnificent proportions. Many specimens will be found with trunks two or three feet in circumference and of a height of upward of 100 feet. This size is nothing for a eucalyptus, many of these trees attaining in their native habitat a height of 300, or even 400 ft., but time is required, and it may be that eventually many of the eucalypti of the Holy Land will also acquire giant proportions. That this group of trees has come to stay is evident. Not only in small forests such as those mentioned, but also in isolated groups all over the land they may be found. Their quick growth, fresh, evergreen foliage and their reputed health-giving properties account for their wide cultivation. Concerning this last it may be said that the virtues of the eucalyptus as a prophylactic against malaria have been much exaggerated. The most malignant cases of malaria may sometimes be found in houses shaded by eucalyptus boughs, and the Anopheles, or malarial-bearing mosquito, in such situations will be found swarming among its leaves. Probably the beneficial action of the eucalyptus is simply one of drying up marshy lands by absorbing great quantities of water into its deep-running roots.
Other trees which have been recently introduced but now flourish even better than the indigenous trees are the locust tree (Robinia pseudo-acacia), from America, the "Pride of India" (Melia Azedaracht) called in Arabic zinzilukt, a stranger from India, very extensively grown, the so-called "Spanish pepper tree" (Schinus molle), the Casuarina stricta from Australia, the very common ailanthus (A. glandulosus), a native of China, and many others. Of fruit trees the apricot, mulberry, orange, citron, lemon an d prickly pear have all been introduced into Syria within historic times; as have almost all the best varieties of the indigenous fruits.
3. Fertility and Climate in Modern and Ancient Palestine:
A question of great interest to Bible students is, How far has the fertility of the land altered in historic times? Two facts are important in answering this:
(2) It is undeniable that the destruction of forest and thicket all over the land has been immense during the past fifty years. The increasing demands for fires by resident Europeans and the development of steam mills, the result of European enterprise, are largely responsible. The firewood brought to Jerusalem comes from ever-increasing distances, as the wood in the neighborhood is consumed, and the destruction has been increasingly ruthless. First the branches are cut, then the trunks are leveled, and finally the very roots are dug out of the soil. At a greater distance, as for example in the once extensive forests East of the Jordan, a terrible destruction is being wrought by the charcoal burners. Thousands of sacks of charcoal arrive in Jerusalem during the autumn months, chiefly in the care of Circassian settlers in the East Jordan lands; but a similar work is pursued by other charcoal burners in the northern parts of upper Galilee. All the tree trunks are soon destroyed and then the rising branches are cut as soon as they reach any size, so that miles of country which, within the memory of many now living, were forest are now either entirely treeless or covered with nothing but brushwood. This last consists of dwarf oak, carob, terebinth, arbutus, wild olive and hawthorn--all capable of development into noble trees. The process having been commenced by the hand of man is assisted by the goats who crop the tender leaves and shoots, and thus keep stunted many of the bushes. Older inhabitants can remember that between Bethlehem and Hebron, where today scarcely a twig is visible, there were trees and brushwood all the way, and in the 7th century the pilgrim Arculphus writes of a pine wood as existing South of Bethlehem. This destruction is common all over the land. The only trees which have any chance of surviving are those which from their near proximity to some sacred Wely or grave, or in some case from their own traditional sanctity, have been left uninjured from motives of superstition. Such " holy" trees occur all over the land, sometimes singly, at others in groves; they may be any species of tree. Commonly they are oaks, terebinths, carob, meis (nettle tree), sidr (zizyphus) or hawthorn.
Besides the willful destruction of trees for firewood or charcoal another agent has in places been in operation. It is a common thing for the fellahin to clear a large area for plowing by burning all the vegetation; such fires sometimes extend far beyond the area intended (compare
While therefore, from the permanent climatic conditions, Palestine could never have been a land of verdure such, for example, as England, yet we know with certainty that its native vegetation has much diminished within the memory of many now living. But besides this, we have abundant historical evidence that at several periods it was much more productive. This is shown, for example, abundantly in the writings of Josephus, and, for later periods, in the accounts of many pilgrims. But indeed the mere fact that for many centuries Palestine had a population far greater than today is in itself a proof; for as things are, modern Palestine is not able to support a much greater population than at present. Great expenditure of capital and labor on the restoring of ancient terraces, the construction of dams and systems of irrigation and the planting of trees is one essential preparation for any considerable development of the land. For any of these things to be possible a radical change in the attitude of the Turkish gover nment is an essential preliminary.
