Eretz Israel was blessed with some 70 species of trees, most of which grow in the cooler and rainy Mediterranean region. Some of them, such as the oak species and the Aleppo (Jerusalem) pine make up the majority of Israel’s forests and groves. Most of these tree species are evergreens, thus the groves remain green year-round. The most common species are the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos) and the Jerusalem pine (which is mostly planted). Noteworthy among the deciduous species that lose their leaves in the autumn is the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis), which is the sturdiest of the oaks and has the most impressive treetop.
Most of the wild trees in both the forests and cities of Israel are pollinated by the wind and have small, modest blossoms. The Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), with its magnificent cloak of blossoms, is the most prominent among the species that are pollinated by insects, followed by the Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne), known for its blossoms as well as its red trunk. These colorful species are always a minority and are never the main component of a plant composition.
In the past, forests covered larger portions of the Earth, but these areas have shrunk due to human activity: tree-clearing, fire and grazing. Over the course of history, the botanical composition of tree habitats in Eretz Israel has changed and in many cases it is unclear what the ancient forests looked like prior to human settlement.
Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne)
It is said that the blossoms of this species allegedly kill off the fruit, which is the previous generation. Closer examination of these trees in nature shows that the fruit remains on the plant and nearly overlaps with the blossoms, as if the latter causes them to drop.
The red fruit appears in the autumn. Before it ripens, the fruit is hard and contains tannins that prevent premature disperasal by birds. The ripened fruit is soft and sweet with a high pectin content, making it is especially suited for making jam. Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)
This is the only wild tree in Israel that blooms solely in pink in the springtime. Its blossoms are particularly prominent because they appear before the leaves, and not only on the branches but on the trunk as well. A hint of blossoms sometimes appears in the autumn and at the height of winter after a few consecutive warm days. This temporary increase in temperature is sufficient to cause a slight blossoming, but the subsequent return of the cold prevents continued development and these blossoms do not ripen into fruit. The appearance of blossoms on the tree trunk is characteristic of species in tropical regions, attesting to the Judas tree’s ancient origins, as today it grows only in the Northern Hemisphere. Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis)
Oaks are the largest and most prominent trees in the Israeli landscape. They play a key role in the botanical character of plant associations in northern Israel. The Mount Tabor oak is especially large and it is probably the species referred to by the prophet Amos: "Whose stature was like the cedar’s and who was stout as the oak, destroying his boughs above and his trunk below". (Amos 2:9) This oak species is deciduous and characteristically grows both in valleys and on hills.
Large, sturdy oaks serve to this day as places for Muslim religious rites and burials – pilgrimages are made to these sacred trees and they are not to be harmed. The Mount Tabor oak is among the most exalted of the oaks. Its acorns are the largest and tastiest of all the oak species found in Israel. The acorns are dry roasted before being eaten and considered to be comparable to chestnuts. They played an especially significant role during years of famine and violent unrest.
Prof. Amots Dafni