Sura Jeselsohn
Author of "A Habit of Seeing: Journeys in Natural Science""

Jerusalem – Center of the World

Another War Forced Upon Israel

These are terrible times. Israel is fending off enemies whose military might is noteworthy but whose public relations are breathtaking and frightening.  Too many people have little understanding of the history of present day Israel or of ancient Israel and the subsequent Jewish Diaspora.

In an effort to celebrate both ancient and modern Israel, I am dedicating this blog to plants that honor Jerusalem, the capital of both ancient and modern Israel. I also wish to honor the ultimate sacrifice of  too many IDF soldiers. This blog is dedicated to two soldiers in particular. They are with Ben Zussman, 22, and Naftali Gordon, 32. Ben Zussman is from the greater Bendheim family. The brother of one of my high school classmates from Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls married into that family. Naftali Gordon is related to my husband through the Offenbacher family.

Ben Zussman – Courtesy TOI
Naftali Gordon – Courtesy TOI

Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist (1707-1778), developed the system that we use today for classifying all living things. Humans are always seeking patterns and so, Linnaeus was hardly the first classifier.  An important element is his use of genus and species names, usually derived from Latin or ancient Greek, as the ultimate identifier of any living matter be it plant or animal.

Theophrastus, a Greek botanist from around 300BC systemized plants into trees, bushes, small shrubs and herbs and named about 480 plants. Dioscorides, a Greek doctor around 77AD, created a new system based on plant utility for humans. His categories, therefore, included aromatic plants, vegetables and medicinal plants. Later systems were based on similarities of plant appearances and shapes such as leaf forms.

Rob Dunn, author of A Natural History of the Future, suggests that Linnaeus had it easy insofar as Sweden and the northern European countries with which he was familiar – England, northern France, northern Germany, northern France, and the Netherlands – had relatively extremely low biodiversity.

The Hebrew name of the city  is Yerushalayim. While there are varied etymological explanations, most incorporate the word “Shalem/ Shalom” meaning peace. According to ancient sources, Jerusalem was known in Biblical texts by seventy different names.

However, for the purposes of this blog , we need to acquaint ourselves with the ancient Greek name for Jerusalem, Hierosoylma. The Latin adjective is hierosolymitanum.

Jerusalem Bellflower

Our first plant is the Jerusalem Bellflower (Campanula hierosolymitana Boiss.) This member of the Campanulaceae (bellflower family), grows throughout Israel in sub-tropical areas with the exception of the southern Negev. It is an annual, flowering from mid-March to end April.

The tag Boiss. found in the scientific name and seen frequently joined with other plant names refers to the Swiss botanist and explorer Pierre Edmond Boissier(1810-1885).  His vast botanic herbarium collections gathered on journeys through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East now reside in the Herbier Boissier in Geneva. He named the Jerusalem Bellflower in 1849. It is native to Israel, Turkey and Lebanon-Syria.

Jerusalem Bellflower- Courtesy Izik Kirshenbaum,

Jerusalem Autumn Crocus

For the uninitiated, this flower, (Colchicum hierosolymitanum Feinbrun) is a trifle confusing. It is referred to colloquially as a crocus but it is from an entirely different family. The Colchicaceae are related to lilies, while true crocuses are from Family Iridaceae, and therefore related to irises. The Jerusalem Autumn Crocus blooms from late September through late November although its foliage appears already in January through end March. The familiar crocuses found in New York gardens are early spring bloomers where foliage and flowers appear at the same time although the true crocus that supplies us with saffron, Crocus sativus, is a fall bloomer.

For those of you looking closely at the two different flowers, crocuses have three stigmas and 3 stamens while colchicums have 3 stigmas and six stamens.

Once again, you will note a tag on the scientific name, in this case Feinbrun. This refers to Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan (1900-1995) who documented and named Colchicum hierosolymitanum in 1927 with specimens in the collections of the Geneva Herbarium, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle and University of Gothenburg. She was a Russian-born Israeli botanist who helped found the Jerusalem Botanical Garden in 1931 together with Michael Zohary and Alexander Eig. The colchicum flower colchicum feinbruniae has been named in her honor.

The Colchicum autumnale, the autumn crocus is still being used as a treatment for gout. It was already mentioned in the ancient Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BCE for this purpose. The purified product is called colchicine which is also used in plant breeding and cytogenetics.

Jerusalem Autumn Crocus – Courtesy , Gideon Pisanty

Jerusalem Vetchling

Lathyrus hierosolymitanus is a member of the Fabaceae or legume family which we see regularly in this column. The name Lathyrus, indeed, comes from the Greek lathyros meaning “pea.” This genus is also known as Pisum which is Latin for “pea.” It also has the subheading Boiss. which, as noted above, stands for the botanist Pierre Edmond Boissier. This plant is an annual and flowers from February through March.

Jerusalem Vetchling- Courtesy aviplot(Flickr)

Galium hierosolymitanum                                                            

It is a member of the Rubiaceae family otherwise known as the coffee, madder or bedstraw family. The name Rubiaceae was given by Pliny the Elder who named the madder plants Rubia tinctorum. “Ruber” means “red” in Latin and madder roots can be used to create two different red dyes.

This plant blooms from mid-March to mid-June, is found from Israel to Turkey and was described by Linnaeus in 1756.

Galium hierosolymitanum Flower – Courtesy sabi

Jerusalem Sage

Years ago I visited Neot Kedumim ( , a botanical garden, which is the brainchild of Noga HaReuveni. The park itself spreads over 625 acres and contains numerous specialty gardens. The plants found here represent the wild and domesticated flora grown in ancient Israel. It was there that I was introduced to a plant that strongly resembles the menorah. This is the Jerusalem sage or Salvia hierosolymitana.

This plant is a member of the Lamiaceae family otherwise known as the mint, dead nettle and sage family. Many of our aromatic herbs are from this family including mint, rosemary and thyme. One of the identifying characteristics of this family is the square stem. I always enjoy handing a stem piece to someone and asking them to examine it carefully by rolling it through their fingers and identifying the shape. Everyone expects a round shape and it is often a source of much amusement.

Salvia, apparently, derives from the Latin salvus noun meaning health and well-being. The noun became sawge in Middle English from the French sauge, whence our name “sage.”

It blooms from March through June. The color of the flowers that bloom in the hills of Judea and Samaria are a deep red while those flowering in the Upper Galilee are pinkish. It was first described by our old friend Pierre Edmond Boissier.

Salvia hierosolymitana- Photo by JLBG taken at Juniper Level Botanic Gdn, NC

Nothing can replace our valiant young men who believe in the people of Israel in the Land of Israel and who gave their last full measure of devotion so that all of Israel’s citizens should be able to live in peace.

About the Author
Sura Jeselsohn has a background in science and is an avid gardener and quilter. Her weekly column, Green Scene, is published in the Riverdale Press. She has published a book, "A Habit of Seeing: Journeys in Natural Science" , available in paperback and Kindle at