With regard to Bible evidence it is clear from very many references in the historical books of the Forest.) Whether these references are always to tall trees or also to the brushwood such as is plentiful in parts of Galilee today, is immaterial, as the latter consists of the same elements as the former, only stunted through the interference of man. It would certainly appear probable that at the time of the arrival of the Hebrews there were considerable forests of trees--oaks, terebinths, pines, etc.--over a great part of the higher mountains. In
4. Plant Zones in the Holy Land:
In dealing briefly with some of the more characteristic and remarkable of the plants of the Holy Land we must recognize at least four distinct plant zones:
(1) The coast plains and the western mountains, with a distinctly "Mediterranean flora";
(2) The Jordan valley or Ghor, with a very peculiar semi-tropical flora in which a considerable number of African forms occur;
(3) The steppe or desert zones, specially those East of the Jordan and to the south. The higher western slopes to the East of the Jordan also have a very similar flora;
(4) The Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon above 4,000 ft. in which Alpine forms occur, and in the higher regions of which there is a flora entirely distinct from the three other zones.
These divisions are necessarily somewhat artificial. Everywhere the western slopes are more fertile than the eastern, so that the land to the East of the water parting in western Palestine partakes more of the desert flora than that opposite to it on the east. Vegetation in all parts is more abundant on t he hill slopes with a northern aspect, as it gets more shade; this is particularly noticeable in the drier areas.
(1) The Coast-Plains and Western Mountains.
(a) In the maritime plain there is a rich red alluvial soil with abundance of water deep under the surface. The annual mean temperature is 70 degrees F.; frost is extremely rare, and the atmosphere is distinctly humid, though the rainfall is less than in the higher hills. Citrons, oranges and lemons here flourish, palms grow in places on the coast, melons and pomegranates reach perfection. Vines have been extensively planted by Jewish colonists in the neighborhood of Jaffa. Cereals--wheat, barley and Egyptian maize (Sorghum annuum)--are extensively grown. The wild flora is similar to that of the mountains. The sycamore fig (Arabic jummeiz) flourishes around Jaffa--it is a tree which requires a warm climate; it was in Talmudic writings one of the distinctions between "lower" and "upper" Galilee that the sycamore fig flourished in the former and not in the latter. It is evident it was far more plentiful in olden times (see Sycamore). A closely allied tree, the mulberry, is common everywhere, though not really indigenous. Two varieties occur, the Morus nigra (Arabic tut-shami) a native of central Asia, cultivated for its delicious fruit, and the M. alba (Arabic tut beledi) a native of China introduced as food for silk worms. See Sycamine. Another tree which reaches perfection only in the warmer regions of the plain--and that too in the Jordan valley--is the tamarisk (Arabic athl) of which Post recognizes 9 species. It is characterized by its brittle feathery branches covered by minute scale-like leaves; a bedraggled, wind-torn tamarisk half buried in sea-sand is a characteristic sight all along the Syrian coast. Under favorable conditions some species attain considerable size.
(b) In the higher mountain regions there is an average temperature of 62 degrees F. and extreme variations between a maximum of 100 degrees or 80 degrees in the shade in the summer and a few degrees of frost in the winter. Here the fig, vine and olive do admirably, their late fruiting corresponding with the "dew"--or clouds of fine mist--which settle over the mountains after sunset, particularly in the north. Apricots, mulberries, quince, apples and pears (chiefly from imported grafts), peaches and plums, almonds and walnuts do well in sheltered spots. Wheat and barley are grown on hill slopes or in valley bottoms all over the mountain region.
In the valleys where there is running water the oleander (Nerium oleander; Arabic difleh) abounds--a plant beautiful in foliage and flower but poisonous and not uncommonly imparting its poison to the water in which it grows. In similar situations occurs the Vitex (V. Agnus Castris), a variety of verbena whose lilac or purple flowers are, wherever they occur, a sure sign of the presence of water on or near the surface.
