Trees that Fail to Stand Up to the Equality Test

Published: June 1st, 2009 | Updated: 17/01/15

There are several trees in Israel to which I dedicated much more time and attention than to others; there was a great deal of inequality here. I discovered several phenomena that were not reported by others, and arrived at conclusions that are worth bringing to the attention of our readers. Ficus sycomorus – the sycomore, attracted me as a tree that is much associated with the vegetation of Eretz Israel. But it is not self propagating, so “what is it doing here?” Pistacia atlantica reaches a gigantic size, compared to most other natural tree species. The age of trunks I studied was between two years and more than 1000 years.

Influenced by the hidden secrets of P. atlantica, I found trees of Juniperus phoenicea in northern Sinai and sampled their branches and trunks. This practice was repeated in southern France, Crete, and Edom in southern Jordan. When I found sufficient differences between the almonds of the Negev Highlands and those of northern Israel, I gave special attention to those of the Negev. If we followed the ancient Biblical Hebrew terms I could share much with King Solomon who spoke of trees, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop emerging from the walls. I was lucky to discover five Origanum species that grow on rock outcrops and cliffs in the East Mediterranean deserts. Obviously I am especially attached to plants with lignified trunks that make them part of the “trees” and carry my name alongside their scientific name. For instance: [“Origanum ramonense Danin” Origanum ramonense Danin] and [“Origanum punonense Danin” Origanum punonense Danin].

A sign for the lowlands – sycomores

I am always fascinated by the short statements in our ancient scriptures that contain so much. I was asked recently to relate to the prophet Amos, who, in two words “Bolaes Shikmim” (sycomore fig dressing), gave an abstract of three life histories: that of the sycomore, of the wasps related to them, and of his own life – a shepherd from Teqoa. I shall try to expand and supply information on natural components hiding in the title and in the description of Amos. In the first paragraph concerning this tree, Hareuveni (1984: p. 83) notes the similarity in names of trees that are not related to the Biblical “SHIKMIM” or sycomores; these are Platanus occidentalis and Acer pseudoplatanus – both known by the common name “sycamore”.

Distribution and habitats

I marked old sycomore trees in the distribution map of my data base, although all of them are planted cultivars (Fig. 7.1.1). It is clear that the main distribution area of this species is the coastal area of the Philistean Plain. There are a few lonely trees growing in the Judean foothills near Bet Govrin and Bet Shemesh, but they are incomparable to the wealth of sycomores of the Philistean Plain. Hareuveni (in Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, 1984: 78-93) deals in detail with the importance of sycomores in the Jericho Valley in the past and present. Prof. J. Galil (1966) relates the progenitor of the cultivated sycomore to F. sycomorus populations in the savannas of East Africa (Fig. 7.1.2). In the research expeditions Galil and his colleagues have made in E. Africa they saw sycomore trees growing in savannas, developing mature fruits and multiplying by seeds.

I saw a similar case of spontaneous sycomores in the great nature reserve in eastern S. Africa – Kruger Park (Figs. 7.1.3-7.1.5). In a map summarizing his studies (Fig. 7.1.2), Galil shows its distribution. From the tropical savannas the cultivation of the tree was brought to Egypt and from there to Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Eretz Israel, Syria, Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete. Theophrastus, active in the years 372-287 B.C.E. presents a detailed description of sycomores in Egypt and in Cyprus. The sycomore seems to have been domesticated in ancient Egypt some 5-6,000 years ago. Stems carrying leaves were found in the pyramids and it is easy to compare them to those growing in Israel at present (Fig. 7.1.6). I would guess that the “ancients” (I do not know who they were), knew the sycomore’s sensitivity to the cold winter and planted it on sandstone and loam hills along the Mediterranean beach. The sea has a temperature controlling effect on the land close to it.

