Twenty years ago, when we were young and hard-working students, we enjoyed Sukkot and Passover vacations in Sinai. We would go hiking for ten days in the high mountains of South Sinai and then relax on the beach – a perfect vacation, so far from today’s reality.
In the high mountains of South Sinai, amongst the rocks and near the springs, we encountered a special tree. At first sight, it looked like the common fig tree, but its trunk was whiter and its leaves were smaller, rigid, and mostly unlobed. In autumn we found small, dark, fig-like fruit on the trees. Their taste went from sweet to pungent, a surprising culinary desert boon. The tree was Ficus palmata, a close relative of the common fig (Ficus carica).
Until the early 1980s, a single tree was known in Israel in the Eilat Mountains, near the Egyptian border. It has since dried up and died, but remnants of this tree are kept as dried branches catalogued in the Hebrew University Herbarium. In 2010, when writing the “The Red Data Book: Endangered Plants of Israel” (Shmida, Pollak and Fragman-Sapir, 2011), we wrote that, to our regret, the tree was extinct in Israel. Happily, prior to publishing the book, another tree was discovered by Moti Shem-Tov and Dudi Rivner in Wadi Etek in the Eilat Mountains. The species’ status was changed. Later that year, yet another tree was found in that region, at an IDF base near the Egyptian border.
Ficus palmata is distributed from Egypt to Central Asia and is typical to the cold desert mountains of this area. In our region, large populations occur in the southern Sinai Mountains and in Edom in southern Jordan. The Eilat Mountains in Israel are located at the edge of the species’ distribution, and that is why the tree is scarce in our country.
We at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG) felt that the two trees living in Israel were in danger, especially considering the decrease in rainfall in the far south over the past 20 years, and we decided to act on their behalf by propagating them. Ficus trees in general, including this species, are very easy to propagate from cuttings. In 2010, approval was given to take cuttings from the two protected trees. Those cuttings were brought by Dr. Benny Shalmon, Ecologist of the Nature & Parks Authority, to Elaine Solowey, who works in preservation and propagation of plants in Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. After a year, Elaine had succeeded in rooting dozens of cuttings, some of which were brought to the JBG. These plants were added to the Jordanian and Egyptian plants already growing at the Gardens. In 2012 the trees gave fruit.
At the end of February 2014, the Gardens’ staff set out for Jordan to record and collect Ficus palmata. Our first stop was at Wadi Rum, a strikingly beautiful area of sandstone mountains surrounded by sand dunes. The fig trees grow there near trickling springs in the mountains, and during that season they seemed like bright white skeletons against the backdrop of the reddish mountains.
Eli Becker, our Head Gardener, and Ryan Guillou, Nursery Manager at the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan and a former scholar at the JBG, clambered over the rocks and collected cuttings from the trees. Our second stop was both surprising and exciting. Prior to our departure, I had checked the F. Palmata collections at the Hebrew University’s Herbarium and found a 1936 collection from Naqb, 22 km north of the village of Al-Quwahrah. As we drove on the Naqb Road from Wadi Rum, northward towards Petra, the wild figs caught our eye. We stopped, and Hatem Taifour, Head Botanist of the Royal Botanic Garden, said we were 22 km north of Al-Quwahrah. Thus we documented the historical 1936 collection by Michael Zohari and Naomi Feinbrun again. Sadly, a sandstone quarry was dug at this site in 2017. Later on we took samples in Petra, where F. palmata more closely resembles F. carica (Do they hybridize?). In total we collected cuttings from 30 F. palmata trees.
Here at the JBG, we propagate the trees originating in Israel. Each winter, after the trees shed their leaves, we take cuttings to produce more plants. We then distribute the plants to other botanical gardens and endangered species refuges. This preservation work is termed ‘ex-situ’, meaning outside of the species’ natural habitat. In the future, we will be able to restore the plants to their original sites (plant population restoration) or establish them in new sites, as well as continuing to preserve them in cultivation. Simply put, we are making backups for the single plants growing in nature.
You are welcome to come see mature Ficus palmata trees at the JBG along the main path of the Asia section, and younger plants in buckets on the path near the Gardens’ nursery. We grow them as part of the “Adopt a Plant” project, comprising more than 300 endangered Israeli species. Funding for the project is thanks to private people and companies. If you would like to help us in the preservation of rare plants, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Ori Fragman-Sapir, August 2017
Translated by: Shira Carmeli & Kady Wilson