Stepping back in time brought Holy Land horticulture to light

A herb seller in Jerusalem.
A herb seller in Jerusalem.
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As visits with an element of horticulture in mind go, our most recent was slightly different.

Seeing how people cope with inhospitable growing conditions was an anticipated part of it, but the bonus was in savouring several thousand years of history and places whose names had been revered since childhood. The hectic eight-day tour of The Holy Land was more a step back in time and brilliant experience than a holiday.

A hibiscus hedge.

A hibiscus hedge.

You cannot miss the Israel label at any UK supermarket when browsing the fruit section and the likes of dates, olives, pomegranates, citrus, grapes need plenty of warmth to grow and ripen. However, it takes a little more than the 27 to 30 Celsius we experienced last week. An adequate water supply and fertile soil are the other ingredients required universally.

So how do the Israelis manage to produce an estimated 98 per cent of fruit and vegetables for their own consumption and still manage to export so much to Europe? I found the answer while visiting the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada, in the Judean Desert.

Flash floods are a common occurrence in that area, washing precious minerals down from the hills and depositing them onto the plain.

The soil is therefore moderately fertile to begin with, but the key factor is desalination, with over 50 plants in action throughout the country.

Kibbutz produce on sale.

Kibbutz produce on sale.

The source of water decides whether it is used in ‘beauty agriculture’ or ‘edible agriculture’. For example, sewage water is processed and used for beauty agriculture which means it keeps bedding plants, shrubs, roses, and hedges of plumbago and hibiscus growing in the towns and cities. Taps which supply it have a notice reminding everyone it is unfit to drink!

Water sourced from natural salt springs around the Tel-Aviv, Galilee and Dead Sea area, is desalinated and given to edible agriculture.

Apart from supplying fruit and vegetables with life-giving moisture, it can also be used to brush your teeth.

Alongside the main arterial route through the Judean desert, the surface of every cultivated field was covered with irrigation hose-pipes.

An olive tree at Gethsemane.

An olive tree at Gethsemane.

Date palm plants from two years to maturity existed on a similar system, as did pomegranate orchards. Both there and along the West Bank, were more poly-tunnels than I have ever seen – many thousands. No wonder our fruit and vegetables are sourced here!

The youthful dream of working on a Kibbutz may have faded decades ago but they are still very productive with stalls of quality produce along the roadsides and vineyards of the Golan Heights.

Their growing skills were demonstrated best in the old walled city of Jerusalem, with its narrow Roman roads and multi-cultural ethos – an elderly lady sitting on the street-side selling bunches of herbs.

At home, I cannot resist growing citrus fruits – orange, lemon, lime, calamondin and the like, which need frost protection through winter. It was therefore a treat to find so many mature trees thriving in this unbelievable country. Ancient Joppa or Jaffa as we now know it, is next to Tel-Aviv and still grows those tasty large oranges that ended up in our Christmas stockings of yore, but as our brilliant guide revealed, they’ve lost their world number one spot to Japan.

An orange tree full of fruit.

An orange tree full of fruit.

Another reason for this long-overdue visit was to see for ourselves the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane, neither of which disappointed. The former has more tall cypress trees on its slopes than olives, which are, though, quite numerous in the valley.

And who could fail but fall for the church and garden at Gethsemane!

A square-shaped area of about a quarter acre, surrounded by a low metal fence and closed gates with pathways inside, and the most gorgeous ancient olive trees you could wish to see, still fruiting.

Gnarled old specimens exist throughout Europe but this setting is different. It does not matter the garden has a traditional image, these trees were mere saplings when Jesus lived and that makes it special for Christians.

If short of a miracle, it is astounding how the people of Israel claimed large tracts of desert and swamp-ridden land from nature.

Eucalyptus, imported from Australia, has been one of the key trees used in this successful operation. It is especially appropriate for wet sites because of the huge amount of water it is capable of processing. Pine trees are the other most-noticed presence, alongside groups of tamarisk.

A plumbago hedge.

A plumbago hedge.

There is a national Jewish organisation which encourages the planting of trees in Israel. Apart from the role in reclaiming of land, they are viewed as a future timber source. The most recent national incentive is to plant biblical trees; figs, pomegranate, oak, acacia and olive.

Having grown potted banana trees indoors previously and to the fruiting stage, I was intrigued to see mature plantations without a single bunch of bananas. The reason is that they are now more interested in the broad leaves which are fashioned into dining table dishes, are organic and therefore ultimately disposable.

Did we sail on the Sea of Galilee, float in the Dead Sea and dip our toes in the River Jordan which is allegedly ‘chilly and cold’?

Certainly – all that and more, but what a rude awakening on return. Frost!