Palestine Flowers: Indigenous Symbols of Strength and Hope
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.06.2006:
By Lucy Nusseibeh
Palestine is one of the richest countries in the world for its variety of wildflowers; there are 1,000 different kinds of flowering plants within a five-mile radius of Jerusalem. It is also the birthplace of many that are well known throughout the world. This year, with the abundant rain, the flowers are more than ever visibly asserting their historical presence, their freedom to grow where they please and their natural indigenous beauty.
There are many ways to appreciate flowers and to enjoy them, especially with children, and while they should not be picked randomly, but only when there is an abundance and with care not to pull up or destroy the roots, a vase or a glass with a small bunch of local wild flowers is one of the easiest and most pleasant ways to brighten any room and does not need to cost anything. Wild flowers are an integral part of the national Palestinian heritage, filled with history, symbolism and traditional uses and can be enjoyed by all even during closures, and even as the Wall shuts out the sun.
Palestinian flowers reflect the country itself: its ancientness/antiquity, its gentleness, and the fact that it is at the same time part of the Mediterranean basin to the west and part of the vast desert to the east. The fact that many flowers and herbs have continued since time immemorial and without a break to be appreciated and used for medicinal or other purposes echoes the continuity of spirit among the Palestinians and the respect for tradition (who doesn?t turn to meramiyya [sage] for an upset stomach or babounej [camomile] for a cold or za?atar [hyssop] for a cough before any medicine or doctor?). The fact that many plants originated here, in Palestine, within the Fertile Crescent that includes Iraq echoes the deep roots of the Palestinian people. The wheat and barley that are grown and made into bread all over the world originated here (initially grown and cultivated in Jericho, now the basis for bread, the staple food for billions around the world). The flowers are so resilient that, while they may be less apparent during the difficult winters when there is not so much rain, or during the parched months of summer, they have many different ways of surviving, so that with enough water in the spring they cover the countryside with their beauty and colour and reassert their existence, much as the Palestinian people are resilient and can survive during the harshest times to reassert their place in this land.
A number of plants are named specifically after the places here: the Jerusalem Buttercup, Jerusalem Sage, Jerusalem Spurge, Star of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Milk Vetch, or after the country itself: Palestine Comfrey, Palestine Sage, and the Palestine Iris, white and small (or even Vartans iris, pale purple and small and very delicate; quite different from the large flag irises planted in gardens, named after the local doctor who discovered it).
Among the most striking plants every year are the anemones, the ?Shaqaeq Nu?aman,? which colour the fields and roadside verges with splashes of red. The anemones come in fact in a variety of colours, purple, blue, pink and white as well as red, but this variety is more in evidence in the Galilee and the hills in the north of the country. The red, the drops of blood, are the most typical. They start to appear from late December and in wet years they continue to splash their colour across even the dry hills to the east well until the end of March or early April. Last year and this year they have been especially abundant and what is more, they have very atypically overlapped with the equally red and striking poppy, which blooms in April and May. The two flowers are easily confused as they are both big and bright and red and spread colourfully over wide areas, but the poppies are bigger, and their flowers have just two petals with a large blotch at the bottom, while the anemone has six petals radiating out from a cluster of small purple stalks in the middle. The anemone, like most winter flowers, grows from a bulb (like the onion, the ?basal,?) that consists of lots of layers packed tightly together and which enables the flower to stay alive and protected throughout the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The poppy, on the other hand, is grown from tiny seeds, hardly bigger than coffee grounds, which are easily scattered on the wind. The two share, however, in addition to their colour, the associations of the colour: of the anemone as the drops of blood that seem also especially in evidence this year; the poppy is the European symbol for the memory of the millions of young men who were slaughtered during the First World War. Till today, the fields in the north of France where they are buried are left covered with poppies, and poppies are distributed to commemorate the ending of that war on November 11th every year. In the tragedy of the current conflict in which Palestinians continue to be killed on a daily basis, and with the added tragedy of the recent terrible assassinations and bloodshed in Gaza, and the continuing conflict in Iraq, nature seems to be reflecting her pain at the bloodshed by covering the ground simultaneously with two such powerful symbols of the pain of war.
On a more positive note, poppy seeds taste delicious when sprinkled on bread. They make a good tonic for horses and the fruits, the hard seedpod that is left after the petals have fallen away, can be used in an infusion that is good for coughs. The petals can be used to make red ink.
