The Hyssop that Springeth Out of the Wall (Cont.)

Published: January 3rd, 2010 | Updated: 17/01/15

Origanum isthmicum

As a result of the Six Day War, the Sinai Peninsula became accessible to Israeli scientists. The academic institutes of Israel started to investigate various aspects of its nature, in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense. In preparation for these studies, the botanical team, which included me, flew in a light Cessna plane over the area we wished to investigate. When we were over Gebel Halal two phenomena caught my attention:

  1. There were many trees with dark-green crowns in rocky wadis (drainage systems).
  2. A large rock outcrop, resembling the rocks of Nahal Lotz, supporting many trees with dark-green crowns all over the slope, in a line below it, and in a wadi that receives the water from this rock outcrop (Fig. 7.7.3).

In studies I carried out in the Negev Highlands (as mentioned in the Pistacia atlantica chapter), I found that in large rock outcrops there are better chances of finding rare plants. The occurrence of large rock outcrops supporting Juniperus phoenicea trees in N Sinai were a hint for the possibility of finding special plants in Gebel Halal. On April 3, 1968, we arrived at Wadi Abu Sayalah from its northern side, through the sands. Naftali Tadmor (Kofish) and I were the researchers. When approaching the mountain, Kofish sprained his ankle as I was running towards the cliffs I had seen during our flight. Arriving there I found stems carrying leaves with a “za’atar” scent. In fact this was the name our Bedouin companion had told us when asked. His body language did not indicate that he knew the plant and I assumed it was made up on-the-spot for us. He was not the first person who did not want to disappoint me by saying “I do not know” and instantly invented a proper name. The Bedouin also had a white donkey which assisted in the transfer of Kofish to our car. As with Origanum ramonense, I could not describe the plant as new-to-science without seeing its flowers.

On June 18, 1968, I invited my friend Maori Krispin to come with me to Gebel Halal in order to complete the Origanum collection. I planned a meeting with a military unit responsible for the security of that area near Abu Aquila. Even today I enjoy the memories of that day when I left my home in Jerusalem at 03:00 with the Renault 4 car of the Department of Botany. I collected Maori from his home in Omer, near Beer Sheva, and we drove as civilians, passing through areas where heavy fighting had taken place only a few months earlier. We ran again to the upper tributaries of Wadi Abu Sayallah (Fig. 7.7.2) and arrived at the large rock outcrops where the new plant grows. As expected, it was blooming (Fig. 7.7.4). The plant with its flowers served as a holotype and as a source for the excellent drawing by Esther Huver (Fig. 7.7.1).

I prepared the manuscript for publishing the discovery of Origanum isthmicum that included a diagnosis in Latin. At that time I received a letter from a researcher in the Netherlands – J.H. Ietswaart, who was then preparing his PhD thesis on Origanum. He asked to see the holotype of Origanum ramonense. I took advantage of this opportunity to have a critical reading of my manuscript by the expert for the whole genus. His answer was interesting and encouraging. He agreed with the statement that it is an independent species new to science. He agreed with me that it belongs to the section Campanulatocalyx (meaning – having a bell-shaped calyx), but emphasized that the leaves resemble those of a second section, and that it is a semi-shrub, like members of a third section. The conclusion from this was that it is a local endemic species, possibly a relic from remote times when the sections as we know them at present did not yet exist.

Fig. 7.7.1: A drawing of Origanum isthmicum from the article where the plant is described as new to science. Drawn by Esther Huver.

Fig. 7.7.2: The slope in Gebel Halal where Origanum isthmicum was discovered.

Fig. 7.7.3: Maori helps to show the size of a Juniperus phoenicea tree in a tributary of Wadi Abu Sayala, Gebel Halal, N. Sinai.

Fig. 7.7.4: The rock outcrop where Origanum isthmicum was discovered and a flowering stem carrying single flowers at the leaf axiles.

Whereas O. ramonense is suitable for making an excellent herbal tea, like O. dayi, the new Origanum may be used as an excellent substitute for Origanum vulgare (commonly known as “oregano”) in seasoning pizza. The main problem is that it is an extremely rare plant, confined to small rock outcrops in an area estimated at 5×5 km2 in an area hard to reach. My colleague Prof. Loutfy Boulos from Egypt instructed a PhD student who studied the Labiatae (Lamiaceae) of Egypt. He asked and received a specimen of this species on loan, as it was too difficult to reach it himself.

Origanum petraeum and Origanum punonense

My botanical investigations in Jordan started during the International Botanical Congress, Berlin, in 1987. Ulrich Baierle, a German student who carried out his PhD investigations on the vegetation of Edom, showed me dried plants from his area. It was between the Arava Valley and the Jordanian plateau near Fenan and Dhana (some 40 km north of Petra). Ulrich was accompanied by a Jordanian researcher who helped him in his field work in Jordan. I saw that there were 2-3 species of Origanum that differed from those known in Israel. Knowing the representatives of this genus in our area I advised my colleagues to consult with Dr. Ietswaart. A few months passed and I received a reprint from Berlin; my colleagues determined the plant they had collected near Fenan as O. dayi.

Responding to my request they sent me the specimen and I found that they had made a mistake and it was indeed new to science. I gave it the name Origanum punonense after the place mentioned in the Bible in the travels of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land (Numbers 33, 42): “and they departed from Zalmonah and pitched in Punon.” The name of this city came to us through the Bedouin village Fenan. It is known for its proximity to copper mines thousands of years ago.

