Flora and Fauna in Palestine

By: Dr. Sc. Norman Ali Bassam Ali Taher Khalaf-Sakerfalke von Jaffa

Note: This article was published in "Gazelle: The Palestinian Biological Bulletin". ISSN 0178-6288. Number 91, July 2009, Rajab 1430. pp.1-31.

A Stunning Variety:

Packed into Palestine's small area are snow-covered mountains, parched deserts, fertile fields, lush woodlands and long stretches of sand dunes. No less than four different geographical zones are included in Palestine, and the country's climate ranges from semi-arid to temperate to subtropical.

All of this makes Palestine home to a stunning variety of plants and animals. Some 47,000 living species have been identified in Palestine, with another 4,000 assumed to exist. There are 116 species of mammals native to Palestine, 511 kinds of birds, 97 types of reptiles and nine types of amphibians. Some 2,780 types of plants grow countrywide, from Alpine flowers on northern mountain slopes to bright red coral peonies and desert papyrus reeds in the south.

Flora in Palestine:

"A land of wheat and barley and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey." (The Bible).

Much has since been added to this Biblical description of what grows in Palestine. Bananas, oranges and other citrus fruits dominate the coastal plain. Deciduous fruit trees grow all over the country, but particularly well in the cool hills. Dates, bananas, avocado, guava and mango flourish in the hot Jordan valley. The basic grains rub shoulders with vegetables and tobacco, cotton, groundnuts and sugar beets.

Palestine's landscape of flowers and plants changes abruptly with its different geographical regions. Natural woodlands of Palestine oaks (Quercus calliprinos) cover the upper Galilee, Mount Carmel and other hilly regions. In spring, rockrose (Helianthemum nummularium) and thorny broom (Calycotome infesta) turn the hillsides pink, white and yellow. There are hyacinth, crocus and narcissus in the mountains as early as December, followed by anemones, tulips, cyclamen, iris and daisies. Honeysuckle creeps over the bushes, and large plane trees provide shade along the freshwater streams of Al Jaleel (Galilee).

The country's woodlands and forests were ravaged during centuries of warfare and neglect, but much has been done to reforest the countryside. Today, there are over 200 million trees in Palestine - forests of pine, tamarisk, carob and eucalyptus. Wildflowers and medicinal plants grow in profusion. Fruit trees bloom from January to April. In the south, acacia trees and the prickly Indian fig cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) suck moisture from the desert. In Al Naqab (Negev) highlands, massive Atlantic pistachios (Pistacia atlantica) strike a dramatic note among the dry riverbeds, and date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) grow wherever there is sufficient underground water.

Many of the country's cultivated flowers - among them, the iris, madonna lily (Lilium candidum), tulip and hyacinth - have relatives among wild flowers. Soon after the first winter rains fall in October/November, a green carpet grows, covering the country until the next dry season. Pink and white cyclamen and red, white and purple anemones bloom from December to March, followed by the blue lupin (Lupinus angustifolius) and yellow corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum). Many native plants, such as the crocus and squill, are geophytes, storing nourishment in their bulbs and tubers and blooming at the end of the summer.

Picking wildflowers used to be a popular pastime, with some even sold commercially. In the mid-1960s, however, the Nature Reserves Authorities in Palestine and Israel, with the help of the Palestine Wildlife Society and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, published a list of protected wildflowers and launched a vigorous education campaign. The public was urged: "Don't pick! Don't uproot! Don't buy! And don't sell!" The effort saved Palestine's wildflowers, and four decades later it is considered the most successful nature protection campaign conducted in the country.

Foto: The Palestine Oak Quercus calliprinos Webb

 Botanists today divide the country's flora into seven distinct groups:

  • Mediterranean
  • Irano-Turanian, which is also found on the Asian steppes of the Syrian desert, in Iran, Anatolia and the Gobi Desert
  • Saharo-Arabian, which is also found in the Sahara, Sinai and Arabian deserts
  • Sudano-Zambesian, typical of Africa's subtropical savannas
  • Euro-Siberian
  • Plants that grow in more than one of these regions
  • Species from the Americas, Australia and South Africa that have started growing in Palestine without human assistance.

Four major features have shaped this floral diversity: the country's location and topography; its rock and soil formations; its climate; and the impact of man. The human influence has been so powerful that it has actually changed some landscapes: during the countless years that man has roamed this area, he has collected and cultivated plants for food, cleared land for agriculture, domesticated grazing animals, selected and deified holy trees, and brought new plants into the country.                                                                                   The Israeli occupation forces destroyed and uprooted countless Palestinian trees, plants and farmlands. Israel is destroying Palestinian territories through deforestation and the expropriation and erosion of agricultural lands, as well as by seizing lands, harvests and livestock.