In similar situations flourishes the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis; Arabic dilb), a tree which often attains great size (see Plane Tree), and also the alder (Alnus orientalis; Arabic naght), a tree of humbler growth. There are some 8 varieties of willow (Arabic sifsaf), a tree very common along the water courses (see Willow Tree). Poplars (Arabic chaur) are plentiful in places, especially near water. Three native varieties are known, but the cylindrical Lombardy poplar, an imported variety, is most widely cultivated (see Poplar). The southern hackberry or nettle tree (Celtis australis; Arabic mais) a member of the Urticaceae closely allied to the elm, is an indigenous tree which is widely planted; it is not uncommonly seen beside Moslem shrines. It grows to a height of 20 to 30 ft., and yields a close-grained timber taking a high polish. The walnut (Juglans regia; Arabic jauz) is a valuable timber tree and grows to noble proportions. It flourishes around Damascus, being a water-loving tree: some of the most magnificent specimens occur at Sheba`, a village in the lower slopes of Hermon. The walnut is really an imported tree, its native home being Persia and the Himalayas, but it has been long naturalized.
The carob (Ceratonia siliqua; Arabic kharrub) is a handsome evergreen tree whose dense, dark glistening foliage renders it everywhere conspicuous. It is widely distributed, especially in the lower mountain regions. Its pods are the HUSKS (which see) of
See Terebinth. Pines, although they flourish on the coast and lower mountain slopes, are, together with cypresses, junipers and cedars, reserved to the discussion of the flora of the fourth division of the country--the Alpine regions.
The hawthorn (Crataegus; Arabic za`rur), of which there are 4 varieties, occurs as a shrub or small tree everywhere, its sweet-scented white or pink blossom being much in evidence in the spring.
Among the more important shrubs which make up the thickets over the limestone hills the following may be briefly enumerated:
The sumach (Rhus conaria), usually a shrub but occasionally a small tree, grows in considerable quantities in fertile spots in the mountains; from its fruit an acid drink is concocted and the fruit, bark and young leaves are used in tanning.
A plant closely allied to this, and also to the terebinth, is the lentesk (Pistacia lentiscus; Arabic serres), a common shrub in the lower mountain region, e.g. on Carmel, which yields mastich, a white gum, thought by many to be the BALM of the Old Testament (which see).
The bay laurel (Laurus nobilis; Arabic el ghar) occurs in clumps in many places. It is the Daphne of the Greeks and was sacred to Apollo. From its large, leathery, shining leaves were made the laurel crowns of victory in classical times. This, it may be mentioned in passing, is quite a distinct plant from our familiar "cherry laurel," which is allied to the cherry.
The butchers’ broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is very plentiful. It is a plant peculiar in having its leaf petioles flattened out like a leaf (phillodia), so that the flower and berry appear to arise from the middle of the midrib of the leaf.
The myrtle (Myrtus communis; Arabic rihan or aas) is exceedingly common, especially in northern Palestine, and when it grows near water it attains a good size.
A showy shrub, which sometimes attains to the dimensions of a tree 20 or 30 ft. high, is the arbutus (Arabic qoTlib) or strawberry tree. Two kinds occur, the less common Arbutus unedo or true "strawberry tree" which has a rough, warty fruit of a scarlet color, and Arbutus andrachne with a smooth, red bark, which when peeled off leaves a reddish inner surface. It has small orange-colored, non-edible berries. The red stems of this arbutus may be seen conspicuous in thickets all over the land, but very few are allowed to come to full growth.
