• Issue: December 1981
  • Designer: photograph

"But the hill-country shall be thine; for though it is a forest, thou shalt cut it down, and the goings out thereof shall be thine" - thus spoke Joshua to the House of Joseph when the land was settled by the tribes of Israel. Today we have no idea what that forest looked like, as years of neglect and uncontrolled felling by both the local inhabitants and the neighbouring peoples have left hardly a tree standing.

The English Lieutenant Condor, who led a research expedition to the Holy Land during 1872-1875, reported "all signs point to the fact that the natural vegetation has undergone great changes over the years and that the forest area has greatly diminished. In the absence of any laws protecting the forests, the fellaheen chop down the trees for firewood and this undoubtedly affects the appearance of the landscape adversely. It was Man, not Nature, who destroyed the quality of the land".

It is no wonder, therefore, that the famous American author, Mark Twain, wrote in his book "The Innocents Abroad", in which he tells of his travels in the Holy Land in the year 1867, "Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of colour, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent... It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land... Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes... desolate and unlovely".

The British Mandatory government published the first Forest Protection Laws in 1927 and thereby succeeded in putting a stop to the uncontrolled destruction, preserving what remained of the forests and restoring them to life. Widespread restoration work was carried out following the War of Independence but, even so, the total natural forest areas of the Galilee, the Carmel, Samaria and the Judean Hillsamounttoonly400 square kilometres - a mere 2% of the area of the State of Israel.

Even these forests are threatened by their three traditional enemies: felling for firewood, overgrazing by goats and, especially, fire. Each year there are hundreds of forest fires in the country which destroy thousands of dunams of natural and newly-planted forests.

At first glance the forests resemble a uniform green carpet composed of a dense mass of trees and bushes - but this is deceptive. Dozens of different species of trees and bushes contribute their share to the general pattern - some keep their leaves throughout the year, others shed theirs in the autumn and are bare all winter long. In the autumn, the changing colours of the leaves remind one of Europe. It is then that the fruits of the forest ripen to add their colours to the scene, while spring is a veritable festival of colour as the buds and flowers vie with each other for the attention of the enchanted spectator.

This series of stamps depicts three of the most beautiful trees of the forest. Arbutus (wild strawberry). The appearance of the arbutus is unlike that of other forest trees. In addition to its smooth bark, it has large, green shiny leaves all the year round. In the spring, clusters of cream-coloured, bell-shaped flowers sprout from the ends of its branches which, in turn, give way in the autumn to round, striped, edible, red fruits resembling strawberries. The arbutus grows in damp, cool areas of the forest and is to be found in the Galilee, the Carmel, Samaria and the Judean Hills. Usually, it is in the form of a bush with several stalks, but occasionally it takes the form of a tree with a single trunk rising to a height of as much as 6-7 meters.

Cercis ("Judas Tree"). In the summer, it is difficult to pick out this tree from surrounding trees and bushes and even in winter, when it is bare of leaves, it does not stand out. In the spring, however, when its branches produce thousands of reddish-pink flowers, it cannot be overlooked - it is conspicuous for miles around. The "Judas Tree" produces its flowers before its leaves and only at the end of its flowering do the leaves appear. It flourishes in damp corners of Mediterranean forests and, while its main habitat is the Carmel and the Galilee, it can also be found in the Judean Hills and in Samaria. It is generally a small or medium-sized tree but occasionally attains a height of 8 meters or more.

Balonea Oak. Three species of oak flourish in Israel of which the Balonea is one. In certain areas of the country such as the slopes of Mt. Tabor, Tivon and the lower slopes of the Golan, it is the dominant tree. In former times there were large forests of Balonea Oak in the country but they have alIbeen destroyed and only a few small forests remain - the oak Reserve near Pardess Hanna which reminds us of the oak forests that covered large areas of Samaria, and the Tal Grove that recalls the forests that were once the glory of the Hula region. These two small forests survived and have been preserved because they were sacred to the local inhabitants who did not dare despoil them. The Tal Grove is also the outstanding example of a natural forest in Israel - its trees soar to a height of 18 meters, each with wide-spreading branches, and nowhere else in the country are there to be found trees of a comparable height and appearance. In the spring, the trees produce greenish-yellow blossoms but not all at the same time. In the autumn, the leaves of the Balonea Oak turn a yellow-brown and wither; the Balonea forests are the only ones in which you can see the falling leaves of autumn in their full glory. As autumn ends and winter begins, its fruits ripen to produce the acorn in its scaly cup.

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Trees of the Holy Land