At that time, in the late 1980’s, botanical connections began to develop with Mrs. Ingrid Kuenne, who lived in a village near Munich, Germany. From her childhood she had always loved plants, and accompanied a group of archaeologists from Munich in their study of Petra and its environs. She collected plants, pressed them, and prepared a private herbarium. Ingrid wrote to me that on one of her visits in Edom, while she was sitting on the seats of an ancient Nabatean theater, she heard the sound of a bee that differed from that of the bees that made her sandwich break so pleasant. Looking at the source of that different sound she saw that the bee had landed on a strange Rhamnus which had opposite leaves. She sent me a letter containing a small branch of that plant and received my instant reply with the name Sageretia thea.

This plant was a new record for the Flora Palaestina area, and I knew it from my Sinai investigations. She sent the same plant to a Jordanian expert and did not receive an answer for at least half a year. Her later request to send me additional plants was answered positively and when I studied the Origanum from Punon, I still had several un-named plants.

Fig. 7.7.5: Opened calyces of: a. Origanum petraeum and b. Origanum punonense. Drawn by Ahuva Zinkover.

Fig. 7.7.6: Origanum petraeum and a sandstone cliff supporting the plant in Dana Nature Reserve, Edom, Jordan.

Fig. 7.7.7: Origanum punonense.

I asked Dr. Thomas Raus, from the editorial board of the journal Willdenowia, of the Botanic Garden in Berlin, how much time I had before the deadline for submission of my manuscript. The encouraging answer was that if I send the manuscript by facsimile they will be able to publish it (after review). I rushed and searched in Ingrid’s samples and found that she had collected a new Origanum as well. Such a wealth of new species came as a surprise to me and I prepared the material as required by the journal’s guide lines. I was fortunate enough to benefit from the ability of my niece Ahuva Zinkover to draw accurately, and she prepared the necessary drawing (Fig. 7.7.5). Origanum punonense and O. petraeum were published together in Willdenowia in 1990.

In the spring of 1994, while sitting in my laboratory in Jerusalem, looking at the scenery outside my window, I heard the voice of our Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on the radio, speaking to King Hussein of Jordan in English. The King was piloting his airplane as he passed through our skies to Jordan on the way to peace. I saw the big white-silvery airplane and my excitement was very strong. I was going to go to a conference in Europe and decided that when I arrive in Europe I will send a letter to King Hussein with a reprint of the article on the two Origanum species from his country.

Our families had ties in the past; my uncle Ezra was a friend of the Emir Abdullah, (King Hussein’s grandfather) and in 1947 escorted Golda Meir to a meeting with the Emir disguised as my uncle’s wife. I added to the article a letter thanking him “with flowers” for his courageous step towards peace between our countries; I mentioned our family ties (Fig. 7.7.8). I received a warm answer: the King wrote that he knows of the family ties, wishes to renew them and encouraged me to continue in my research (Figs. 7.7.9, 7.7.10). My dreams of arranging a meeting between my late father and the late king and hear them speaking “juicy” Arabic did not work out – there is never sufficient time to fulfill all our dreams.

Fig. 7.7.8: My letter to King Hussein, added to the reprint on species new to science that I discovered in Jordan.

Fig. 7.7.9: The letter from King Hussein in response.

Fig. 7.7.10: A letter from Brigadier Ali Shukri, the director of King Hussein’s private office in London.

Origanum jordanicum

Ingrid Kuenne continued her investigations in Jordan and collected several sheets of O. petraeum (Fig. 7.7.6) and of O. punonense (Fig. 7.7.7). In 1991 she collected plants for her herbarium in the field and discovered one stem of Origanum differing from all that she had seen before. She looked for the plant during all her research expeditions. She found the plant again only in 1994, in a small sandstone cliff, some 20 km south of Petra. I was on sabbatical leave in California at the time, and when I received Ingrid’s letter I could say instantly that we have here a species new to science. The calyx lobes of this species were bent towards the calyx base, a phenomenon not known in any other species of Origanum. Ingrid drew the article’s figures herself (Fig. 7.7.11) and we described the new species in an article we authored jointly. She suggested naming the plant O. edumense. During the time we were corresponding about the new species, King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin met in the Arava Valley and signed a peace treaty between our countries. I wanted to provide a name that would honor this political event, and fit the occasion. Ingrid agreed to my suggestion to name the plant Origanum jordanicum in honor of the two courageous leaders who had opened another path for peace in our area.

Fig. 7.7.11: Origanum jordanicum. Drawn by Ingrid Kuenne, who discovered the plant.

While the two other Origanum species in Jordan are related in appearance and scent to O. dayi and O. ramonense and are suitable for preparing tea, O. jordanicum is close in morphology to O. isthmicum. Both the latter species serve well as “oregano” for excellent pizza with an important limitation – both species are very rare in the countries in which they are found. I was happy to find O. jordanicum on Gebel Um Adammi, the tallest mountain in Jordan, situated on the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As reported in scientific literature – O. jordanicum was collected in Saudi Arabia as well.

Island Botany

When I arrived at the University of California at Riverside, I met with a researcher who dealt with the distribution and evolution of plants in the Hawaiian Islands. When I showed him the distribution map of Origanum he opened his drawer and took out distribution maps of endemic species in small islands. Our maps resembled the distribution of plants on ocean islands and those of endemic rock species of Origanum in the “desert sea” of the Middle East (Fig. 7.7.12). Future generations, should they wish to do so, will be able to investigate and research, in the spirit of island biology, ,the evolution of the Origanum section Campanulatocalyx.

Fig. 7.7.12: The islands of growth of the six members of the Origanum sect. Campanulatocalyx in the “sea of deserts” of the Near East.