MAY: Atlantic Pistacia - Elah Atlantit-אלה אטלנטית

Month: May

Common name: Atlantic Pistacia

Scientific name: Cedrus atlantica

Hebrew name: Elah Atlantit

Family: Anacardiaceae

Habitat and Distribution: Mediterranean woodlands and forests; semi-arid and desert regions

Flowering months: March-April

The Atlantic Pistacia in Israel

The Atlantic pistacia is a major component of Israeli natural landscapes. It is one of the most drought-resistant of Israel’s native woodland trees. Atlantic pistacias grow in the eastern Upper Galilee, where many old, large trees can be found. They also grow in the desert, but mainly in soil pockets on large expanses of rock, where runoff accumulates, providing an excellent source of water for growth. Thanks to its status as a holy tree Atlantic pistacias have survived grazing and cutting for many years. They can attain great sizes, and some old trees have trunks with a diameter of 2 meters. Still the trees grow very slowly and it may take a tree 200 years to reach half this size.

Leaves, blooms, seeds

Atlantic pistacias are dioecious, having separate male and female trees. They produce red and bluish fruits: the red fruit is empty, as no seeds develop, while the bluish ones produce viable seeds. The fruit is eaten by birds and the excreted seeds are then dispersed over long distances, reaching even the most isolated areas. Like its relative, the terebinth, the Atlantic pistacia has galls (tissue growth caused by aphids), which are coral shaped, as opposed to the pod-like terebinth galls.

Food and medicine

The fruit of the Atlantic pistacia is used to produce oil for domestic purposes and for lighting. Turpentine is produced from its resin, its wood is used for woodturning (such as the giant wood screws of oil presses in the Golan), and the tannins in its galls were once used for tanning leather. The tree can serve as a rootstock for Pistacia vera (pistachio) which produces the familiar pistachio nuts.

Traditionally, the fruit and leaves of the Atlantic pistacia are used to treat infected wounds. A scientific study has indeed shown that the plant's extracts have anti-bacterial activity and enhance healing. In Jordanian traditional medicine, pistacia extracts are used to treat diabetes and purportedly have hypoglycemic effects.

Text and Tradition

There are three species of pistacia in Israel, two of which are often mentioned in the Bible, the Atlantic pistacia and the terebinth. Both trees are called elah in Hebrew, each with a different qualifier, but in the Bible they appear only as elah, so it is difficult to know which species is being referred to.

The tree is first cited in the Book of Genesis, with Jacob hiding the idols Rachel stole from her father: “And they gave unto Jacob all the foreign gods which were in their hand…; and Jacob hid them under the terebinth…” (Genesis 35:4).

The pistacia is mentioned again in the tale of Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines: “all the valiant men arose, and took away the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons… and buried their bones under the terebinth in Jabesh…” (I Chronicles10:12).