February through June is the ideal time to see wildflowers in Israel, which differs from the summer profusion we’re used to in England or North America. With summer temperatures reaching forty degrees Celsius in some places, Israeli plants struggle to sustain growth due to transpiration losses. While some desert evergreens have morphological adaptations to cope, lots of annuals, perennials and geophytes either seed or go dormant during the summer months of July-September.
A nature walk on the 11th of February with Shemer, Kady and Abby showed how much plant growth has progressed after the rain. Recently we have had some amazing deluges and the landscape has transformed from a desolate dust bowl to a vivid green carpet of fresh life.
Our destination this time was Sataf Forest, a woodland near Jerusalem that’s ideal for an afternoon trip. The main purpose was to see the Amygdalus communis (Almond) flowers. A. communis has been cultivated for so long it’s actually impossible for botanists to trace a true wild form. In Israel the plants display a genetic diversity suggestive of a wild species, but technically none of them are.
In the Sataf area terraces have been planted with A. communis. The terraces are from traditional Palestinian agriculture and are now abandoned. Walking through these places causes mixed emotions, joy at the surrounding beauty but also sadness for all those displaced throughout a checkered history of conflict.
The woodland of mixed Pinus and A. communis is dramatic. The flower colouring of A. communis varies from white to, albeit rarely, a rather bright pink. As the unfertilised flowers begin to drop to the floor they create an amazing carpet of colour.
Beneath the pines we found a population of Ophrys fusca. The bee orchid is found commonly in Portugal, Southern France and Italy, though its range extends into Asia and North Africa. As one of the first Orchids to flower, they stand out well in the mostly dormant woodland understory. Being the first wild Orchid I’ve seen in Israel made this O. fusca pretty special!
On our walks, there are certain plants that are noticeably common, but this does not necessarily diminish their beauty. One worth mentioning is Senecio vernalis. A 15cm tall annual in the Asteraceae family, S. vernalis has erect, branched stems with finely dissected lanceolate foliage. Its yellow blooms glow intensely in the spring sun, lighting up the areas it carpets so frequently. I expect like most vigorous wild Senecios, S. vernalis is regarded as a weed by locals (a bit like Anthriscus sylvestris in England).
A common genus of geophyte here in Israel is Bellavalia, especially Bellavalia flexuosa. Large populations occur in the “Valley of The Cross,” a parkland area just down the road from our flat. On our walk we saw this species again, plants dotted most of the areas we walked through. The flowers are particularly beautiful, with their well defined black anthers highlighted by the white petals. Sometimes the inflorescence has vivid purple pedicels too.