Exploring the Herbariun at Hebrew University-Givat Ram Campus in Jerusalem

Herbarium Specimen Label of plant originally collected by Tuvia Kushnir
These 6,000-year-old phragmites were found in a burial cave in Wadi el-Makkukh in the Judean desert
Emmer Wheat Herbarium Specimen.

Having written two articles 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 emailed the director, Dr. 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 (HUJ) 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 between 1M-1.2M plants. The backlog continues to grow as new plants are submitted primarily by amateur botanists. The collection is being digitized and can be found here.

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 have also 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 -12” 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 not identify 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 3.5 km north-west 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 5’6” inch man had reached the advanced age of 45-50 years old. He was wrapped in a linen shroud and dressed in a linen kilt and sash with leather sandals. 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.

My last question was, “What is the most scientifically important specimen in the herbarium?” That took us quickly to another herbarium sheet, which had a grassy-looking specimen.

Today’s food supply derived from plants tends to depend on several major crops from a small number of species. The danger is obvious. When a new disease or pest attacks a particular crop, it can destroy massive amounts of foodstuffs quickly with deadly results This dependence on a single crop caused the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) when potato tubers, infested with the mold Phytophthora infestans, caused a million deaths from starvation in Ireland, with another million emigrating out of a total population of 8 million.

Somewhat later, first reported in 1868, the French wine industry was decimated in a destruction of French wine vines known as the Great French Wine Blight. In this case the damage was caused by an aphid, Daktulosphaira vitifoliae otherwise known as the grape phylloxera. This was an American insect against which American vines had developed resistance; French vines, however, were defenseless. The eventual solution was to graft French vines onto American rootstocks.

More contemporaneous and therefore more cause for concern is the sudden reappearance of fungal wheat rust diseases. While fungicides can protect plants, large outbreaks could threaten the billion people who depend on wheat as a major foodstuff. First observed in 2016 in Sicily, it is being closely monitored by various governmental agencies.

All of this digression brings us back to the particularly important herbarium sheet at HUC. From the above three cases of significant crop failure, it is clearly important to have measures in place to protect the world’s food supply. To this end there is a serious effort to maintain seed banks with multiple versions – different species of the same genus – particularly of important crop plants.

Our last case of wheat rusts highlights the need for resistant varieties. One scientific method used to reincorporate protective genes is to cross-breed modern plants with their more distant ancestors.

But, what is the ancestor of modern wheat? There is an ancient version of wheat called emmer that has been found in Neolithic sites going back to 17,000 BCE. It is not known if those samples were cultivated or simply foraged in the wild . But already 10,000 years ago, emmer wheat was being cultivated in the Middle East and Mesopotamia. This emmer variety, Triticum dicoccum, a specimen collected by Aaron Aaronsohn was there right in front of me! It was collected in 1906 and caused a sensation at the time. And yes, this strain is resistant to known wheat rusts.

This discovery made Aaronsohn world-famous and as a result of a fund-raising trip to the United States he was able to create a research station in Atlit in 1909, also supported by the USDA, where he built up a large collection of geological and botanical specimens as well as an important library.

Like all discoveries there are many layers. Karl Georg Theodor Kotschy(1813-1866) was an Austrian botanist and explorer. In 1855, he made a botanical tour of Egypt, Lebanon and pre-State Israel where he was collecting specimens for the University of Vienna. At that time, he collected some wild specimens of barley in the vicinity of Mt. Hermon. Among the barley grains, there were also a few grains of emmer wheat.

Friedrich August Koernicke (1828-1908) was a German agronomist, whose particular interest was cereal grains, especially wheat. He sent Aaron Aaronsohn back to the Kotschy’s collection sites to collect further emmer specimens. Aaronsohn then found samples in two locations -near Mt. Hermon and in Rosh Pina, a town in the upper Galilee. Molecular studies have supported the contention that emmer is the “Mother of Wheat.”

My last question  to the collections manager of the herbarium was, “What is the most scientifically important specimen in the herbarium?” That took us quickly to another herbarium sheet, which had a grassy-looking specimen.

