A few months ago, I received a strange and
wonderful gift of three tiny neem trees from Dr. Elaine Solowey. These
tiny neem trees from Dr. Solowey’s nursery on Kibbutz Ketura, Israel,
out to be a highlight of the garden we are now planting in Rehovot.
tree (originally from India) it turns out, will protect our other trees from
insect invasion and parasites – just by growing in the garden. The neem leaves
can also be ground up to spray as an organic insect killer.
And this is exactly
what we will do — to protect the marula, black sapota, wampee, and raisin
trees that we are planting.
I first saw the marula tree at the organic orchards of Amnon Uziah and the
black sapota at the moshav orchards of Shmuel Landau.
Then a few months ago in the spring, Dr. Solowey treated me to a tour of
her magnificent experimental orchard on Kibbutz Ketura. Towering marula trees
with full leafy branches are testimony to Elaine’s claim that the marula
thrives in Ketura’s desert environment. Marula trees require only one-fourth
the amount of water that citrus trees need in order to bear fruit. In addtion,
the fruit of the marula has four times the amount of vitamin C than that
of citrus fruts. Marula trees
are indigenous to Africa. In a special plant exchange program betwwen Kibbutz
Ketura and the Ministry of Agriculture of Botswana, arranged by Dr. Solowey
25 years ago, the Africans received date and pomegrante trees in exchange
for the majestic marula tree.
Also known as the drunken elephant tree in Africa, the ripe marula fruit
found on the ground is eaten by elephants. The ripe fruit then ferments in
their stomachs — and the elephants sway in drunken stupor.
So that not only
elephants would be able to enjoy the intoxicating effects of the fermented
marula fruit, enterprising moshav farmer, Amnon Uziah, under the tutelage
of Prof. Yossi Mizrachi, turned the marula fruit into a liqueur – which is
now sold around the world.
I was privileged
to experience the orchards of Kibbutz Ketura — a kibbutz founded by Americans
26 years ago and located 45 minutes north of Eilat in the Arava — one day
Solowey, a founding kibbutz member originally from California, is a leading
advocate of desert agriculture. For the last 25 years she has nurtured an
experimental orchard in the Arava desert, 40 km from Eilat.
According to Dr.
Solowey, desert agriculture is not about adapting crops that thrive in other
climate zones to the desert, but rather the cultivation of existing desert
plants into edible crops. “Crops” are defined as trees — which use scarce
resources sparingly — and as perenniels — which by definition are plants
that do not need to be “restarted”. She grows exotic fruit trees and fruit-bearing
The trees in her
breeding orchard are chosen for their resistance to heat and salt tolerance.
Trees suitable for the Israeli climate and conditions are those which thrive
in saline water or rubbish water, for example. Her self-initiated mandate
centers on principles of biodiversity. The challenge, states Solowey, is to
find appropriate wild plants, and then to domesticate them, without depleting
a natural resource.
An example of a successful
adaptation of a desert plant into a crop, is the pitaya. Pitaya, the
fruit of a cactus plant, has become a commercially viable crop — with 12
tons of the fruit exported to Europe alone, last year. In a neat twist, the
Tucson Growers’ Association of Tucson, Arizona, is acquiring the know-how
and plants — from Israel.