Ilanot Forest Iris Trail

Before setting out we recommend that you call KKL-JNF’s Forest Hotline (Kav LaYaar) at 1-800-350-550 for any updates, such as closures due to extreme weather and any information that may be relevant to your route.

About Ilanot Botanical Garden and Forest

The Ilanot botanical garden in Israel’s Sharon region is a unique woodland that started out in the 1950s as a testing ground for the acclimation of foreign trees. Staff from the Ministry of Agriculture’s forest research division planted around seven hundred different varieties of tree from all over the world in order to examine their degree of suitability to climate conditions in Israel and the possibility of using them in local forests.

In 1986 the investigations came to an end, and the site was abandoned. This unique arboretum and the wonderful trees it contained came under threat. KKL-JNF, however, stepped in and assumed responsibility for the site: now it boasts two and a half kilometers of well-surfaced trails that lead visitors among three hundred different varieties of tree. With the help of donations from Friends of KKL-JNF in the USA, the site has been rendered accessible to people with physical disabilities, and in 2015 it won an award from the Access Israel non-profit organization.

Ilanot Forest, which lies to the east of the botanical garden, offers eucalyptus groves and open areas of red loam (hamra). Soil of this kind provides a habitat for many flower species that bloom in winter and spring, and in mid-February the coastal iris (Iris atropurpurea), one of Israel’s most beautiful flowers, can be found here. In the past Tabor oaks were the most common native tree in the Sharon region. Many of these trees are now under threat from building projects in different parts of Israel, and KKL-JNF has saved many of them by moving them and transplanting them in Ilanot Forest.

Natural areas of red loam have also greatly decreased as a result of construction and infrastructure work, and the Iris Trail offers visitors an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the red loam landscapes of the Sharon.

On the way to the trail

From the Ilanot Forest parking lot we walk eastwards along a surfaced trail indicated by a large wooden signpost. We pass through the gate into the compound and continue to walk alongside the fence that surrounds the Beit Or Aviva rehabilitation center (on our left). After we pass the compound, just before we reach an old water tower, we turn left onto a calcareous sandstone path that leads into a eucalyptus grove.

It’s worth pausing here to turn left and observe the French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), a small delicate shrub that in March produces tiny crowded violet flowers on a spike topped with a “flag” of large violet bracts. The leaves give off a pleasant scent of lavender, and, indeed, a related species of this plant is used to produce perfume.

After 200 meters we arrive at a spot where two paths intersect. We continue straight on (we’ll return to this point later via the path that is now on our right). The trail continues on through the eucalyptus grove for another 500 meters or so (we can see irises growing to our left as we walk) and leads us to a four-way intersection. Here, to the right of the intersection, is the Iris Trail. There’s no mistaking it: a path bounded by cables at either side shows us exactly where to go. Please take care to stay on the path, so as not to damage the flowers.

The Iris Trail

The dominant plant in the open ground is Halfa grass (Desmostachya bipinnata), also known as salt reed-grass, which can be identified by its long leaves whose edges are sharp as knives – hence its name in Hebrew (hilaf haholot): hallaf means “butcher’s knife.” This plant, a member of the Gramineae (grass) family prefers light loam soils, and in the past its presence served as an indication that the area was suitable for growing citrus. These herbaceous plants are conspicuously interspersed with youngish Tabor oaks that have not yet attained their full height.

As we progress along the path we try to identify some of the plants characteristic of these red loam soils: the hyacinth squill (Scilla hyacinthoides) with its tall stem clad in pale blue flowers; the Palestinian lupine (Lupinus palaestinus), whose cream-colored butterfly-shaped flowers grow only in the red loam soils of the Coastal Plain and nowhere else in the world; and Tel-Aviv garlic (Allium tel-avivense), another species that grows exclusively in Israel’s Coastal Plain, easily recognizable by its cluster of violet flowers.

The coastal iris

The coastal iris, the most conspicuous of these flowers, is likewise endemic to the loamy soils of Israel’s Coastal Plain, and it grows in the light loam of the Sharon and Philistia. Its large and imposing purple flower consists of three inner upright petals surrounded by three sepals (“falls”) that droop outwards. Each sepal has a dark spot in the center from which yellow fibers sprout. Very occasionally the flower itself will be yellowish.

As these irises reproduce not only from seeds but also from their rhizomes, they are generally found in clumps. Each dense clump of flowers may be assumed to share a common genetic origin.

A patch of red loam

The trail bends, crosses a dirt track and enters the eucalyptus grove we visited earlier, this time from the eastern side. Here we come to a patch of bright red loam: perhaps there is more clay in the soil here. Here there are no signs of Halfa grass. Instead we find bushes of spiny broom (Calicotome villosa) that bear beautiful yellow flowers and the smaller sage-leaved rockrose (Cistus salviifolius), whose creamy flowers have yellow stamens at their centers.

From here we need walk only a few steps to reach the intersecting paths mentioned earlier, and from there we retrace our footsteps along the surfaced path back to the parking lot in Ilanot Forest.


Orginial Hebrew text and photographs: Yaakov Skolnik
Publication date: February 10th, 2016