The ridge of the Judean Hills, that blocks the rain clouds
approaching from the west, permits only a small amount of precipitation to fall
Some of this is soaked up by the superficial layers of the earth of the
Judean Desert, while some quickly runs off due to the poor absorptive capacity
of the ground and flows east into the low-lying Dead Sea basin.
The plants that usually develop on these soils are sparse and of
few species; they include perennial bushes on the hills and individual trees in
the wadis and on the chalk cliffs.
In rainier years the slopes become covered at the end of winter
with a wealth of annuals whose density decreases towards the east.
The Judean Desert is divided into three longitudinal climatic
zones, characterized as follows:
- The third longitudinal zone of the Judean Desert bordering the
Dead Sea is characterized by desert flora, typical of which is the zygrophyllum
bush. This bush reaches, here in the Dead Sea region, the northernmost point of
its growth in Israel and is able to live through excessively hot years.
Individuals have been found aged over 250 years.
Certain kinds of plants contain substances that delay germination when the
amount of rain that falls on them is less than a certain minimum. But when the
rainfall is sufficient they develop and even produce large growth, flowering and
fruiting. At the end of a wet winter they cover this zone with a carpet of
The Dead Sea is located in the hottest part of the Judean
Desert. Since it is also the lowest point in the region, spring, stream and floodwater drains
into it - on its way cutting deep clefts in the ground, some of them ten
kilometers long and more. The water sweeps along with it a silt of soil, stones, bushes
and trees, which pile up on the lake at the point where the stream enters. Here
alluvial fans form, which for the most part contain cultivable soil and serve as
one of the prerequisites for human settlement along the shore of the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea springs are grouped into fault springs arising from
the geological faults at the feet of the fault scarps, and strata springs that
have become exposed along the beds of rivers and flood routes as a result of the
scooping out of the crevices.
An interesting phenomenon appears in the springs that arise near
the shore of the Dead Sea. They are mostly sweet water, but there are also salt
water springs there, themselves differing considerably in their salt content.
The phenomenon is explained by the complex underground
geological structure of the region, which causes an uneven dilution of the
spring water with the Dead Sea water. This encourages the growth of a wide
variety of hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydro-halophytic plants (able to
tolerate saline conditions) right down to the water’s edge. This vegetation
includes the Nile tamarisk and the square tamarisk, which grow among various
kinds of reeds.
In spite of the slight rainfall, the year-round high
temperatures, the fertile alluvial soils and rather superficial water table in
the various depressions have converted some of the most salt-free and humid
spots into Sudano-Deccanian tropical outposts. The largest of these is the Tsoar
gully, which is richly watered by underground springs and the Zered stream where
you can find most of the representatives of this tropical element.
The most important group of the Sudano-Deccanian plants includes
the Egyptian zachum tree and the common plum with its sweet fruit, which stands
out as the typical line of vegetation in the Dead Sea chain of oases.
One of the best-known plants in the area is the mullein, or as it is commonly
called, the Apple of Sodom. Its ripe, dry and hollow fruit contains seed borne
on the wind by a parachute-like canopy of webbed silk. At the time of the Second
Temple these were used as wicks for pot lamps. Its white poisonous juice
was regarded by local inhabitants as a remedy for sterility,
and the Greek Orthodox monks in Jerusalem
in the nineteenth century used to distribute it to all who asked.
Since the life of hydrophilic (water loving) plants is
influenced more by the soil than by climatic conditions, you can find at least
some of them by following the courses of the rivers that flow into the
Dead Sea. For example, you have the Euphrates poplar, which has made its way here
from Africa; the Jordan tamarisk which is green for most of the year; varieties
of reeds notable for their propagation through joints; and the thorny willow.
An example of the hydro-halophytic (salt loving) vegetation here
is the shore juncos, which hangs from most walls of the gullies, and the thatch,
commonly called Shulamit’s hair, which grows near waterfalls. One can also
find elephant’s ear, growing close to rock and water.
The uniqueness of the region lies in the fact that in a single
riverbed you can see only meters, or even centimeters apart so wide a range of
desert flora such as the zygophyllum and the common
which discharges a layer of wax that protects it from evaporation and whose
silvery color reflects the rays of the sun;
subtropical plants like the acacia and the
moringa, the plum and
the Persian salvadora;
tropical vegetation like the
saline plants whose balance on intake and output of salt and water
holds the secret of their survival.
Here the succulent varieties of plants have developed a great
capacity for water absorption in order to reduce their salt concentration, while
the non-succulents have developed a means of discharging excess salts on the
outer surface of their leaves; this group includes the square tamarisk (tamarix tetragyna).
The difference in the quantity of salt in the many stream and
springs and the differences in salt concentrations at different seasons of the
year in different places have led to the development of three main types of
Hydrohalophytic plants, which grow on the banks of perennial
streams in a soil of relatively low salinity through-out most of the year.
Mesohalophytic plants, which grow near the dry streams and in
areas of higher salinity, where the water table is fairly superficial.
plants, which grow in the dry salt marshes. These
usually possess great absorptive properties, deriving from the osmotic capacity
of the cell fluid, which rises with the accumulation of salt in the cell. In the
Israeli Ocem, for example, it reaches 91.93 atmospheres. In extreme aridity it
can reach even 200 atmospheres in certain plants.
In prehistoric times it is known that the halophytic vegetation
in the area was burned to produce alkaline potash. Potash kilns and other
findings, dating back to the chalcolithic period –
fourth century BC – have been discovered at Tuleylat el-Ghassal, about 10
kilometers north-east of the Dead Sea, indicating large-scale settlement.
A special place in the local folklore is held by the
Saharo-Sindian plant called the Rose of Jericho;
its legends have become widespread in Europe also through Christian
This plant is an annual that takes up its nutriment through a
single root which it puts down easily. Owing to the physical property which
causes its branches to stretch when they take up moisture, the plant bursts
open, and its seeds are dispersed on the wind, to create a new generation of
growth. The flowering – a rebirth so to speak – has made this plant a symbol
of renewal and revival lodged in religious belief.
Beduin and Egyptian women used to put in it water, and through
the nature of its flowering, they would use it to predict if their childbirth would be easy or hard.
Some even used to drink the water to speed up their labor.
The Christian pilgrims for their part associated the Rose of
Jericho with Rosa Mystica, who is the Holy Virgin in the Lutheran and Catholic
liturgy. The pilgrims customarily traded bread with the Beduins for it, and thus
the plant made its way as far as the markets of Europe at the beginning of the
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