The Iris Garden
Within the Memorial Gardens at Ramat Hanadiv, between the Palm Garden and the Rose Garden, lies a partly hidden, but rather unique garden: this is the Iris Garden
The public is invited to come and enjoy a flowering display of plants that boast spectacularly colored, large flowers (mid-February – late March). These are the aril irises (or in Latin) – the Oncocyclus group of plants in the Iris genus, among the most beautiful and impressive of all flowers, with known representatives in Israel, including: Gilboa iris (Iris haynei), dark-purple iris (Iris atropurpurea), Nazereth iris (Iris nazarena) and more.
The Iris Garden at Ramat Hanadiv is the product of long-term research and knowledge. The establishment and breeding of the plant collection was conducted by David Shahak (z”l), an expert on the breeding and reproduction of irises, and a member of Kibbutz Tirat Zvi in the Beit She’an Valley. Shahak brings us back to the moments when he first met what would become his life work: “March 1963. I am walking alone on Mt. Gilboa, a novice regarding nature. And suddenly I come across an amazing flower, which I have never seen or heard of before, the Gilboa iris. The meeting was “traumatic”, and since then I have suffered from “Irisida” disease, expressed by the desire to see and learn about as many irises as possible. I began to get interested, gathering every bit of information I could find. I tried to grow them from seed but they didn’t want to germinate. I read about the option of germinating recalcitrant seeds in embryo culture, and I opened a small lab in the small room that we lived in at the kibbutz. Slowly, slowly irises began to grow in our garden.” Over the years, Shahak was aided by experts and knowledge from around the world, and specialized in growing irises, eventually establishing a branch of commercial agriculture for growing domesticated irises at his kibbutz.
We note that these attempts at reproduction, that were performed during the 1960s and 1970s, would not be acceptable today. Due to continuing harm, all of the Israeli species of irises have been declared “protected natural assets”; collection of seeds or rhizomes may cause significant harm to the few species that still survive in Israel.
“One of the unique things about the group of irises in the garden, apart from their great beauty, is the fact that they are a relatively young group that is still under the influence of ongoing evolutionary changes. Irises grow in small groups, where the different sub-species or “populations” have small, unique distribution ranges, and often differ from each other in leaf appearance and flower color.” This group appears to have originated in Iran-Turkey-Armenia; Israel and Jordan are at the southern limit of its distribution. The Yerucham iris is probably the species with the southernmost location. The fact that the irises are currently at a young evolutionary stage, and establish in small groups in limited areas, is also the cause of their sensitivity and vulnerability. If one habitat in one small area is harmed (usually by construction and development) an entire species of iris may go extinct.
“Through my activities I understood the importance of conserving the irises,” stresses Shahak. Armed with a limited collection of iris species that he built up over the years, he approached the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, attempting to garner interest in his initiative to conserve this collection, and perhaps even expand it, so as to raise awareness of the importance of conserving the species. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority referred him to Ramat Hanadiv, where the sustainability approach that guides its diverse efforts to conserve habitats and species of plants and animals led to the adoption of the idea and the establishment of the Iris Garden. Today, the garden is home to 22 species of irises; the collection is the fruit of collaboration with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority that provides iris seeds and rhizomes from disturbed areas. These plants are not easy to grow, and the flowering garden is the result of scientific research and horticultural work performed together with the gardening staff at Ramat Hanadiv.