Among some of the more showy shrubs we may mention the oleaster (Eleagnus hortensis; Arabic zaizafan) with its beautiful silvery leaves and white blossom (see Oil Tree).; the styrax (Styrax officinale; Arabic haz or `abhar), a shrub or small tree, with beautiful white flowers, somewhat resembling orange blossoms, the dried juice from whose bark is the officinal STORAX (which see); the Judas tree (Cercis siliquaestrum; Arabic zemzariq), a straggling shrub or tree with very showy pink flowers, and the caper (Capparis spinosa; Arabic el acaf), which is very common on old walls and about ruins (see Caperberry). The beautiful rockrose or Cistus (Arabic ghibrah) is found on many shrubby hillsides, even on the bare mountain tops. The C. villosus has pink and the C. salviaefolus white blossoms, the petals being curiously crumpled. and falling off almost at once when the flower is picked. From the Cistus is obtained the gum called Ladanum (Arabic ladhanun; Hebrew loT) for which see Myrrh. Many of the hill tops near the watershed, which should be clothed by forests of oaks and pines, are now almost bare and support upon the dry and scanty soil nothing but low bushes of thorny burnet, mingled with wild thyme and mint, with, in places, small bushes of the Cistus. This thorny burner (Poterium Spinosum; Arabic ballan) is almost ubiquitous; its long thorns and tiny leaves enable it to survive the goats. It is of considerable economic importance, as from masses of this plant the fellahin fire almost all the limekilns in the land; and they use it extensively too for their ovens. It is a common sight in the late summer, after the harvest is gathered in, to see companies of peasants gathering this plant into clumps all over the hillsides, and conveying it on the women’s heads in huge masses to the kilns. They pile around the kilns enormous heaps, enough to keep the furnace continually burning for several days. They may well be the "thorns under the pot" of
Of the myriad spring flowers which make such a brilliant annual display it is impossible here to write in any detail. Earliest after the rains appear the crocuses and the cyclamen, then the narcissi, anemones--scarlet, white and purple--the scarlet ranunculi, gladioli, irises, dwarf orchids, pink and yellow flax, mountain lilies, borage and bugloss, the primrose- colored Palestine scabious, and vast numbers of small Composites all appear in quick succession. When these fade many brilliant thistles continue to add some color to the otherwise dry roadsides, and last of all, in the late summer, numbers of tall stalks of squill, shot from the now leafless bulbs, remain scattered in groups over the dry and leafless ground as last survivors of the season’s display. The varieties of flowers are enormous, but those mentioned are almost universally present.
Of cultivated vegetables-mention may be made of CUCUMBER (which see), lettuce, onions, GARLIC (which see), MELONS (which see), cauliflower and cabbage, potatoes (a fairly recent introduction), sweet potatoes, the egg plant (Melongena badinjan), artichokes (which also grow wild) and the bamieh (Hibiscus esculentus).
(2) The Jordan Valley.
The flora of this region is of a very special kind, and has affinities to Africa. Several trees and shrubs are of great interest. Firstly, mention may be made of the group of true acacias. One variety, the ’anbar (Acacia Farnesiana), is by no means peculiar to the Ghor, but is used for making hedges in many parts of the land; its little yellow, fluffy, scented flowers are a great favorite with the natives; it is usually a shrub rather than a tree. The remaining acacias are desert inhabitants and in many places are the only trees. The seyyal, which includes A. tortilis and A. seyal, flourishes on the west shores of the Dead Sea, at `Ain Jidy and southward; from it is obtained the gum arabic of commerce; it probably yielded the wood known in the Old Testament as SHITTIM WOOD (which see).
The semitropical Ghor is the home of many other thorny trees. Extremely characteristic of the whole region are the jujube trees of which the nabk or sidr tree (Zizyphus spina-Christi), is the most common. It has rounded yellowish fruit; under favorable conditions it develops into a tall and handsome tree. Somewhat less common is the `ennabh (Z. vulgaris) which bears an edible fruit of the shape and size of an olive. A third kind, the dom (Z. lotus), is merely a shrub and has small pea-sized fruit. These various kinds of jujube trees are found in every part of the Jordan depression and of the valleys approaching it. Closely allied botanically to these thorny shrubs is the samur (Paliurus aculeatus) or "Christ thorn," widely used for the making of hedges (see Brier). Another common shrub, or small tree, in the hotter parts of the Ghor near Jericho and the Dead Sea, is the zaqqum (Balanites AEgyptiaca) from whose oval berries the monks of Jericho extract a resinous substance which they term " ."
The dibk (Cordia myxa), a giant borage, which grows to a tree of 7 or 8 ft. high is widely cultivated but grows in the Ghor spontaneously. The fruit, which is edible, is used principally for making bird lime.
A very striking tree near Jericho and the Dead Sea is the `oshr (Calotropis procera), a member of the Natural Order Asclepiadeae. It has large obovate leaves, cabbage-like in consistence--a great contrast to the small, dry, dull-colored leaves of most of its neighbors. The trunk has a cork-like bark and white, milky juice and the fruit consists of queer apple-like follicles which, though solid looking, are only inflated with air and contain but silk threads and seeds. These have been supposed to be the apples of Sodom of Josephus, which he describes as looking like tempting fruit but which on examination prove to contain but dust. A much more likely theory is that he refers to the equally common colocynth (Citrullus colocynthus).