Today Palestine has 19 principal plant communities. They are:

1. Maquis (areas containing small trees and shrubs) and Forests: Located in the mountains of Judea, the Carmel and Galilee, these were the main woodlands. In most of the area today, the wild trees have been replaced by cultivated plants and domesticated trees, such as the olive and almond, or have been reforested with the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). Where cultivated land is abandoned, low herbaceous Mediterranean semi-shrubs grow.

2. Oak Woodlands: On the volcanic rock of the occupied Golan Heights, maquis dominated by the common oak (Quercus robur) grows in areas higher than 500 meters above sea level. Botanists believe that the woodland ranges here have decreased substantially during the past century.

3. Winter Deciduous (Montane) Forests: On Mount Hermon, between 1,300 and 1,800 meters above sea level, winter deciduous trees and shrubs that can withstand the cold and wind flourish.

4. Mount Tabor Oak (Quercus ithaburensis) Woodlands: This Mediterranean tree grows in Palestine's drier and warmer coastal areas, although much of these woodlands have been converted into olive groves.

5. Carob and Terebinth Woodlands: These forests cover the limestone hills at the foot of the central mountain range.

6. Lotus and Herbaceous Vegetation: These shrubs are scattered over the hilly south-eastern Galilee, making it look like a park without trees.

7. Savanna Mediterranean: In areas too warm and too dry for Mediterranean trees, the quasi-tropical jujube and spiny trees of Sudanese origin grow.

8. Semi-Steppe: Where Palestine’s Mediterranean region meets the desert, the vegetation changes to semi-shrubs.

9. Cushion-Plants: Mount Hermon plants that grow beyond 1,900 meters above sea level must survive three to five months covered by snow each year and another four to five months of drought. The dominant vegetation here is small, spiny, rounded, dense shrubs known as cushion-plants.

10. Steppe: Semi-shrubs cover the slopes and hills of areas of the country that receive 80 to 250 mm. of rain a year. This vegetation formation is often referred to as steppe.

11. Atlantic Terebinth Steppe: On rocky terrain higher than 800 meters, the Atlantic terebinth (Pistacia atlantica) grows.

12. Desert: Steppe vegetation gradually gives way to Saharo-Arabian plant species as the climate becomes drier.

13. Sand: Each of Palestine's three sandy areas has a different climate and sand of different origin. Each, therefore, has different kinds of vegetation.

14. Oases: The warmest parts of Palestine are the Araba (Arava), the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley. Run-off and underground water accumulate here, enabling trees of Sudanese origin to grow in the oases, and salt-resistant date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) to flourish around desert springs.

15. Desert Savanna: In the Rift Valley, rainfall gradually increases northward from an annual 30 mm. around Aila (Eilat) to 150 mm. north of Areeha (Jericho). Sudanese trees with long roots take advantage of the high water table in this area of poor rainfall; making parts of it resemble the East African savannas.

16. Araba (Arava) Woodland: The deep sands of the Wadi Araba (Arava Valley) are covered with sparse woodland of trees growing up to 4 meters in height.

17. Swamps and Reed Thickets: Water-logged soils on river banks support dense vegetation.

18. Wet Saline: Salty water moistens the soil throughout the year along the Jordan, the Dead Sea, the Wadi Araba (Arava valley) and on the Mediterranean shore near Akka (Akko).

19. In areas of intense human activity: Vegetation in such areas is easily differentiated.

Foto: The Palestine Iris Iris palaestina


Plants Unique to Palestine:

Among about 165 vascular plant species known solely from Palestine are the Palestine Iris Iris Palaestina, the Dark-purple Iris Iris atropurpurea, the Mount Gilboa Iris Iris haynei, the Sharon Plain Sedge Cyperus sharonensis, the Palestine Bedstraw Galium philistaeum, the Israel Orchid Anacamptis israelitica, the Tel Aviv Stork's Bill Erodium telavivense, a sorrel Rumex aeroplaniformis, the Jaffa Groundsel Senecio joppensis, the Har Ramon Buffonia Bufonia ramonensis, the Naqab Alkanet Hormuzakia negevensis, the Danin Fennel Ferula daninii, the Naqab Onion Allium negevense, and Allium tardiflorum. Mosheovia is sometimes considered an endemic genus distinct from the widespread Scrophularia.

Palestine and Israel are included in the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot. Important terrestrial ecoregions include the Eastern Mediterranean Conifer-sclerophyllous-broadleaf Forests (WWF) and the Southern Anatolian Montane Conifer and Deciduous Forests (WWF

                                     Foto: The Jaffa Groundsel Senecio joppensis Dinsm.