One thing Olim miss most in Israel is the changing color of the leaves on the trees. We don’t have a true autumn experience here. No landscape of greens turning to gold, turning to red and then floating down to the ground to create a pile of leaves to scuff about in. However as most of the trees are evergreen we don’t suffer from all those barren trees that make winter appear so chilling.
If you go outside right now there is actually a blurring of three seasons. The plane (dolev) and Syrian pear (agas suri) trees think it is still fall and are losing their leaves giving a fantastic array of autumnal colors. The fig, pomegranate and terebinth trees are wantonly baring their naked branches in true winter style. Meanwhile the almond tree is starting to blossom which for most of us is the first sign of spring! I don’t blame them for being confused, a week ago I was in sandals and t-shirt, this week I’m in a scarf and woolly hat and who knows what will be next week. Only one thing is for sure, we will probably still be in lockdown!
In fact, like every year, my Facebook plant groups already had posts of sightings of the first almond tree blossoms in early December. This is too early if you listen to the children’s song “the almond tree is blossoming” which is traditionally sung on the trees birthday, Tu B’Shvat, which we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. Now the almond blossoms are bursting from every branch and are particularly noticeable as the branches are bare of leaves.
Why does the almond tree start blossoming in winter? The almond is competitive and wants to be first. What does it want to be first at? At attracting the pollinating bees as it doesn’t want competition from the other tree blossoms. If you stand under a blossoming almond tree it is alive with the sound of humming bees, as busy as the Modiin mall on a Friday morning when it’s not a world pandemic.
Within a couple of weeks the nubs of tiny almonds will already be peeping out of the flower and within a month those almonds will be edible. Not in the nut form we are familiar with but the outer fluffy layer is crisp and green with a juicy sour flavor while the developing almond is still just a soft tiny jelly at this stage. This tree has pushed out a viable, edible fruit in the middle of winter without even fully growing all of its leaves. The leaves are what would normally provide a plant with its energy but the almond is basically running on empty. A bit like a parent completing the morning marathon of getting the kids to school before having a cup of coffee (unthinkable). A word of warning, these juicy green almonds become hard and bitter very quickly and I have nearly lost some teeth biting into them at this later stage. The almond tree will spend the next eight months forming three protective layers around it’s fruit and will only be properly ripe in the form we know it from around August.
The almond tree, because of the above characteristics, symbolizes diligence, dedication and hard work. The Hebrew word for almond is shaked (pronounced sha-ked) which literally means diligent in modern Hebrew and is the metaphor for diligence in the Bible. In Jeremiah 1:11 the Lord shows Jeremiah an almond tree as a sign that he promises to keep his word.
As a guide at Neot Kedumim Biblical Nature reserve the almond tree is a great way to start a tour because it encompasses the essence of what the reserve stands for – understanding the Bible through the nature, the land of Israel, the ancient working of the land, the Hebrew language and all the symbolism they represent.
Look up at the blossoms and notice that they vary from different shades of white to pink, just like the cyclamens I described in my previous blog. Add to this spectrum the deep red of the anemone flowers scattered under the almond trees and you have the explanation for the tradition of drinking 4 cups of wine ranging from white through shades of pink to red in a Tu B’shvat seder (ceremony)!
Now bury your nose in an almond blossom and the rich smell will make you feel like you are Pooh Bear with his head buried in a pot of honey. Please make sure there isn’t a bee in there first. Ouch! Amazingly at the same time as smelling the flower you can also pick and eat an almond. This is because this tree has protected its seeds so well that a year later there are still edible almonds on it, The skill in cracking the almonds is finding a rock big enough to crack it but not too big to smash it to smithereens. Now because I like my readers and I don’t want to lose any of you I feel I should point out that wild almonds contain a small amount of cyanide. I would recommend not eating more than a few at a time although they are so bitter you probably wouldn’t want to.
The wild almond tree needs very little water and will produce fruit even in times of drought and this was used mostly to produce almond oil. We see this in the bible when Jacob and his sons leave Canaan due to drought and famine and yet take almonds with them as gifts to Pharaoh in Egypt as none of the other basic Biblical crops were growing. As we are not a water rich country and those of us from the colder climates certainly miss the snow, the closest we can get to snow is standing under an almond tree in blossom on a breezy day and you will soon be covered with tiny snow blossoms.
I am officially addicted to almond croissants. I know that they are not exactly an Israeli delicacy but one of the wonderful things about this country is the smorgasbord of international cuisine we get because of such a high immigration rate from around the world. Thankfully we have had a large influx of French immigrants and the proliferation of superb quality French bakeries is a massive treat for those of us that will only eat our pastries with butter. Within my own British Ashkenazi past almonds always remind me of Passover. My favorite childhood task was soaking the brown skins off the almonds and splitting them in half to go on top of my mum’s fantastic almond macaroons a la Florence Greenberg.
Even if you don’t celebrate Tu B’Shvat in the traditional manner then I recommend you go out and smell the almond blossom if you have one in your 1km radius, or just go out and smell the roses!
Happy Tu B’Shvat.