Green scene

Exploring herbariums throughout the Middle East


Having written two columns in the past about the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, I began to wonder about herbaria in Israel.

With Google as my guide, I found two Israeli herbaria — one at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one at Tel Aviv University. Since Jerusalem is a more convenient location for me to visit, I e-mailed the director, Jotham Ziffer-Berger, requesting a short visit. I was graciously invited to meet and had a lengthy and informative visit with Jotham Berger and Hagar Leschner, the collections manager.

Jotham Berger has an eclectic background with degrees in botanical sciences from Brazil, United States and Germany. His specialties include flora of Brazil and Angola with a particular interest in bryophytes of Israel. Bryophytes are a group comprising three plant categories: mosses, hornworts and liverworts.

A simplistic description of these plants would include the following characteristics: They grow low to the ground, produce spores instead of seeds, have no flowers, and either do not have a vascular system (circulatory), or have only a primitive one.

Hagar Leschner was always interested in the natural world and expected to major in zoology. When she realized that research would likely cause pain to her subjects, she switched to botany.

The Hebrew University Herbarium was founded in 1928, and much of the early plant collections were the work of early Zionist botanists. Three people of note were Otto Warburg, Alexander Eig and Aaron Aaronsohn.

Warburg, a German-Jewish botanist who did important work in industrial plantations, became chairman of the botany department at the newly established Hebrew University. He asked Alexander Eig, who became the founder of the herbarium collection and a largely self-taught and quixotic figure, to join the faculty.

Aaron Aaronsohn, born in Romania and educated in France, botanically mapped pre-state Israel. Over the years, the botany department has been rolled into the department of evolution, behavior and ecology.

Today the herbarium boasts up to 1.2 million plants. The backlog continues to grow as new plants are submitted, primarily by amateur botanists. The collection is being digitized and can be found at

Personnel from HUJ collaborate with botanical experts from all over the Middle East. They work closely with botanists from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, and routinely publish articles jointly. They also have been deeply involved with the Royal Botanical Garden in Jordan, which is under the patronage of the Queen Rania, wife of King Abdullah.

One of my questions was, “What is the most exciting herbarium sheet in the collection?” With a broad smile on her face, Hagar walked briskly to a collection drawer and showed me something that looked like desiccated greenish 7- to 12-inch stalks. Dried materials of common plants frequently are significantly different in appearance from the growing state due to changes in color, texture and tissue thickness.

So the fact that I did not have a clue what I was looking at was not a great surprise to me. But I could definitely appreciate the cause of her enthusiasm!

In Israel — as well as all over the Middle East — archeological remains are everywhere. Excavations for construction are routinely halted when artifacts are exposed. These remains — including pottery, coins and textile fragments — require evaluation by an archeologist before work is allowed to continue.

If the find seems significant, work may be halted indefinitely. Put simply, the stem I was looking at came from a 6,000-year-old burial cave in Wadi el-Makkukh in the Judean desert, a little more than two miles northwest of modern Jericho.

Phragmites is a type of reed found in wetlands throughout temperate and tropical wetlands. You have undoubtedly seen them around lakes in our area, and they can be viewed as invasive.

However, this fragment was part of burial materials found in an almost inaccessible cave. The 5-foot-6 man had reached the advanced age of between 45 and 50. He was wrapped in a linen shroud and dressed in a linen kilt and sash with leather sandals.

The linen textiles showed sophisticated weaving technology, although whether the flax was grown in the neighborhood or imported is unknown. The grave goods included a bow and arrows, a flint knife, a walking stick, and a straw basket and bowl containing food for his journey. The phragmites had been woven into a mat upon which the grave goods were positioned.

The materials from this site, the Cave of the Warrior, were on exhibit in 2003 at the Israel Museum. Unfortunately, after the show closed, all the materials were placed in storage and can no longer be viewed by the public.

The second important question that I asked will have to wait for next week.

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at