Today’s food supply derived from plants tends to depend on several major crops from a small number of species. The danger is obvious. When a new disease or pest attacks a particular crop, it can destroy massive amounts of foodstuffs quickly with deadly results This dependence on a single crop caused the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) when potato tubers, infested with the mold Phytophthora infestans, caused a million deaths from starvation in Ireland, with another million emigrating out of a total population of 8 million.

Somewhat later, first reported in 1868, the French wine industry was decimated in a destruction of French wine vines known as the Great French Wine Blight. In this case the damage was caused by an aphid, Daktulosphaira vitifoliae otherwise known as the grape phylloxera. This was an American insect against which American vines had developed resistance; French vines, however, were defenseless. The eventual solution was to graft French vines onto American rootstocks.

More contemporaneous and therefore more cause for concern is the sudden reappearance of fungal wheat rust diseases. While fungicides can protect plants, large outbreaks could threaten the billion people who depend on wheat as a major foodstuff. First observed in 2016 in Sicily, it is being closely monitored by various governmental agencies.

All of this digression brings us back to the particularly important herbarium sheet at HUC. From the above three cases of significant crop failure, it is clearly important to have measures in place to protect the world’s food supply. To this end there is a serious effort to maintain seed banks with multiple versions – different species of the same genus – particularly of important crop plants.

Our last case of wheat rusts highlights the need for resistant varieties. One scientific method used to reincorporate protective genes is to cross-breed modern plants with their more distant ancestors.

But, what is the ancestor of modern wheat? There is an ancient version of wheat called emmer that has been found in Neolithic sites going back to 17,000 BCE. It is not known if those samples were cultivated or simply foraged in the wild . But already 10,000 years ago, emmer wheat was being cultivated in the Middle East and Mesopotamia. This emmer variety, Triticum dicoccum, a specimen collected by Aaron Aaronsohn was there right in front of me! It was collected in 1906 and caused a sensation at the time. And yes, this strain is resistant to known wheat rusts.

This discovery made Aaronsohn world-famous and as a result of a fund-raising trip to the United States he was able to create a research station in Atlit in 1909, also supported by the USDA, where he built up a large collection of geological and botanical specimens as well as an important library.

Like all discoveries there are many layers. Karl Georg Theodor Kotschy(1813-1866) was an Austrian botanist and explorer. In 1855, he made a botanical tour of Egypt, Lebanon and pre-State Israel where he was collecting specimens for the University of Vienna. At that time, he collected some wild specimens of barley in the vicinity of Mt. Hermon. Among the barley grains, there were also a few grains of emmer wheat.

Friedrich August Koernicke (1828-1908) was a German agronomist, whose particular interest was cereal grains, especially wheat. He sent Aaron Aaronsohn back to the Kotschy’s collection sites to collect further emmer specimens. Aaronsohn then found samples in two locations -near Mt. Hermon and in Rosh Pina, a town in the upper Galilee. Molecular studies have supported the contention that emmer is the “Mother of Wheat.”

Aaronsohn, however, did other important work. During World War I, he was an organizer of Nili, a group of  Jews in Pre-State Israel who spied for the British against the ruling Ottoman Turks. After the War he entered politics and died under unclear circumstances when his plane crashed over the English Channel in May 1919 ).

Leschner pulled out one more sheet containing a specimen of Noeae mucronata or  thorny saltwort. The sheet is less interesting than the collector, Tuvia Kushnir. He was a well-known botanist and collector with two flowers named for him , an iris named Iris tuvia and a desert crocus called Colchicum tuviae. April 2017, a flower only seen by Kushnir 60 years ago, the Galilee fumitory — Fumaria thuretii Boiss — was spotted. Kushnir was killed during the Israel War of Independence as a member of the legendary Lamed Hey.

Who knew that herbaria would be this exciting!

About the Author
Sura Jeselsohn has a background in science and is an avid gardener. Her weekly column, Green Scene, is published in the Riverdale Press.
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