During my visit to Israel and the West Bank, I rambled through the Hebrew University Botanical Garden to get a better sense for local plant diversity. In addition to the many species that were unfamiliar to me, I saw some old friends with countenances adapted to local climes.
What form does an oak tree take in a seasonally dry climate with many leaf-munching herbivores? Both of the oaks that I encountered offered the same answer: a thick, water-holding leaf with prickly edges. These oaks have become holly-like. I was reminded of the holly trees growing under the dry overhangs of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Tough plants that can take months of drought.
The same thick-leaved, spiny leaf form was also true for ash:
But plants of moister habitats looked remarkable similar to their North American cousins. If you live in the south-eastern U.S., this might look familiar:
Here’s an entirely different kind of plant, one truly adapted to the dry. It comes with some strangely intertwined cultural stories. These photographs are from the northern part of the West Bank.
The plant is a prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, and is often planted as a boundary around fields, a living barbed-wire fence. Its fruit, once dethorned, is a delicacy. For Palestinians, the plant is a symbol of bitter tenacity under hardship. It appears in poems, posters, and cartoons. The cactus’ name is subbar, closely related to (and sometimes used interchangeably with) sabr, patient enduring. Israelis use the cactus for an entirely different symbol. A “sabra” is a Jew born in Israel or in the territories that Israel occupies. Thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside, like cactus fruit, sabra is used as a term of pride, affection, and connection to the land.
There is a biogeographic irony here. The plant itself is native to Mexico and was imported to the region. So these conflicting symbols derive from a plant that is rooted elsewhere. It might not be stretching the point too much to say that the same is true of some of the conflict in the region. Few other places in the world are as affected by the actions of other countries and by ideas imported from abroad.
The botanical garden itself has felt these foreign influences and conflicts. When the British still controlled the land, immigrant Jews who were part of the European Zionist movement established the garden and Hebrew University. Then the garden become part of the new Israel in 1948, but was entirely surrounded by land occupied by Jordan. Israel took over this land in 1967 during the six-day war. A Hamas bombing a dozen years ago brought suicide terrorism to the heart of the University. And the tension about the fate of eastern Jerusalem still draws the attentions, helpful and otherwise, of governments from across the world. An overseas cactus naturalized and rooted in Middle Eastern soil is therefore perhaps an apt metaphor.