Age-old agricultural techniques in the West Bank help conserve rare plants that might otherwise have perished, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
A new survey shows that farmers following traditional practices in the south Hebron Hills have sustained a large number of rare plants. According to plant researcher Yair Or, the fieldwork turned up several species “that had been found decades ago in the Jerusalem area and since then had not been found and were considered extinct.”
Traditional Palestinian farming is practiced throughout much of the test area. Therefore, researchers determined it has played an invaluable role in the survival of rare plants.
Unfortunately, not all agricultural practices are so helpful. The hills around Ein Gedi were covered with at least ten species of trees and shrubs until 60 years ago, when land development in Israel intensified. Those species had specifically adapted to Ein Gedi’s dry microclimate.
Groundwater pumping by Kibbutz Ein Gedi and land clearing by several farms eventually wiped out the native plants. Now the Authority is rehabilitating Ein Gedi. Park staff planted the first set of new flora about four years ago.
Rangers created intricate plans for seeding, germinating and caring for the fledgling trees and shrubs, according to the Authority. After successfully developing a nursery with several hundred plants, ecologists planted experimental plots. This process helped them learn to properly water and prune the trees and shrubs.
And the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has worked diligently to preserve rare plants elsewhere in Israel. In the Beit Netufa Valley – considered a flora hotspot – there are more than 60 species of unique plants, several of which are in danger of extinction.
A rare type of yellow-petal iris called Grant- Duff’s Iris is among them. It densely populates the valley but is not adequately bearing fruit. Hypothesizing that artificial agricultural growth is inhibiting insects from pollinating the irises, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority initiated a breeding program for the flowers.
The rare purple iris, Iris atropurpurea, from Israel
So why has agriculture in the Hebron Hills actually helped rare plants, in contrast to the deleterious effects of agriculture in Beit Netufa and Ein Gedi?
Traditional Palestinian agriculture utilizes low impact farming methods, such as harvesting by hand, avoidance or limited use of pesticides and fertilizers, and shallow plowing. Several of the rare species that flourish in the area are annuals that grow amidst the cultivated crops. They share a similar life cycle.
Additionally, these traditional practices promote rainwater percolation and soil aeration. Several rare plants, particularly those with bulbs or corms, favor such conditions. And the microclimate of the southern Hebron Hills is also partially responsible for the rare plant boon.
The findings in the Hebron area add credence to the beliefs of organic agriculture proponents. Low-impact agriculture has been proven to conserve water, reduce pollution, and minimize exposure to crop disease. Now those proponents can add another reason to their list – preservation of rare plants.
Professor Zev Naveh, an ecologist at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, notes that “the farmers of the Mediterranean area did not neglect and deplete the soils, but rather knew in different periods how to preserve them and to exploit their biological variety correctly.”
Ironically, it was originally human activity, including agriculture, that created the diversity of flora and fauna currently found in the Mediterranean Basin.
How wonderful to know that our agricultural practices need not be at odds with nature. Turns out it isn’t necessary to wrestle the very lifeblood from the land to earn our daily bread. Perhaps we have something to learn from the keepers of traditional farming in the south Hebron Hills, and from the generations of agriculturalists before them.