The ancients could use two plant indicators to ascertain the ability of sycomore or other savanna plants to grow on kurkar (sandstone) hills; these are Ziziphus spina-christi and Faidherbia (Acacia) albida. This Ziziphus, which is the most cold-resistant tree of the savanna species represented in Israel, produces fruits and vital seeds annually. It germinates in disturbed ground and its seedlings often become trees. Occasional specimens of F. albida arrived from Africa, as summarized in G. Halevy’s articles. Although producing single seeds in a few of its isolated populations, its main mode of propagation is vegetative and from root-borne shoots. One can look upon the F. albida woodland along the northern road leading to Ashdod, as if it is a single tree that propagated vegetatively. The density of sycomores in ancient times was common knowledge, as mentioned in Kings 1 (10:27): …”and cedars as plentiful as sycomores in the lowlands”.

Fig. 7.1.1: Distribution map of Ficus sycomorus in Israel (according to A. Danin’s data base).

Fig. 7.1.2: Distribution map of Ficus sycomorus in the East Mediterranean countries and in E. Africa (from Galil 1966).

Fig. 7.1.3: African savannah in Kruger Park, east South-Africa; our sycomore grows there spontaneously.

The sycomore planted in Israel propagates from neither seeds nor by sprouting from roots. The tree is mentioned in Egyptian writings on papyrus. It was discovered in great quantities in archaeological excavations. The sycomore wood was used for building walls in houses, religious statues, and coffins that remain for a long time without rotting. The abundance of rules concerning sycomore planting and cutting in the Mishnah teach us that the main purpose of raising these trees was for their wood and not for the fruits. The sycomores were raised with one trunk through removal of the lateral branches and the result was called in Hebrew “a Virgin Sycomore”. Thick, straight trunks were used in olive oil presses and were regarded as “virgin” (BETULA).

Following cutting, new stems sprout from the trunk’s base. The two trees in Fig. 7.1.7 display two steps in the development of an adult sycomore. The tree on the left has a short main trunk and 3 thick branches indicating a very low rate of disturbance. The trunk of the tree on the right was cut long ago and developed new branches from the stump. Some of the branches became trunks and others are thin and regarded as offshoots. The latter, when removed from the tree with a considerable part of the stump, are used in vegetative propagation and have a special name-term in Hebrew (GRUFIT). The ancient inhabitants of the area planted sycomores on the Kurkar (sandstone) hills before the new mobile sand penetrated the area. This is how I assume that the sycomore woodland developed, and many sites in the Philistean Plain like Figs. 7.1.7 and 7.1.9.

Later, some 2,000 years ago, considerable areas became covered with sea-borne sand. Many sycomore trees were totally covered and died. This was also the fate of carob (Ceratonia siliqua) trees and Retama raetam shrubs, as discussed in length in my book “Plants of Desert Dunes” (1996). Trees that are partially covered, with parts of their canopy exposed, continue to grow, and the sand around them becomes populated by vegetation dominated by Artemisia monosperma (Figs. 7.1.9, 7.1.10), typical for stabilizing- and stable sands in our coastal area. Trees influenced at present by minute, wind-borne drops of sea-water become “burnt” on their western side and have a flag shape (Fig. 7.1.10).

Fig. 7.1.4: Impala is a typical herbivore in the savannah of Kruger Park.

Fig. 7.1.5: Ficus sycomorus in Kruger Park; the spontaneous variety propagates here by seeds.

Fig. 7.1.6: Sycomore leaves photographed near Ashdod (I. Lakstein) and from finds in the Egyptian pyramids (from Galil 1966).

Fig. 7.1.7: Sycomores planted on hills south of Ashdod.

Fig. 7.1.8: Nine or ten branches sprouted from the big trunk of a sycomore that was cut in the past. Half of them became thick trunks and the others could serve for vegetative propagation (“grufit” in Hebrew).

Fig. 7.1.9: A group of old sycomores south of Ashdod. The soil near the trees is still fertile and supports green grasses. The rest of the area is covered with young stable sand that is populated with Artemisia monosperma and Stipagrostis lanata.

Fig. 7.1.10: A sycomore that survived being partially covered by sand. The vegetation dominated by Artemisia monosperma contains many species adapted to mobile sand.

Fig. 7.1.11: A sycomore that looks like a “flag,” the result of the impact of sea water spray.