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Plants of the Western Wall

9 May, 20119 May, 2011 8 comments nature nature

Stumbling on a flower growing up out of the sidewalk, have you ever stopped and wondered: "How in the world does a plant grow THERE?!"  Imagine then, plants growing between enormous solid bricks, in a wall more than 3 football fields long, more than 5 stories tall (with another 10 stories out of sight, below ground)  that has stood for more than 2000 years. 


These plants grow between the bricks that built the Western Wall, also known to Jews worldwide as the Kotel, the last remnant of the retaining wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  


According to Jewish tradition, the location on Mt. Moriah is where the creation of the world began, where Abraham bound Isaac, and Jacob dreamt of the ladder to heaven.   Moslems believe that Mohammed ascended to heaven from the Mount (Al-Haram al Sharif in Arabic) during the Night Journey.   And of course, much of Jesus' life and work occurred within steps of the Western Wall itself. 


While the Western Wall is a spiritual home to millions, it is also the physical home for a variety of plants and animals.  Small lizards dart among the stones.  Swallows, sparrows and doves nest among the cracks.   But it is the sight of roots taking hold from solid rock that never ceases to amaze me.  At least six distinct plants grow out of the Western Wall.


Plants of the Western Wall

Plants growing out of the Western Wall

Henbane is the most common plant in the Wall. The Hebrew name for this plant is Shikaron, or "drunkenness" - not surprising since the plant is poisonous & intoxicating!



The Henbane plant; photo courtesy Pamela Levine

The ancients used Henbane for magic, witchcraft and love potions. Egyptians suffering from toothache smoked Henbane in search of relief. The Greeks believed Henbane led to the gift of prophecy and that the dead in Hades wore crowns of Henbane as they walked along the River Styx. Shakespeare too knew of Henbane's powerful and often dangerous qualities -- Hamlet's father was murdered when a tincture of henbane was poured in his ear.  Henbane was used in Germany during the Middle Ages to make Pilsner beer. Utilized as an anesthetic in the first hospitals in the Holy Land, today alkaloids derived from Henbane are used in pain killers and anti-spasm medications. 


Other plants in the Wall include Podosnoma, a typical rock plant, able to penetrate stone with its roots in order to extract water; Sicilian Snapdragon often found on the higher sections of the Wall; and Horsetail Knotgrass, which is mentioned in the Talmud as an antidote for snakebite and Phagnalon, a small plant found scattered along the Wall.


Perhaps the most beautiful plant growing in the Western Wall is the purple and white flower of the Thorny Caper, a plant native to Jerusalem.


Caper plant

The thorny caper plant; Photo courtesy Pamela Levine

The sages compared the Jewish people to the caper for their ability to survive even after being cut down to the roots, and to thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. Today, in the hottest days of summer, the distinctive flower continues to bloom.  The Israeli restaurant critic, Daniel Rogov notes that the "Pharaohs invariably packed some of these into their tombs to add spice to their voyage to the beyond; Moses found them a tempting addition to his food while he was wandering through the Sinai; and Mohammed considered them a great treat."


All this is forgotten when enjoying capers in a lovely crisp salad, or atop a piece of fresh fish.  When it comes to capers, small is best.  The small buds of the caper are prized because the bigger capers are bitter.  This is not easy work, however.  The caper plant has prickly thorns, and the buds must be picked quickly before they open.  Like olives, capers cannot be eaten fresh.  They must be pickled in brine, usually of vinegar, salt, and peppercorns.


Caper plant; photo courtesy Pamela Levine

Delicious or not, the capers of the Western Wall, along with all the other plants growing out of the cracks of stone, remain untouched.  They are part of the stark beauty of the Wall.  The rocks of the Western Wall support the roots of these plants in a very material way. Invisible, but equally strong, is the meaning and comfort the Western Wall offers millions of people around the world - just as it has done for more than 2000 years.

* * * * * * * *

Martha Kruger lives in Zichron Yaacov, Israel and writes for Travelujah, the leading Christian social network focused on connecting Christians to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah. Martha has worked for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and The Fellowship of Christians and Jews.



  • FootstepsBy Footsteps 2587 Days Ago
    1 point    
    Thank you for this. I learned several new things.

    And now here are a couple of additions. British people will all know of the infamous Dr. Crippen. He murdered his wife in the bath, having drugged her with henbane!

    The caper, whose roots can spread amazing distances in its search for water, is often found growing by stagnant pools in the desert. Thirsty travellers would be obliged to drink the water and could find themselves with a problem. A leech clinging on deep down the throat!

    Removal would be impossible - but the caper would be there to help. The thorns of the caper point downward (if you put your hand in a caper bush you don't get scratched - only when you try to pull it out.)

    So the traveller could break off a stem, remove all but the topmost thorn,(it would look rather like a crochet hook, but much sharper) ask a companion to push it down his throat. Then he would simply hook the leech and pull it out!

    Pamela Levene Tour guide
  • FootstepsBy Footsteps 2587 Days Ago
    -1 point    
    p.s. I have photos of some of the plants mentioned in the article. I would be happy to post them if you can tell me how :)
  • By Anonymous 2541 Days Ago
    -1 point    
    Was delighted that you were able to post my pictures. Just one small thing - could you please spell my name right? It's all eees! LevEne! Thanks :)

    Pamela Levene (Licenced Israel Tour Guide)
    Reply to this comment
  • By Anonymous 620 Days Ago
    -1 point    
    great to find this - was thinking about the plants on the wall last night and wondering what was there. I wonder if visitors think about the presence of nature. you might be interested in the work of my group in Brighton, England - including on a historic green wall established rather more recently that this one (1850!). http://building-green.org.uk
  • By Anonymous 144 Days Ago
    0 points    

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