Palestine Terebinth – Pistacia terebinthus subsp. palaestina

02 Nov

Autumn is here, and we are looking for fall colors. The most significant local tree with fall colors is the Pistacia terebinthus subsp. Palaestina, also called the Palestine Terebinth.

The Palestine Terebinth is a short tree or shrub, that grows 2-10 m’ tall. It sheds its leaves in the winter, but before that, during November and December, the leaves change their colors from green to flaming shades of red and orange. The leaf is pinnate, it is made of 4-6 pairs of leaflets with a pointy end, and one additional leaflet at the end of the leaf. They sprout in early spring, and when they are young – they are red. Later they get the green color, and come autumn – they turn red again before being shed.

The Terebinth blooms in March-April. The inflorescences are dense racemes of tiny red flowers. That means that the Terebinth contributes red color to the chaparral and the garden several times a year. The Palestine Terebinth is an important component of the Palestine Oak-Terebinth association, which is also named after it.

The Terebinth is a dioecious tree, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The male trees have inflorescences of staminate flowers, while the female trees have pistillate flowers that develop to fruits. If we look at a fruit-baring branch, we can see that the fruits can be blue or red. The blue fruit are fertile, and contain a seed inside them. The red fruit are infertile. The birds that eat the fruit, although drawn to the red color that is used to advertise the tree, identify the blue fruit and eat only them, and later disperse the seeds.

The Terebinth usually grows as a big shrub, with multiple trunks. Yet in places where it was nurtured, mainly near sacred tombs – it can grow as an impressive tree, up to 10 m tall.

One of the Terebinth’s noticeable features are its galls – on the tree we can see banana-shaped pods, hangin from the branches. They are caused by aphids called Baizongia pistaciae. The aphid hurts the tree’s growing point, making it grow a gall rather than a leaf. Inside the gall new aphids develop safely, until they can come out.

The Terebinth is mentioned in the Bible several times as a holy tree and a place for sacrifice. David fought Goliath in the valley of the Terebinth (Shmuel 1, 17 19), sacrifices are being done under Terebinth trees (Hoshea, 4 13) and God’s angel shows himself to Gideon under the Terebinth tree (Judges, 6 11). The identification of today’s Terebinth with the biblical Terebinth is certain.

The Palestine Terebinth – originally Pistacia palaestina is very close to the Mediterranean Terebinth – Pistacia terebinthus, that grows from Turkey westward. The only visible difference between the two is the fact that in the Palestine Terebinth the leaflets are pointy, while in the Mediterranean Terebinth they are rounded. A Genetic study showed that these are almost identical species, so they were united formally, and today the Palestine Terebinth is considered a subspecies of the Pistacia terebinthus.

In the Botanical garden now is the time to enjoy the Terebinths’ fall colors – it grows in several location in the Mediterranean section. You are welcome to visit and enjoy the colors! While you’re in the garden, don’t forget to look for the Pistacia atlantica in the Asia section – this tree also has beautiful fall colors.

Author: Yael Orgad, November 2018
Photography: Ori Fragman-Sapir, Erella Harry and Yael Orgad