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Ancient Trees Bringing New Life to the Desert


Ancient Trees Bringing New Life to the Desert
By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

The prospect of a field trip usually elicits excitement from school children, but for five-year-old Shir, field trips are a part of the norm at her school, and they usually end up outdoors. For Shir and other residents of Israel’s Central Arava, the stretch of Israeli desert bordering Jordan, the outdoors can sometimes be the classroom. On this particular field trip, Shir’s class is visiting an acacia tree that’s more than a hundred times their own age.

In a part of the world that receives less than five inches of rainfall a year, trees are a strange and mysterious presence, solitary and skeletal umbrellas silhouetted against a scenic skyline of desert landscape.

Acacia trees in particular, which are mentioned in the Bible, are classified as a “keystone” species, not only anchoring the soil and preventing further desertification, but enriching it as well. Similar to smaller plants such as beans and clover, acacia trees are a legume, adding nitrogen to the soil which in turn helps other species grow and thrive.

When older residents began noticing that acacia trees were vanishing over a decade ago, the Central Arava Regional Council, along with the help of Jewish National Fund (JNF), stepped in and created the Adopt-an-Acacia program. This grassroots initiative goes far beyond just planting trees.

As science is now realizing, plants are smarter than we give them credit for, and an acacia tree growing in one corner of the world is uniquely adapted to its climate— such as rainfall, temperatures, and dozens of obscure factors like local insects and neighboring plants.

The Council and JNF began the project by asking local residents to collect seeds from trees already growing on and around their properties. The seeds were germinated and raised in a nursery, then returned to the areas where they had been collected.

Indigenous trees are hardier, more disease-resistant, and less reliant on irrigation. They’re also an important food source for native species, from tiny insects munching on the leaves to larger animals that eat smaller species and make their homes in the branches or trunks.

The older residents were right: there were fewer and fewer acacias each year. Some were being removed to make room for agriculture, but others were dying off for reasons that are still unknown.

A team of local researchers are investigating how the acacias survive—it was long believed, for instance, that their roots were very shallow, but their ability to tough it out through long dry spells suggests that they may have a delicate network of roots that run far deeper than researchers were previously aware of.

The kids on the field trip aren’t the only ones learning about the importance of trees in their region. The community has embraced trees, not only for the landscape, but to support the rich and complex web of desert life. Yael Haviv, head of the Environmental Unit with the Central Arava Regional Council, said, “In the last seven to 10 years, there’s been a real revolution in the way people think about the trees.”

And , for Jews the world over, the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is an opportunity to celebrate trees in general. In Israel, trees have played an essential role in bringing the country to life over the past century, with JNF paving the way by planting over 250 million trees throughout the country.

Now, some farmers are embracing trees so much so that they are leaving them in their fields rather than dig them up, accepting the inconvenience as a small price to pay towards restoring indigenous species.

Other trees are planting in sandy patches at the edge of farms, using their own limited water ration to irrigate the young saplings. (The Central Arava is not connected to the Israeli water supply system, but instead is reliant on limited water from aquifers and flood waters washed in from the nearby Sinai Peninsula.)

So far, families, individuals, and school groups, like Shir’s, have joined in the Adopt-an-Acacia program to plant over 4,000 trees in the region.

While the Central Arava can be a difficult place to live, for the 3,600 residents who call its seven rural communities home, it’s bursting with natural beauty.

But there’s still work to be done. With shovels and seeds in hand, Shir and her community in the Central Arava are busy reclaiming and preserving every inch of the Jewish homeland.

Adam H. Brill,
Director of Communications

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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