Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Botanist Brings Trees to the Israeli Desert

• July 21, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Deep in the driest and hottest part of Israel, a California-born botanist is trying to remake the Negev Desert with productive trees that thrive on abuse.

The desert sky was an odd brooding gray as we pulled into McDonald’s, the arches looming bright and preternaturally yellow out of the dusty landscape. By the time we’d finished our McKebab sandwiches — much better than you might expect — it was raining: a steady, drumming, respectable rain.

It almost never rains in Israel’s Arava Valley, the driest, hottest and southernmost part of Israel. I was about to meet a desert botanist, Elaine Solowey, so I was anxious to hear what she’d say. I assumed she’d be excited about the rain and wax rhapsodic about making the desert bloom and all that.

But no, she seemed annoyed. She pointed out that a light rain just moves the surface salts down to the plant roots and that you then have to use more water to get rid of it. “What I wish is for rain in the north where it can do some good.”

I spent the afternoon with Solowey at Kibbutz Ketura, where she’s lived since its founding in the early 1970s. Ketura is also now home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where Solowey runs the Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Solowey, who was raised in California’s Central Valley — another hot locale but one with considerably more water sources and more fertile — has a no-nonsense manner that can come off as brusque. Fair enough: When you’ve spent your career working some of the world’s least forgiving soil, you’re unlikely to suffer fools — gladly or otherwise.

Solowey made news in 2005 when she accomplished what was thought to be botanically impossible: germinating a 2,000-year-old date seed that had been found during an excavation at Masada. She showed me earlier this year the spot where Methuselah, as the sapling is known, was to be planted in the ground — noting that it will be on a security system.

Solowey is a champion of improbable plants. Her “experimental orchard,” a nursery for mostly forgotten and endangered desert species, includes 1,000 varieties of trees, cacti and grains. The orchard is a small Eden in the wilderness, lush with exotic fruit species — sapodilla, yellow pitaya, Yemenite pomegranate — and other productive plants that thrive in arid, saline soil.


View The Arava Institute/Center for Sustainable Agriculture in a larger map

Nearby, next to the rows of date palms that represent one of the kibbutz’s sources of income, is the broad acacia tree that started it all. The tree was about to be taken down to make room for the dates, but Solowey protested — she saw that this was not just a tree but an entire ecosystem. Birds nested there, jackals slept in its branches, grasses flourished under its canopy.

Such observations launched her quest to understand desert plants and explore their ecological and economic potential — a potential she believes remains largely untapped.

“More than 15,000 edible, medicinal or useful products come from perennial plants that have not been domesticated,” she wrote in her 2003 book, Small Steps Towards Abundance: Crops for a More Sustainable Agriculture. Her research focuses on identifying and nurturing trees and other perennials that yield food for people and livestock, as well as serve other functions like building soil and stopping erosion. A particular interest is cultivating medicinal plants; she works closely with the Natural Medicine Research Unit at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on domesticating wild medicinal plants and preserving endangered species with medicinal properties. She pointed out a row of neem trees, members of the mahogany family, which, she said, have so many medical uses in India they’re called the “pharmacy of the village.”

“They also act as a windbreak for the arganias,” she said. “We have 300 of them, and I’m glad.”

Many orchard specimens have been forgotten to the point of extinction. “There are plants here in the south that are going extinct, and no one is noticing,” she said. “As for most of those, we don’t know the duties they perform, the animals that live in them. Why in the world should we let them die when with so little effort we can keep them alive?”

She has a grove of 150 marula trees from Africa, a prolific producer whose fruit is useful for liqueurs and animal fodder. Another current favorite is the Argania spinosa, from Morocco, known for nuts that make high-quality oil — and which, significantly, survives on very little water.

“We’re hoping to find people new crops to make a living on,” she said. “Until we get a handle on these trees, get a sense of the life cycle, we can’t do it.”

She says she’s always on the lookout for plants that are “salt tolerant, heat tolerant, dry tolerant and pretty tough. Changing the desert for our plants is expensive and not sustainable. We should only be growing things here that are biologically appropriate.” This includes domesticating plants with high-value crops, like dates: “Dates need seven months of no rain. If you’ve got lemons, make lemonade. What we have is 350 days of full sunlight.”

Her efforts span borders. For example, in a joint program with the Jordan University of Science and Technology, her program exchanges seeds of now-rare native plants for research and looks for salt-tolerant, water-saving plants that might do well in the region. One of her projects involving medicinal species involves Tibetan plants, and as a result she gave the Dalai Lama a tour of her orchard.