See Wild Gourd.
Another abundant herb is the Solanum coagulans (Arabic khadak), whose apple-like fruit has also received (without serious claim) the name of "apple of Sodom."
Then there are in the immediate neighborhood of the Dead Sea a whole group of salt-loving plants which grow in the saline marshes such, for example, as the samphire or glasswort (Salicornia fructosa and S. herbacea). The latter of these is called the kali plant, because it is burnt in order to obtain potash (el kali). Another group is included under the name of sea blite or sueda (Arabic suweid) of which there are several varieties.
Along the banks of the Jordan willows (Silex safsaf) and tamarisks (especially Tamarix Jordanis) abound.
At various parts of the Jordan valley, but particularly to the north of Lake Huleh, flourishes the papyrus reed (Cyperus papyrus), known in Arabic as babir, the source of the earliest paper.
Of cultivated plants, palms, as we know from history, grow here well, though their cultivation has been neglected; sterile wild palms still occur in some of the warmer valleys, especially to the East of the Dead Sea. Many dead palm-tree trunks lie scattered along the shores of the Dead Sea.
In situations well supplied with water, bananas flourish--they are cultivated both near Jericho and near the Lake of Galilee. Oranges, lemons and citrons also grow well. All kinds of ordinary vegetables are grown in various parts of this region. Wheat and barley yield an early and an abundant crop in irrigated regions on both sides of the Jordan; rice and Indian maize are cultivated in irrigated fields North of Lake Huleh, and cotton at several spots. With scientific irrigation this region might be one of the most productive upon earth.
(3) The Steppe or "Desert" Zones:
The Steppe or "Desert" Zones are chiefly noticeable for the absence of trees and the stunted condition of the small shrubs and herbs which grow there. Thorny plants like Poterium, Astragalus (the most characteristic order) and Cousinea thistles flourish. With the early rains a rapid growth of dwarf flowers appears which dries up soon after the rainy season ends. Botanically the region stands somewhat distinct by the occurrence of Persian and Indian plant-forms. This region includes the great corn land of the Hauran and Nukra--some of the richest of their kind.
(4) The Flora of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon:
The flora of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon consists, in the lower slopes, of similar plants to those mentioned under (1). The Conifera are specially characteristic of this northern region, the destruction of these trees in Palestine proper being in many parts complete. Of the indigenous cypress (Arabic Saru) we have one species, the Cypressus sempervirens, a handsomer tree than the cylindrical kind--a cultivated variety--planted so frequently in Turkish cemeteries (see Cypress). There are 6 varieties of juniper known, and one species of yew. Of pines the two important kinds are--the Aleppo pine (Pinus Halepensis), which grows with considerable rapidity and is widely planted, and the handsomer stone pine (Pinus pinia the true snobar of the Arabs), probably more truly the native tree (see Pine Tree). The most important and characteristic member of this order of trees is the cedar which still flourishes in a very few spots (see Cedar). On the Lebanon occurs a single species of rhododendron (R. Ponticum) and one of heather (Erica verticillata). Above the height of 7,000 ft. trees and shrubs disappear and vegetation is chiefly represented by low, rounded, thorny bushes, chiefly varieties of Astragalus; by clumps of Acantholimon Lebanoticum; by small procumbent bushes of Cerasus prostata--a member of the cherry family--and the Coloneaster nummularia with scarlet berries. Even on the summit of Hermon it is astonishing how many tiny flowers are in bloom in the late summer after the snow has melted. The most curious feature of this region is the almost complete absence of Arctic forms such as are found in the Alps and even in the Himalayas.
Prof. Ellsworth Huntington, Palestine and Its Transformation; J. Glaisher (PEF); Meteorological Observations at Jerusalem; G. E. Post, M. D., Flora of Syria, Palestine and Sinai; Mrs. Hannah Zeller, Wild Flowers of the Holy Land; Augusta A. Temple, Flowers and Trees of Palestine; Tristram, The Fauna and Flora of Palestine (PEF Memoirs); also articles in recent, particularly those by Dr. Post in HDB, and by Sir W. T. Thiselton Dyer, director of Kew Gardens, in EB.