Flora of Masada and the Surrounding Area


Cable car to MazadaMasada stands in the Judean Desert which can be divided into three longitudinal climate zones each exhibiting a variety of vegetation and flora. There is the Mediterranean zone, Arava zone and the Dead Sea zone where Masada is located. The terrain of Masada and the surrounding area is predominantly desert and so you will not see a lot of green; the ridge of the Judean Hills prevents rain clouds coming from the west from reaching the Judean Desert and so there is little rainfall to nurture the flora of the region. However the precipitation which does fall here is soaked up by the earth of the Judaean Desert or collected in wadis (valleys). The rain which is not absorbed runs off into the Dead Sea basin. For this reason there is sparse flora in the desert area and the number of species is limited to hardy plants which can adapt to the harsh surroundings. Certain plants in this region have a system of delayed germination when there is low rainfall; they pause their germination and when the rainfall increases the plants develop, blossom and produce fruit.  

The vegetation in the Masada region is predominantly wadi species of Tropical or Sudanese origin like the Acacia raddiana and the Acacia tortilis.  These plants and others in the region thrive on high winter temperatures. Among the plant life of Masada there are perennial bushes and in the surrounding desert you can see a few individual trees particularly in wadis (valleys or dried riverbeds) and on chalk cliffs. During years with a higher rainfall the slopes of Masada and other hills in the Judean Desert show a covering of annuals at the end of winter and these decrease towards the east.

Types of Flora in the Judean Desert and Masada Region

Tamarisk trees (salt cedar) grow in the Masada region and they appear to be the wood used by the Roman’s to build the base forcaperbush their siege ramp. Archaeological discoveries of the ancient wood and use of the dendro-chronological method to date the wood identified the types of trees found in the excavation. The Tamarisk is a short tree with a purplish-red-brown bark and scale-like leaves. They form dense thickets and are evergreen. These hardy shrubs can tolerate saline soil. The caperbush has a silver sheen and discharges a layer of wax to protect itself from the sun. Carrichtera annua, a desert herb is also known as Ward’s Weed. It flowers in January-May and can handle extreme desert conditions. The 5-40cm high plant has white, creamy-yellow flowers with purple veins.

The Zygrphyllum bush which grows in the Dead Sea region is at its northern most point of growth in Israel. It is known to be able to survive prolonged excessive heat. Experts have identified zygrphyllum bushes which have survived over 250 years. The thorny perennial bush Silon Kotzani blossoms in March with small purple flowers. The bush only survives a few years and then dries up and dies. The Broom Rotem Midbar (retama raetam) has small white flowers and is the traditional bush where Elijah sat. The Broomrape, Yahnuk HaMidbar is a cone-shaped spike which rises from the ground and is covered in thick yellow flowers. In fact it is a parasite which grows on other plants at the roots but appears as an independent flower. Parosheet Galonit has yellow flowers and grows low on the ground. The plant has a sweet smell and can be used as tea. Fagonia Rakah (Fagonia Mollis) has pink and violet flowers which blossom from February to April. Anabasis setifera is a desert shrub with a thick stalk and delicate pink flowers that bloom in October and November.

Broom Rotem MidbarMoringa Oleifera is cultivated in the Dead Sea region and is rich in vitamin E and calcium, minerals and amino acids. It has three times more iron than spinach, three times more potassium than banana and four times more calcium than milk. The moringa originated in India but is now grown commercially in the Dead Sea region. Salvadora persica is a small tree or shrub which grows in the Judean Desert. The seeds and flowers have antiurolithiatic properties and have been used for thousands of years as a natural toothbrush.

During the winter when there is rain you can see small flowers and patches of green in among the rocks on the slopes of Masada. The Zamzumit or Desertorum Bellevalia blooms in winter. It has delicate white flowers and long thick green leaves. 2015 had a particularly wet winter and many parts of the Judean Desert were covered with a carpet of green. As you leave Masada and travel closer to the Dead Sea the vegetation changes as on the shores of the Dead Sea only plants which love salt can survive (hydro-halophytic plants). If you move slightly north you reach Ein Gedi, an oasis in the desert, close to the Dead Sea but with several fresh water springs which allow many plants, trees and grasses to thrive. The plants which survive here have developed a way of absorbing water while reducing the salt concentration or they have developed a way of discharging the excess salt like the square tamarisk (tamarix tetragyna). To see native plants, trees and flowers of the Masada region visit Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.

The Oldest Seed in the World

In the 60s several seeds were found in an ancient jar on the top of Masada during an archaeological excavation led by Yigal Yadin. Former Israeli Army Chief of Staff Yigal Yadin stored the seeds at Bar Ilan University where they remained untouched for 40 years. In 2005 medical plant researcher Dr. Sarah Sallon took an interest in the seeds and got permission to study five of them. Two of the seeds were sent to Zurich University for radio-carbon dating together with a few fragments of clay which were stuck to the seed roots. After careful analysis the seeds were dated as being 2,000 years old (155BC-64AD). It had survived on the windswept summit of Masada, on the desolate cliffs, touched only by the dry wind and very little rain. Herod built his fortress on Masada about 2,044 years ago and the seed could very likely have been the remains of fruit eaten or stored on the hill top at that time. The three remaining seeds were given to Elaine Slowey of the Arava Institute of the Environment. She nurtured the seeds by soaking them in warm water, hormones and fertilizer.

On January 19th 2005, Israel’s Arbor Day the seeds were planted on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Desert in Southern Israel. Only one of the seeds survived and it came to be known as Methuselah after the Old Testament character who lived for 969 years (Genesis 5:21-27). Methuselah is the oldest known human-assisted germination of a seed and the only living example of the Judean date palm.

The seed was cultivated and nurtured and by 8 weeks old it had sprouted. By 2008, two years and two months after its discovery, it had reached a height of 1.21 meters and grown into a strong plant with about a dozen fronds. By 2011 it reached 2.5 meters, it flowered and was transplanted from a pot into the ground. In May 2015 Methuselah was reported to be doing well, had grown to 3 meters tall and had begun producing pollen. The tree is expected to bear fruit in 2022. It turned out to be a male variety of Judean date palm thought to have gone extinct 1,800 years ago.

2,000 years ago the region would have had several lush forests of date palms which were known for their delicious taste. The Judean date palms fruit was eaten, the bark and fronds were used to build, weave and provide shade. The date palm was even used for its curative properties and as an aphrodisiac. The palm became a symbol of Judea. The date palm can be seen engraved on ancient Hebrew coins and depicted in many Middle Eastern murals and mosaics. At the time when the Jewish Zealots took to Masada and the Romans laid siege to the mount date palms lined the banks of the Dead Sea and were a major industry.

 



 

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