Given the range of benefits from trees, and, compared to annual crops, how much less energy, water and labor they require, Solowey believes people should devote more effort to long-lived plants, and especially in a place like Israel. This she learned after years on the kibbutz. “Because of the Mediterranean climate, it’s easier to grow fruits than vegetables here,” she said. “Two-thirds of Israel is desert or semi-desert. Very few vegetables like that climate.”

Because, in its early years, the kibbutz banked on crops like lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes that take lots of work in that environment, everyone had to pitch in, she recalled. “We had to do vegetable work after we came home from our other jobs. And what did we get? One-shekel-20 a kilo.”

She’s since decided annual crops were a mistake. “Ecologically, the more fragile the ecosystem, the more easy it is to mess it up. The soil dries, blows away more easily, gets compacted by tractors, and the minerals get washed away. If you abuse it, it turns into a parking lot.”

One inspiration of hers is the work of J. Russell Smith, an American geographer and economist who observed how conventional agriculture ravaged the landscape around the world, leaving gullies and hills of sand where there had been plants. In his classic 1929 book Tree Crops, he portrayed trees as the answer.

“When you replant [with trees], you slow or stop the wind, you stop the loss of topsoil and erosion from rain,” says Solowey. “The only way you can stop desertification is with plants, rows of trees. In 10 years, the neem tree makes you several inches of topsoil, and it forms a microclimate that holds moisture. Acacias are nitrogen-fixing trees, and can be used for land restoration. It drops its leaves before the rainy season [which turns into] litter so rich other plants grow around it. A wonderful thing, an acacia tree.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Judith D. Schwartz
Judith D. Schwartz is a Southern Vermont author and journalist with wide-ranging interests and credits. Her latest book is The Therapist's New Clothes. See her blog at

More From Judith D. Schwartz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 23 • 4:00 PM

A New Way Insurers Are Shifting Costs to the Sick

By charging higher prices for generic drugs that treat certain illness, health insurers may be violating the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, which bans discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions.


September 23 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t More Women Commit Corporate Fraud?

Would having more female leaders reduce corporate crime? We don’t know, but the research suggests it’s likely.


September 23 • 12:00 PM

A Brief History of the Loch Ness Monster

From 1933—and possibly much, much earlier—to just this past May, people have been claiming (and staging) sightings of the famed water cryptid.



September 23 • 10:00 AM

The International Surrogacy Market

In Bangalore, where many women earn just $150 a month working in garment factories, surrogate mothers can make thousands of dollars by carrying others’ babies to term. But at what cost?


September 23 • 8:00 AM

Medicare: Your New Long-Term Care Provider

A 2013 court ruling has paved the way for an incredible, costly expansion of home health care by removing a critical lever the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to control who receives services, and for how long.


September 23 • 6:22 AM

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.


September 23 • 6:00 AM

The Heist: How Visitors Stole a National Monument

Fossil Cycad National Monument was home to one of the world’s greatest collections of fossilized cycadeoids—until visitors carried them all away.


September 23 • 4:00 AM

Fifty Shades of Meh

New research refutes the notion that reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy strongly impacts women’s sexual behavior.


September 23 • 2:00 AM

The Portlandia Paradox

Oregon’s largest city is full of overeducated and underemployed young people.


September 22 • 4:00 PM

The Overly Harsh and Out-of-Date Law That’s So Difficult on Debtors

A 1968 federal law allows collectors to take 25 percent of debtors’ wages, or every penny in their bank accounts.


September 22 • 2:00 PM

NFL Players Are More Law Abiding Than Average Men

According to records kept by USA Today, 2.53 percent of players are arrested in any given year.


September 22 • 12:00 PM

Freaking Out About Outliers: When the Polls Are Way Off

The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it’s actually a very reliable process—most of the time.


September 22 • 10:00 AM

The Imagined Sex Worker

The stigma against black sex workers can reinforce stigmas against all black women and all sex workers.


September 22 • 9:54 AM

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.


September 22 • 8:00 AM

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.


September 22 • 6:00 AM

Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz’s new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.


September 22 • 4:02 AM

You’re Going to Die! So Buy Now!

New research finds inserting reminders of our mortality into advertisements is a surprisingly effective strategy to sell products.



September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


Follow us


On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

All-Girls Schools Don’t Make Girls More Competitive

Parents, not educational setting, may be the key.

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

The Big One

One in three tourists to Jamaica reports getting harassed; half of them are hassled to buy drugs. September/October 2014 new-big-one-4

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.