Kibbutz Ein-Gedi, Israel

By Yvonne Horn
This item appears on page 70 of the May 2009 issue.

by Yvonne Horn

“Ten years ago, this guy this tall.” Zabu Levin indicated a level close to his knees. “Kapooh! Now this tall!” His hand shot up as we looked through the monkey bread tree’s towering branches into the clear, blue Judean Desert sky.

The tree was a nighttime bloomer, Zabu told me, with large, white flowers that lasted but one night, attracting bats with their sweet nectar and the buzz of bees at dawn.

Kibbutz Ein-Gedi’s botanical garden receives water from the fabled Ein-Gedi oasis, now a nature reserve. Photos courtesy of Kibbutz Ein-Gedi

Zabu was walking with me through the botanical garden of Kibbutz Ein-Gedi in Israel. Declared a botanical garden in 1994, it is unique in that its some 1,000 plant specimens from five continents are integrated around the living quarters of the kibbutz, making it the world’s only botanical garden in which people live — in this case, a population of 500.

The Judean Desert, desolate and dramatic as a moonscape, begins at a 10-minute drive out of Jerusalem. A half hour later the Dead Sea is in view, an enormous silver mirror spread across the lowest spot on Earth, a sea so salty that in it no living thing can exist. In 1956, on arid land that extends to the western rim of the Dead Sea, it was here the kibbutz chose to locate.

But not without precedence. “Ein-Gedi” crops up in biblical references time and time again. “My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire (henna) in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi” is in the Song of Solomon.

Stone tools and early structures uncovered by archaeologists give evidence of thousands of years of agricultural endeavor in the area. Ein-Gedi’s four springs, emerging fresh and sweet from the earth, the result of rain in the high Judean Hills to the west gone underground, created lush oases.

“All minerals, everything here,” Zabu says of the garden. “Add water. Whoosh!”

Water, however, despite the springs, is a scarce and precious commodity. Blistering sun scorches the desert eight months of the year. Rainfall, at the most, is but three inches. The kibbutz sources its water from the springs of Ein-Gedi in sparing quantity.

Reintroducing plants

In the 1960s, Kibbutz Ein-Gedi began to introduce flora experimentally into its 25 acres of land. Plants that could not stand the harsh, desert conditions were removed. Gradually, the garden emerged, dedicated to the plants indigenous to the world’s warmest climates. Represented are specimens — many endangered — from tropical areas and deserts all over the world.

Fruit trees are represented: olive, fig, pomegranate and date palms. The date palm was extensively mentioned in the Bible, but by the 14th century Ein-Gedi’s date palms were extinct. Six centuries later, the date palm was reestablished in the Judean Desert and today flourishes in the botanical garden as the most prevalent among the 40 varieties of palm trees.

Also represented are the palm-like trees of the Cycadaceae family. Resistant to heat, the cycadaceae are remnants from an ancient era. Fossil cycads testify that they are as old as the dinosaurs.

The botanical garden hosts an abundance of diverse plants. In the background are the Judean Hills, source of the Ein-Gedi springs.

Zabu paused by a baobab from Africa so large that it would take four people holding hands to encircle its trunk.

“He can become very old,” Zabu comments. “Up to 2,000 years.”

The jacaranda from Brazil was not doing as well. Zabu patted its trunk soothingly. “He is suffering. Not in best position.”

Increased botanical attention is being paid to cacti, with the goal of introducing more plants resistant to hot, dry conditions. We paused at a bed filled with succulents.

“See,” Zabu enthused, “how beautiful you can make with small water?!”

Aromatic plants linked to ancient Ein-Gedi are well represented, with Zabu pointing out frankincense and African myrrh. “Homeland, desert Ethiopia.”

Now being sought out with the hope of reintroduction is the persimmon plant, source of a natural perfume highly valued for its use in religious rites and medical preparations in the ancient world.

The Queen of Sheba is credited with bringing the plant to the area. On her historic visit to King Solomon some 3,000 years ago, she brought with her a gift of persimmon shoots. The shoots were transplanted to the oases of Ein-Gedi, where perfumers extracted the essence to create the sought-after perfume. In the 1960s, archaeologists searching the caves of Ein-Gedi came across a 2,000-year-old jug of still-fragrant oil.

The plant, itself, long ago disappeared without a trace. With the help of Israeli botanists, the garden is giving high priority to its reintroduction.

Kibbutzim today

Kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz) are unique to Israel. The first kibbutz was established in 1909 near the Sea of Galilee; today there are approximately 270 communal settlements scattered throughout the country.

Founders of the movement, most from Eastern Europe, were pioneers eager to forge a new way of life. Overcoming the hostile environment, inexperience with physical labor, a lack of agricultural know-how, the scarcity of water and a shortage of money, they developed into thriving societies. Over the years, they made barren lands bloom.

A flamboyant desert flower blooms in the succulents section of the garden.

Modern-day kibbutzim have expanded from their early days of solely agricultural endeavor into various types of industry, although most retain some aspect of working the land. Many have embraced tourism, as has Kibbutz Ein-Gedi.

In addition to operating a water-bottling plant, the kibbutz has evolved into a popular holiday destination with a 120-room resort-style hotel plus restaurants, impressive conference facilities, swimming and therapeutic pools, tennis courts and a full-service spa on the edge of the Dead Sea.

Tourism has made Kibbutz Ein-Gedi one of Israel’s most wealthy settlements. Of this I was not aware at the time of my visit in March ’08.

With “kibbutz” and “self-sustaining agriculture” firmly intertwined in my mind, I asked Zabu, as we paused to admire a display of blue agave (“Homeland, Mexico”), if we might take a look at the kibbutz’ produce garden.

With a couple of words and a hearty laugh, Zabu let me know that we would not be admiring plots of plants headed for the kibbutz’ kitchens.

“We buy vegetables,” he said, “grow money."

Kibbutz Ein-Gedi

Kibbutz Ein-Gedi (P.O. Box 32169, Tel Aviv, 61320, Israel) is located on the edge of the Dead Sea in Israel’s Judean Desert and is reached via Highway 90 out of Jerusalem, a drive of about 1½ hours.

For information on the Ein-Gedi Resort Hotel, contact Ein-Gedi Tourism (phone 972 8 6594221, fax 972 8 6584328 or e-mail For information and reservations at the hotel, spa or kibbutz, visit

A number of impressive sites are nearby: Masada, a Herodian desert fortress constructed 31 to 37 BC; Ein-Gedi nature reserve, an oasis of flora and fauna and a waterfall; the Qumran ruins, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and, of course, the wondrous surroundings of the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert.