Israel has a total of about 129 species defined as having an especially close relationship to cultivated species, and the number rises to 300 species if the count includes a somewhat more distant relationship

Israelis enjoying nature in one of the parks under the authority of Parks and Nature Authority
Israelis enjoying nature in one of the parks under the authority of Parks and Nature AuthorityCredit: rami shllush

Zafrir Rinat Mar. 10, 2021

Israel is an important global center of wild plants that are relatives of crop plants – plants that were developed by farmers for generations – and we should take steps to protect their natural habitats. Those are the findings of a first-of-its-kind survey conducted for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and published last month.

Wild plants are the ancestors of most of our types of food and a large percentage of ornamental and medicinal plants. The authority recently began cooperating with researchers and academic institutions in an initiative to preserve the areas where these plants are found. The possibility of mapping a particularly important area and granting it the status of a World Heritage site is being examined.

Israel has a total of about 129 species defined as having an especially close relationship to cultivated species, and the number rises to 300 species if we include a somewhat more distant relationship. The regions with a potentially high concentration of these species are the Upper Galilee, the Carmel and Ramat Menashe, the strip between the Judean Plain, the Judean Hills and the desert, and the high Har Hanegev.

In recent years the Nature and Parks Authority has realized that nature preservation must include species of wild plants that are ancestors of cultivated plants. Aside from the cultural-agricultural heritage, this is an important contribution to the preservation of a genetic variety that could help cultivated plants withstand diseases or climate changes.

The survey also compared the variety of species in other countries to that in Israel. Databases indicate that Israel is in the first quarter worldwide in density of plant ancestors per area unit, and is also rich in the number of species with priority for preservation due to their importance. Today only Turkey and Mexico are also taking similar steps to define regions rich in ancestors as Unesco World Heritage sites. But Israel will have to renegotiate its status in Unesco, which it left several years ago, in order to advance the move.

The survey was conducted by ecologist Dr. Didi Kaplan together with the staff of the Nature and Parks Authority and based on consultation with several plant experts. The main objective was to examine the known and potential distribution in additional areas of species with a very close relationship to cultivated plants. These are species that can be crossbred with cultivated species to create a fertile second generation.

For that purpose the survey analyzed observations made over the years as well as regions where there should be plant species. These species were divided into several groups including relatives of wheat, grains, legumes, edible plants (spices, medicinal and vegetables) and ornamental plants.

The list of species in the survey indicates a close relationship of wild species and the food we eat today. There are wild species like the common beet and a type of cabbage (brassica cretica) that are relatives of the present-day vegetables, and Cynara syriaca, a relative of the artichoke. The flagship species is wild wheat, discovered by agronomist and botanist Aaron Aaronsohn near Safed in 1906. According to researchers, until that discovery, the main source of mankind’s bread was still a mystery. Kaplan says that the wild wheat still grows where Aaronson found it.

“Israel and the Fertile Crescent are one of the world’s most important centers for plant cultivation,” says Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir, director of the Hebrew University botanical gardens. “In this region they cultivated important food plants such as wheat, barley, peas and carrots, but also ornamental plants such as the narcissus and the hyancinth, and spice and medicinal plants such as triangular sage, white-leaved savory and common hyssop.”

He says that the reason for the wealth of species is that Israel is at the center of an encounter between continental regions and different climates. “The varied conditions in Israel also contribute to the large variety of plants,” he added. “Calcereous hills, valleys, sandy areas, the basaltic Golan Heights and a varied topographical altitude. And there’s also the ancient human history in our corner of the world.”

The Nature and Parks Authority has already used existing knowledge to try to promote preservation of some of the areas where the ancestors of cultivated plants are found. It noted their location in suggestions for preserving areas that it submitted to the Planning and Building Authority as part of the 2040 strategic plan being promoted by the government, which includes attention to housing needs as well as the preservation of open spaces. “This is another means of guaranteeing the protection of nature,” says Dotan Rotem, a landscape ecologist in the Nature and Parks Authority. We’ll also use these plants to suggest declaring additional areas as nature reserves in order to protect them.”