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Keeping Jerusalem Green

January 11, 2022

by: Janet Aslin, BFP Staff Writer

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He who plants a tree, plants hope.” Lucy Larcom

The overpowering, overwhelming “green” of Alaska never fails to catch me by surprise whenever I return for a visit in the summer. It always takes a day or two before my eyes adjust from the subtle, understated “green” of Jerusalem. The fact that Jerusalem is green at all is a tribute to Jewish tenacity.

When the first olim (immigrants to Israel) began returning in the late 1800s, they found a very barren land. From those early days, reforestation was a priority, and roughly 4.5 million trees were planted in the Land between 1901 and 1948. These efforts continued after statehood, making Israel one of the only countries in the world to begin the 21st century with an increase in trees over the previous century.

Jerusalem city center

Beautiful, Green Jerusalem

Let’s narrow the view a bit and let me tell you about the “green” in Jerusalem, the city I have come to love with all my heart. Situated on a plateau in the Judean Mountains with an elevation of approximately 2,600 feet (792 m.), the city’s arid climate combined with its lack of a natural water supply dictates the type of trees that will thrive.

Some of Jerusalem’s trees are showy, like the pink crape myrtle with its abundant blossoms that range in color from white to pink and even purple, while others are practical, like the olive or pomegranate trees. Cypress, pine, eucalyptus, nettle, juniper and poplar are among

the other trees commonly planted in Jerusalem.

I wasn’t able to determine just how many trees there are in Jerusalem, but judging from the many neighborhood parks and trees lining the capital’s streets, there must be hundreds of thousands of them. Several years ago, a Jerusalem tree survey was undertaken. Their website documents nearly 5,000 of the city’s unique trees, some 600 of which are over 80 years old. Think of the stories of Israel’s modern statehood those trees could tell!

Planting and maintaining the trees that make Jerusalem “green” is the responsibility of the municipality’s City Improvement Department, specifically the Horticulture Branch. This dedicated staff of over 100 cares for parks and playgrounds as well as beautifies the city’s streets and public areas.

A Year of Rest

However, we are not in a normal year for the staff of the city’s Horticultural Branch. September 7, 2021, marked the start of a shmitah, or sabbatical year for the Land, which will continue until September 26, 2022. According to the instructions given in Exodus 23:10–11, every seventh year the land was to lie fallow. In addition to agricultural products, the vine and olive tree were included in the year of rest.

Last summer, in anticipation of this year of rest, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion authorized a special project designed to plant “a lot of trees around Jerusalem before Rosh HaShanah [Jewish New Year],” according to the Jerusalem Post. Nearly 4,000 trees were planted during a three-month period. Some locations had been barren for years.

And it isn’t just Jerusalem that is affected by the moratorium on tree planting. Tu BiShvat (New Year for Trees), which occurred this year on January 17, was not observed with the planting of trees that normally marks this holiday. The only work permitted is that which “prevents damage and ensures their [the trees’] continued survival,” according to the Keren Kayemet L’Israel–Jewish National Fund website.

A slow-drip watering bag

It Is a Challenge

Among the various challenges in keeping Jerusalem green, one of the more basic is ensuring that the trees receive adequate water. Israel pioneered modern drip irrigation in the 1960s and has continued to develop efficient uses of limited water supplies. Nondescript brown tubes running to each tree or flowerbed in the city ensure their health during the months without rain.

This summer’s tree planting effort incorporated another Israeli innovation—green bags at the base of many newly planted trees. If there is no drip irrigation where the tree has been planted, the green bag takes its place. The slow-drip watering bags release precisely the amount of water needed for the tree to thrive. Municipal workers refill the bags every couple of days until a more permanent solution, such as drip irrigation, can be implemented.


Janet’s tree

My Tree

No matter where we are in the world, trees help determine our quality of life, and some have such character that they take on lives of their own. I live in Beit HaKerem, an older, historic neighborhood, and I have often wondered about a huge eucalyptus tree that stands near David Yellin teachers’ college, one of the earliest structures in the neighborhood. I was able to find “my” tree in the online survey and learned that it is in good condition, between 50–65 feet (15–20 m.) tall and approximately 80–100 years old. It stands as a silent sentinel, watching over the streets that have witnessed so much of Jerusalem’s modern history, doing its part to keep Jerusalem green.

Photo Credit: Janet Aslin/bridgesforpeace.com

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