Another of the most well-known of all the local flowers is the cyclamen, the ?Qarn El-Ghazal? (gazelle?s horn) or the ?Asa Al-Rai?? (the shepherd?s crook), a delicate, pale flower, varying in colour from purple through pink to white, that hides near rocks and seems to become more visible the more one gazes at the landscape. The leaves can be rolled and eaten like stuffed vine leaves, but should be picked with great care, taking only one or two from each plant to allow them to flower again and spread from year to year.
It is not only as food and medicine (in addition to being decorative) that flowers can be made use of. They can be simply drawn or photographed. They can be pressed and put on greeting cards, and can be used to decorate Easter eggs.1 Children can also have fun just finding out what stories and traditions are associated with the various plants and flowers.
At the beginning of the summer, the rockrose or eglantine starts to appear all over the hillsides. A single-petalled, open and flat-looking rose, soft and wild and sweet smelling, it covers the hills of Palestine to the west and north with pink or white. Their fruits (hard, round red or orange ?rosehips?) make good rosehip tea and are an excellent source of vitamin C. The leaves of some of the bright pink rockroses also make good tea. Less delicious but also useful is a dark brown gum ?ladanum,? which oozes from the roses and can be combed out from them with a rake and which is used for making perfumes and medicinal plasters.
Orchids are renowned for their beauty and rarity and for their strange resemblance to various living creatures: butterflies, bees, spiders, or even lizards. There are more than 17,000 different kinds around the world, growing everywhere from the Arctic to the tropics and Palestine, of course, has many of them too. There is one quite common orchid that is easy to find in the West Bank. The ?toothed orchid? is purple, with a lot of small flowers and the distinctive orchid shape which is three petals, two on top and an underneath one which looks a bit like a sack of some kind. The main contact Palestinians have with orchids, though, is through the delicious winter drink ?sahlab,? which is made from orchid tubers ground into a paste.
Capers, a shrub with large white and yellow flowers with long red delicate stamens, whose flower buds are delicious pickled and whose leaves are a salad delicacy, manage to thrive in the cracks of walls. They are most striking on the old stonewalls of the Old City of Jerusalem but they, for sure, will find a way to grow even on the sheer reinforced concrete of the Separation Wall.
Flowers are a symbol of hope and of the ability to survive the most adverse conditions, of the ability to put back colour where there has been only brown and grey, to put back variety where there has been sameness, and to flourish in abundance and beautiful diversity.
Oleanders, large flowering shrubs which flourish in the wadis and wherever there is water in Palestine,2 have become the symbol for hope in Japan, as contrary to all expectation and science, in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, when it was assumed that all life would have disappeared for decades, the oleanders were thriving and flowering within a year of the devastating bombing.
The name ?Jenin? has taken on the weight of all the horrors of the Israeli brutality. (Interestingly, there are so many possible meanings for this name: ?paradise? and ?garden?, but also ?mad? and ?embryonic.?) At this time of year the hills around Jenin are bright blue with the abundance of tall, bright blue lupins. Lupins, like humus and lentils, are among the most ancient plants here and like them they store nitrogen in their roots and feed it into the soil, enriching it and producing stronger plants.
Lucy Nusseibeh is the founder and director of MEND (Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy). She is working on a book on flowers for children.
1 Hard-boil the eggs so they are not too fragile. Place a variety of flowers around the egg and enclose the flower-covered egg in some old scraps of (preferably coloured) cloth and bind it all tightly together with thread wound around and around; there should be enough cloth to hold in the colours, so the bound egg will be a ball about 10 cm big. Then boil it for at least two hours. Allow it to cool again for a couple of hours, as it can stay very hot inside. Then un-peal them and see the beautiful natural patterns of the egg. It also makes a good colour effect to include some onion peel along with the wild flowers around the egg.
1 Hard-boil the eggs so they are not too fragile. Place a variety of flowers around the egg and enclose the flower-covered egg in some old scraps of (preferably coloured) cloth and bind it all tightly together with thread wound around and around; there should be enough cloth to hold in the colours, so the bound egg will be a ball about 10 cm big. Then boil it for at least two hours. Allow it to cool again for a couple of hours, as it can stay very hot inside. Then un-peal them and see the beautiful natural patterns of the egg. It also makes a good colour effect to include some onion peel along with the wild flowers around the egg
This Week in Palestine