Israel's Negev desert. Illustration by Alice Pattullo

Israel’s Negev desert and the desert iris

Hannah Gardner explores Israel’s Negev desert in search of the rare desert iris, Iris petrana , and is inspired by an exotic-looking, hardy bulb in the lily family Words Hannah Gardner, illustration Alice Pattullo

Desert is the dominant climate zone in Israel. The bedrock of the desert is mostly hard limestone and dolomite, the dry chalky soil starved of water for much of the year. In places vegetation is almost absent, but there are interesting plant populations of Mediterranean, Asian, Saharan and Sudanese origin. The sparse vegetation is mainly found in wadis (dry river beds) and crevices.

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Illustration of the Pelion penninsula
© Alice Pattullo

Rocks tumble down the slopes after rainfall, the run-off from the larger rocks creating extra pockets of moisture at their base. Desert survivors are mostly geophytes (those with underground storage organs) or annual plants with a speedy lifecycle.

Inspiration for the trip

I’m intrigued by the resilient nature of desert plants and the sophisticated adaptations that enable them to survive, and I wanted to venture into the vast Negev desert to pay homage to the sultry brown Iris petrana.

When to go

The desert blooms February to March after the spring rains.

Where to go

The only trees near the Dead Sea, in reality a vast salt lake, are Phoenix dactylifera, which produce plump, caramelly medjool dates. In the hills subshrubs congregate near the fallen wadi rocks and boisterous colourful annuals form a semi-transparent matrix between them. Fluffy Cenchrus ciliaris grows here and slender, lilac-flowered Erucaria hispanica, which can be foraged and eaten. There is papery, statice, blood-red poppy, Papaver umbonatum, Echium judaeum in cobalt blue and pink and lofty cream spikes of Reseda alba. My favourite is Linaria haelava – a wispy toadflax, each violet flower marked by a halo of yellow and white. The colours are intensified by the uniformity of the
sandy surroundings.

Xerophytic Anabasis articulata, a salt-tolerant member of the Amaranthaceae family, is an inconspicuous knobbly grey succulent until it bursts into flower and is smothered in exquisite translucent pink blooms that shimmer in the strong desert light. Small pollinating birds flit between caper-bushes and after some searching I found a lone Caudanthera sinaica, an uncommon perennial succulent with ghostly mottled stems. Adding weight to the ethereal haze of flowers were the waxy whorled leaves of autumn-flowering Drimia maritima, a tall geophyte once commonly used to mark the margins of pasture by Bedouins.

The green oasis of Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is in the warmest zone in Israel and a good place to see subtropical Sudanian trees that have survived deforestation. The iconic canopy of the umbrella thorn acacia (Vachellia tortilis) evokes the Savannah. The Ziziphus spina-christi tree grows in wadis or near springs, and is known as Christ’s thorn jujube as it’s believed to be the tree from which Christ’s crown of thorns was made.

Climbing out of the Jordan Valley towards Arad, I spotted a conspicuous stand of impressive, yellow flower spikes. Erupting through the rock-strewn crust of the desert, and standing 60cm tall, the holoparasitic Cistanche tubulosa towers over its host plant, the scrappy, white desert broom. The Broomrape is devoid of chlorophyll and obtains all its nutrients and water from parasitising. Later, I also located the smaller dark-burgundy Cistanche salsa.

The Negev desert covers over half Israel’s land area, it’s a kaleidoscopic lunar landscape. The small town of Yeruham at 600m is a good base for exploring the impressive erosion cirques or ‘craters’ and is close to the Yeruham Iris Nature Reserve, home to the endangered Iris petrana, a local endemic and the southernmost of Israel’s eight species of Oncocyclus iris. Army bases surround the reserve, but sandy paths intersect the hillside and the vegetation here rewards close observation, although the hundreds of wonderful, showy, dark iris are a little distracting. The fleecy perennial Salvia lanigera has adapted to life in the desert, covered in tiny hairs that conserve and capture moisture. Geophytic plants, lovers of sharp drainage and warm arid conditions, are scattered among tangled mounds of Echiochilon fruticosum, a pretty perennial herb in the borage family. The glamorous blue Siberian lily, Ixiolirion tataricum, and a curious hyacinth relative called Leopoldia longipes subsp. negevensis caught my eye.

Plants to grow at home

Fritillaria persica is an exotic-looking but hardy bulb in the lily family. Native to Israel and neighbouring countries, it grows on rocky slopes from 700-2,800m and is worth cultivating for its statuesque character (60-90cm) and remarkable, deep-purple flowers that bloom in April. Plant bulbs in the autumn into rich, free-draining soil. Choose a sunny, warm position, grouping bulbs together to achieve more impact, and stay alert to slugs. There are many wonderful recent introductions, F. persica ‘Bicolor’ has flowers in creamy lime and lilac-brown and F. persica ‘Ivory Bells’ has at least 30 flowers on each stem. It makes a seductive cut flower. In the wild they were growing on ungrazed steppe grassland in a military zone at 700m in the southern Judean Mountains. This deserted hillside harboured prolific colonies, the broad, glaucous foliage pronounced amid fine grass and tiny scrambling Lathyrus gorgoni, its flowers the same brick red as the terra rossa soil beneath my feet. A vicious squall brought hail, the dusky little flowers hanging face down from the inflorescence trembled violently but remained undamaged by the squall, making them a resilient contenders for a place in a spring garden.

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Guides and maps flora.org.il/en wildflowers.co.il/english

Where to stay

Desert Estate Carmey Avdat Midreshet Ben-Gurion, 84990, Israel. Tel 972 52 2705328, carmeyavdat.com
Attractive rustic chalets, outdoor bathing and homemade delicacies.

Desert Iris Hotel 108 Zvi Bornstein Street, Yeruham, 80500000, Israel. Tel 972 8 6300900, d-irus.co.il
Spacious, modern apartments with small gardens.