Imagine the State of Israel without palm trees — the source of sweetness in the biblical “land of milk and honey,” the provider of the lulav branches we wave on Sukkot, the tree that beckons, “Come to Palestine,” on posters from the early 1900s, vanished from the Israeli landscape.
In our mind’s eye, we see them standing tall, proud, and regal, their roots digging down deep, connected to the land, their arms outstretched, reaching to the heavens, their deep green fronds bursting out in celebration, their crowns adorned with clusters of bright orange dates.
But Israel’s palm trees are dying.
Seemingly without warning, their crowns are collapsing, their leaves are turning brown, and they are losing their height. Almost overnight, they are becoming ominous, dark, and misshapen shadows, a ghoulish reminder of their former glory.
The main culprit is the red palm weevil, an insect that originated in the Far East and first crossed into Israel from Jordan in 1999. Two types of trees are most susceptible to these pests: date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) and Canary date palms (Phoenix canariensis), also known as “pineapple palms.” Sometimes the weevils are joined by the rhinoceros beetle; named for the horn on the male’s head, this insect is a root borer with a similar taste in trees.
The red palm weevil often enters a palm tree at the tree’s crown, laying eggs that hatch into larvae that burrow into the tree trunk and literally eat the tree’s heart out. This stops the growth of new leaves and ultimately causes the tree’s collapse. In many cases, the infestation cannot be detected until it is too late; the crown, which may be out of view, wilts first, and the lower leaves follow later, after irreparable damage has already been done to the tree’s core.
Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture began warning of the dangers of the red palm weevil in 2013. Two years later, in the winter of 2015, the Israeli media began to report an epidemic of palm tree deaths in the Tel Aviv area, where the municipality took steps to protect trees in public areas, leaving private homeowners to deal with the blight on their own, at great expense. Three years later, the weevils have begun to infest trees in my city of Jerusalem as well.
And thus, our landscape is being transformed, as tree after tree succumbs, and homeowners — who must wade through bureaucracy to get permits to cut down diseased or dying trees — arrange to have the afflicted trees removed, sometimes replacing them with new landscaping; other times, just leaving an angry stump.
Just last week, the iconic palm trees at Safra Square, Jerusalem’s city hall, disappeared overnight, after one tree, apparently infested with weevils, fell onto the tracks of the Jerusalem light rail, raising concerns that the other trees were in danger of collapse as well and that visitors to the municipal square were at risk.
The Talmud relates that Honi the Circle Maker was once traveling on the road and saw a young man planting a carob tree. He asked how long it would take for the tree to bear fruit. The man answered: 70 years. “Are you sure you will live for another 70 years?” asked Honi. Said the man: “I found grown carob trees when I arrived in this world. Just as my ancestors planted them for me, so too I am planting them for my children.”
We came into a world with palm trees in Israel. But today, almost 70 years after the founding of the state, Israel’s palm trees are vanishing. In fact, some news reports have estimated that the date palm, one of the “seven species” of the land of Israel, may disappear completely from the region within 10 years. When our grandchildren think of a sukkah, they may not envision it having fronds of a date palm providing shade and shelter; when they see photos of Palm Sunday, they may see pilgrims carrying round fronds of less susceptible palm trees, rather than the long, straight fronds of date palms used today.
It may not be too late to save some of the palm trees in our neighborhoods. Preventative measures for trees that have not yet been infected or are at early stages of infection include massive doses of insecticides, the setting of pheromone traps, and even biological warfare in the form of imported worms.
But even if we fail, there is still reason for hope. In 2005, a researcher at the Arava Institute successfully sprouted a sapling of an extinct Judean date palm from a 2,000-year-old seed found at Masada. Named Methuselah, after the oldest person in the Bible, the tree is located at Kibbutz Ketura and is now over 10 feet tall. Additional Judean date palms have been grown from ancient seeds as well.
And until the fate of the trees is clear, we will look with wonder at the palm trees around us, never taking them for granted, marveling at their grandeur, documenting their existence, and doing what we can to ensure that they are not on their way to extinction.
Do you want to know how you can protect your palm tree? Information can be found in Hebrew on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website, while information in English is available from an Israeli exterminator here.
Are you a resident of South Jerusalem? The Minhal Kehilati of Greater Baka is trying to organize a group to purchase the relevant pesticides in bulk, since the cost of the treatments necessary to immunize trees at risk for infection can be prohibitive. The more trees in the neighborhood are immunized, the less damage the red palm weevils will be able to do.