Researchers have found a treasure trove of rare plant species thriving in the Hebron area. Chalk it up to traditional farming methods.
By Zafrir Rinat

When a farmer plows and sows the land, he ostensibly changes the order of nature. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. A new survey shows that the agricultural practices followed for centuries around Palestinian villages in the southern Hebron Hills have managed to sustain a rich variety of rare plants. Without this agriculture it is not certain these species would have survived.

The survey, conducted over the last few years by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority in cooperation with plant researchers Oz Golan and Yair Or, examined the variety of wild plant species from the area of the Maon Ridge in the north to Mount Amsha Nature Reserve in the south. The findings were presented during this week’s Nature and Heritage Preservation Week, organized by the Nature and Parks Authority. This year, the meetings focused on plants at risk of extinction.

The area of the Hebron Hills constitutes the southern and eastern border of Mediterranean vegetation in Israel. As one goes further east and south, the vegetation changes and becomes characteristic of Irano-Turanian flora (typical of areas of North Africa and Asia ) and even desert flora. The survey found 54 rare species in the area, more than half of them in fields cultivated by farmers. The rest were found in areas of scrubland, characterized by low and thorny shrubs.

“During the survey fieldwork a number of species were found that had been found decades ago in the Jerusalem area and since then had not been found and were considered extinct,” notes Or in his written summary of the survey. Other species that had been considered rare were found at a number of locations in this area in the thousands, noted Or.

These rare species include Boissiera squarrosa, a type of grass, and Chorispora purpurascens, from the mustard family. One of the most important discoveries was of the plant from the bellflower family, Legousia hybrida, or zaharat al jeras, as it is known in Arabic. It was discovered in the past only at a few sites in the Galilee. One of these sites was near an olive grove and cultivated fields. At the start of the survey in the Hebron area large populations of this plant were found in the area of the Maon Ridge, one of the focal points of the survey. Hundreds of samples of this plant were found there, all of them on traditional agricultural lands. In that same area the researchers also discovered specimens of Resesda globulosa, a mignonette that is found at only a few sites in Israel. The Nature and Parks Authority “Red Book,” which documents plant species in danger of extinction, notes that changes from traditional to more modern agricultural practices will destroy the habitat of this plant.

In extensive parts of the area where the survey was conducted, traditional Palestinian agriculture is practiced. This is based on harvesting by hand, shallow plowing and limited use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Many of the rare species are annuals that accompany the sown fields. The life cycle of these plants is identical to the cycle of agricultural cultivation. The methods of cultivation enable percolation and collection of rainwater in the soil and create aeration conditions suited to plants with bulbs or corms that account for some of the rare plants. The unique climatic conditions of the southern Hebron Hills also encouraged the development of so many rare plants.

The findings in the Hebron area confirm the conclusions of leading ecologists, among them the late Prof. Zev Naveh of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology – one of the first scientists to have researched in depth the history of the development of the Mediterranean landscape. In his studies he noted that paradoxically it is human activity that created variety in the environmental conditions and transformed the Mediterranean basin into an area especially rich in flora and fauna. “The farmers of the Mediterranean area did not neglect and deplete the soils,” wrote Naveh, “but rather knew in different periods how to preserve them and to exploit their biological variety correctly.”