In our modern era red is a sign of danger or warning. A red traffic light means stop, a red city means way too many corona cases, the new health warnings for too much sugar are in red. In more ancient times an army would raise a red flag as a sign for battle and a red flag would be used to attract a bull. Further back it was a sign of blood and fire. For residents of the South of Israel in towns bordering Gaza “Tzeva Adom” or “Color Red” is a warning broadcast onto every street and into every household of an incoming missile.
In nature it doesn’t necessarily mean danger but is more a way to stand out and it is also the perfect combination of colours. My artistic daughter taught me that colours on the opposite side of the colour wheel are the ideal way to match colours. Red sits directly opposite green on the colour wheel. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body (my daughter didn’t get it from me) and can’t create anything myself but I don’t need to as nature does all the work for me. I naturally love that juxtaposition of a bright red flower amidst a deep green background that nature provides.
Growing up in Britain the reds and greens of nature symbolise the Christmas period. I grew up surrounded by Christmas cards from my parents’ work colleagues and neighbours. They would all have snow scenes, robin redbreasts and dark shiny green holly leaves with bright red berries. We had a large, prickly holly bush on our back patio and it was located exactly where we built the succah so ironically I associate holly with Succot as invariably I would get scratched in the building process.
Why does something want to stand out in nature? A flower wants to attract pollinators to it so they will come and eat its nectar and spread its pollen. A red berry wants to attract the attention of birds and other animals so they will eat the berry and spread the seeds to far places. In nature there is always a reason, its beauty is just a byproduct that we luckily get to enjoy.
The calanit (crown anemone) is now in full bloom and even those that never glance at nature would find it hard to be indifferent to this glorious red flower shouting at us from the hillsides. For many years I used to think every red flower was a poppy and that an anemone was only found in the ocean. In fact there are three red flowers that flower throughout the spring starting with the calanit (anemone) followed by the nurit (turban buttercup) and ending with the pereg (corn poppy). This actually helps because in English they flower in alphabetical order: anemone, buttercup and poppy. This also works in Hebrew and even in phonetic Hebrew: calanit, nurit and pereg. The calanit and the nurit are both from the same botanical family of buttercups while the pereg is a separate family.
There is a lovely story I use in guiding (as do most nature guides in Israel) to help children differentiate between the three red flowers. Even adults tend to enjoy it. It tells of three princesses who are all invited to a ball in a grand castle where they will meet their prince charming. Unfortunately when they emerge from their bedrooms in their finery they discover that they are all wearing the same red dress. Every teenager’s nightmare! Instead of throwing an immature hissy fit they confer and work out a solution. Each of them will make a small change so that they can be different from one another. Calanit (anemone) will wear a pearl necklace around her neck, Nurit (buttercup) will wear shiny red lipstick, and Pereg (poppy) will wear black earrings. Problem solved. Of course it has a happy ending and they all find their prince charming. I find this story doesn’t work so well in English as who would ever call their daughter Anemone?
From above we understand that the calanit has bright red petals and a black centre but is differentiated by a white ring (the pearl necklace) which forms around the black centre when the flower is more developed. The flower head follows the rays of the sun so it has a permanent incandescent glow. This helps its’ survival as the rays heat up the black centre by up to 10 degrees Celsius and so speeds up germination – in other words, get the job done quickly before the rain comes. A bit similar to my son working around the clock this week to fix our roof before the rain came. You will rarely find a bee in an anemone as they are not attracted to red because they see it as black. They are pollinated generally by other bugs, mainly flower beetles. Once the last red petals have fallen people stop noticing them but I think that is when they display the sheer intricacy and brilliance that nature has to offer. The fruit looks like it consists of a finely woven net that the best French lace maker would be proud of. This ‘net’ is actually the seeds that slowly slowly develop a fluffy parachute and escape into the winter wind to create future calaniot.
The calanit is probably the most famous flower in Israel especially as in 2013 it was crowned as Israel’s national flower. (A competition by Keren Kayemet Israel just finished crowning the olive tree as the national tree). It covers the country from North to South and it received notoriety by starring in the yearly Darom Adom (Red South) festival that takes place in the Northern Negev.. The residents of the Gaza border communities turned their besieged reputation around by producing a giant festival of red flowers every February at the peak of the calanit season. The festival is now one of the highlights of every Israeli’s calendar and is taking place (luckily, as it nearly didn’t because of the lockdown) as this blog goes to press. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the fields to see carpets upon carpets of stunning red calaniot, a sight to be seen to be believed. The local businesses provide local produce, picnic hampers, races and activities. It is a true celebration of life in an area which has suffered too much hardship.
The calanit played a crucial part in the pre state years. In 1945 the poet Nathan Alterman wrote a song called Calaniot about a young girl who gathers calaniot in a basket for her mother. This was recorded and widely performed by the singer Shoshanna Damari. The soldiers of the British mandate wore red caps which were the colour of calaniot and the underground fighters of the Lehi and Etzel used to sing this song to alert each other of the presence of British soldiers. In those days there was no awareness of protecting wild flowers and from the mid 1960’s the calanit became a protected flower in Israel.
I am printing the words of the poem below because they are so beautiful but one line resonates strongly with me:
“Storms will thunder and roar greatly
but the calaniot will always bloom.”
The southern residents were under a storm for so many years and the calaniot kept blooming, more and more each year. Now at the height of the corona pandemic, everything in our lives is unsure, but what we know for certain is that the calaniot will always bloom!
Calaniot, Natan Alterman
The evening comes,
the sunset on the hill burns
I am dreaming and my eyes see:
the proud young girl descends to the valley
and it blazes with a fire of anemones.
She’ll pick flowers to put in a bundle
and in the paths covered by dew
to Mother she rushes – calling out to her:
look what I brought for you in the basket!
anemones of dew and grace/charm
Sunset on the hill will blaze and go out
but the anemones will always bloom.
Storms will thunder and roar greatly
but the anemones will always bloom.
Years pass, the sunset blazes again
The girl grew, her beauty is endless.
going to the valley with her heart’s chosen
and again anemones bloom in it.
Her heart’s chosen extends his hands to her
and she’s laughing and bedewed
she whispers to him between the kisses
Look what I gathered here in the basket!
The vows of love will be forgotten,
but anemones will always bloom.
For the vows are light as smoke,
but the anemones are always the same.
Years passed, sunset blazes in the hill.
The girl is a grandma already, friends
Her granddaughter goes to the garden
and again anemones bloom in it.
And when the girl calls to her:
“look Grandma what I brought you,”
from laughter and tears her eyes glow
and she remembers a forgotten song melody…
Yes, generations come and pass without end
but each generation has an anemone in a tune.
Happy is the man if between storms and thunder
an anemone bloomed for him, if only just once.
Words translated by George Jakubovits of Toronto, Ontario, Canada