What’s with all these trees?
One of the first things you’ll see when you come to Israel is that there are trees everywhere. Gradually, it may dawn on you that many seem to be the same kind of tree – the shaggy dog of Israeli horticulture, the eucalyptus tree. And like the iconic sabra cactus, these trees, too, are originally strangers here: imported foreigners, imposters making themselves at home on the desert landscape.
Their Hebrew name is אקליפטוס/ekalyptus. I think in Latin they’re eucalyptus camaldulensis, or Red River Gum, but I could be wrong, because there are something like 800 kinds of eucalyptus out there. These are not the round-leaved, fragrant trees of Australian legend, although they were originally an Australian import, planted by JNF a century ago for a country which desperately needed trees.
Our eucalyptus have long, pointy leaves. The trees hang out everywhere in scraggly bunches, gangly and overgrown: outside of train stations, in parks, gardens, neglected lots. Their bark is scruffy, sloughy, slipping off here and there in patches that make the trees look nothing if not mangy. And they’ll thrive just about anywhere, which is why they are here in the first place.
Over the last century or so since it first arrived, the eucalyptus has become an iconic foreigner here - so much so that one of the best-known Israeli folksongs, written by the First Lady of Israeli song Naomi Shemer, is called "The Eucalyptus Grove" (clip here).
For Israelis, the eucalyptus has come to represent permanence and homecoming after millennia of exile. As the folksong’s chorus goes,
Yet the Banks beside the Jordan,
it’s like nothing has changed,
You’ll find the same old silence:
the scenery’s still the same:
The grove of Eucalyptus,
the bridge and the old barge,
And scent of salty air upon the water. (lyrics link)
Israel was greened by Europeans and Americans with a range of non-indigenous flora, often to great environmental harm (many fires have been caused or worsened by non-native pine trees, for instance; pine is ridiculously flammable for a desert country!).
Few people these days look at the problem the eucalyptus was brought here to solve: swamps, malaria, death; turning a hostile land which devoured its inhabitants into a green and lush living space for millions of her long-lost exiles. What’s not to love about that?
And you want to know something else cool about eucalyptus? Read whatever you want into it, but according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the tree “emits substances that inhibit the growth of plant species in its vicinity.” This tree, it seems, is desperate to survive, wherever it’s planted, and aggressive enough to make sure it does.
Elsewhere, like in California, the eucalyptus has been denounced for monopolizing space and resources that would be better allocated to a variety of indigenous species. These days, we’re much more aware of such things than people were 100 years ago.
Often, these days, it seems like other species aren’t just considered; they actually sometimes come first, before human considerations. Because that’s what political correctness does; steps aside, puts us last for a change.
Just as with everything else in this land, however, there aren’t always easy answers.
The government and NGOs are working on replacing invasive plant species in some cases or encouraging planting of native species. We’re lucky because we have good Biblical records of which plants were here thousands of years ago, like these acacia trees.
So that is, of course, the right thing to do. It is to be applauded.
But I was oddly cheered to find that when the Parks and Nature Authority tried to cut down a bunch of eucalyptus in a nature reserve, a whole bunch of beekeepers made a whole bunch of noise about it. It seems that a single eucalyptus can feed an entire hive of bees. Pretty awesome. The guys with the axes grudgingly ceased the destruction “for the sake of completing the inter-agency coordination” (full article).
It may not be politically correct. It may not even be aesthetically correct, as these are some of the ugliest trees I’ve ever seen. But just as the sabra cactus has become the symbol for Israeli toughness and resilience, there’s nonetheless something to admire about these transplanted ekalyptus which have stubbornly made Israel their home.
Here’s the full song – a little shrill, but well worth listening through once.