By Patrick Galey

BEIRUT: Think of Lebanese trees and there’s a good chance the mighty cedar will automatically spring to mind. Mentioned in the Bible, its wood has been used for centuries by some of the world’s greatest civilizations. There’s even one on the Lebanese flag.

But flora in Lebanon goes way beyond the cedar, a point Salma Talhouk wanted to make when she organized the “Plant a Heritage” tree auction, held in Beirut on Monday evening.

“We want to raise awareness about the fact that you should consider biodiversity when planting trees,” Talhouk told The Daily Star at the event, held on behalf of the American University of Beirut’s Ibsar program. “People tend to feel comfortable with trees that they know but there are hundreds of trees and shrubs that they don’t really think about.”

On the auction table Monday were 30 varieties of trees, from pistachio bushes to laurel, sumac trees to evergreen firs.

“This is a fundraising event and the focus is to say how many different types of trees there are to be planted,” said Talhouk. “There’s also the fact that cedars are more expensive than pines. Nature doesn’t have this priority.”

With some tree lots expected to fetch upward of 1 million Lebanese liras ($670), Ibsar hopes Monday’s proceeds will help add to the 15,000 native trees it planted in Lebanon over the past two years.

Talhouk explained the rationale behind Ibsar’s “Power of Planting” program. “The purpose is not reforestation; we just want people to be exposed to these trees in public areas.”

“We think that tree planting should not only be the job of the government; every village and every community should have its own tree-planting activity. The actual planting is what people talk the most about but this is the smallest component of the process.”

Ibsar has performed biodiversity awareness activities including readings and workshops to more than 1,500 children in the last few years. Talhouk is seeking to organize a tree-planting festival at the end of 2010, with the aim of getting communities committed to maintaining local plant life.

“We are encouraging communities to decide if they want trees in their area or not, they’re going to be the ones looking after them,” she said.

“We want [communities] to be the beneficiaries of this activity. Whenever there is a tree-planting, the government or NGOs get the financial and even emotional support and communities are not even mentioned.”

Talhouk hopes the establishment of regional micro-nurseries will help encourage Lebanon’s green-fingered to get busy once more. “You cannot just think of green Lebanon, you need a green and diverse Lebanon,” she said.