Israel’s Flower Power
Wed, 02/27/2008
Israel Correspondent

The nugget of philosophy emerged on a walk in a verdant field below the hills of the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Tivon. It was just a few weeks before Israel’s 50th birthday and I asked a friend, an Israeli commando veteran and a prize-winning military engineer, what Zionism meant to him.

“What is Zionism? This is Zionism,” he said pointing to the lanes of blooming wildflowers, and dozens of others catching the late winter-early spring spectacle.

But you don’t have to be a Land of Israel nature buff to appreciate Israel’s February carnival of wildflowers. In the same way New England autumn leaves draws tourists from all over the world, soon after the beginning of the year Israelis become obsessed with the flowers in bloom throughout most of the country.

While the landscapes Americans associate with winter are frost-covered and bare trees, in Israel, winter rains turn the parched landscape into an emerald green — the prelude to the beginning of the wildflower bloom.

Then, beginning at the end of January, Israel’s hundreds of species of flora emerge in a spectacular display — drawing Israelis off their couches and into their cars to make pilgrimage to the hillsides, nature reserves and forests where the flowers can be found.

It is a fleeting opportunity because, within a few weeks, the flowers shrivel and sag. By May the land is turning the burnt summer brown.

So depending on the weekend during the wildflower season, a hillside near the Carmel Mountains known as “Givat Harakafot” gushes with wing-tipped cyclamen and creates an impromptu snarl of cars. Motorists make their way to the Jerusalem hills for flowering almond trees. Armies of families climb to the summit of “Givat Haturmusim” in the Eyla Valley to see the lamp-shaped top of the blue lupines.

But wildflower tourists from abroad should be warned. Wildflower picking has been prohibited for the last 40 years in order to protect flora from extinction. It’s a ban that is generally respected by the public.

One of the most breathtaking wildflower displays in the country occurs in the northwestern edge of the Negev desert, where the landscape is touched up with bold brushstrokes of fire-truck-red anemone — or kalaniyot —patches that turn the grassy expanses in the region into enchanted fields.

The display is called the “Red South” festival, which combines kids’ activities, shopping and restaurants with the flower walking. Less than an hour outside of Tel Aviv, red banners line the highway where kalaniyot fields can be found.

But because of the proximity of northwestern Negev to the Gaza Strip, “Red South” has taken on an ironic dual meaning. In a region targeted by missiles from the Gaza Strip, the color red is most commonly associated with the “Color Red” attack warnings of Kassam rocket fire and the struggle of Sderot residents for more government support.

“We thought that the flags were there to raise awareness about the ‘Color Red’ missile alarms,” said Atara Sonn, who wandered around a field just beyond the road junction near the Karni commercial crossing with Gaza. “Only after we realized it was connected to the wildflower blossom. It’s an unbelievable sight.”

A few miles to the south, the Be’eri forest draws thousands of visitors who bring barbeque grills, accordions, water jugs and gas burners for coffee brewing before setting out to traipse among the wildflowers. Children and significant others wade into the flower patches to pose for pictures.

The trick is to schedule a visit during windows of bloom time that last only a few weeks. As little as two weeks before the current anemone bloom, there was no sign of the flowers.  A Hebrew University-hosted Web site, http://rotem.huji.ac.il/floweringReports.htm, provides wildflower updates for Hebrew readers.

“This is the season of the Negev,” said Doron Salomon, a tour guide from Kibbutz Kfar Azza, a border farming collective just north of the Be’eri forest. Though most believe the current winter’s rainfall determines the flowers, he says the breadth of the flowers depends on the rainfall from last year. “Nature is strange that way,” he says.

Salomon said the Be’eri Forest is relatively safe because it’s not the focus of the Kassam attacks, which usually are aimed a civilian targets. But for many Israelis who are less familiar with the region around Gaza, there’s a fear factor.

“I didn’t come with a full heart,” admitted Ra’anan Cohen, a 50-year-old software engineer who added that he checked other kalaniyot locations. But ultimately the six families who he came with convinced him to come to the Be’eri forest. “It always sounds scarier than when you are there.”

With mostly eucalyptus and willow trees spread out, the forest has a surreal, fantasy-like air about it even without the wildflowers. The western edge of the forest is bounded by Israeli agricultural fields, which abut the border fence. But, in the middle of the week this month there was no firing and an eerie silence hung about the idyllic forest.

“When they say the missiles fall into open fields on the news, this is a place they could mean, but the media blows it [out of proportion],” said Moshe Nankin, who was traveling with Cohen on the family trip. “But I don’t come here for Zionism or solidarity against the Kassam fire. I come just for the flowers.”