FLORAPALE the Flora Palaestina Ethnobotany web site, is the result of a collaboration between The Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) at Hadassah Medical Organization, Jerusalem, Israel and The Biodiversity and Environmental Research Centre (BERC), Nablus, Palestinian Authority.
FLORAPALE contains descriptions on the traditional uses of 321 species of vascular plants native to this region and was created by combining ethnobotanical data collected by different local researchers at different periods of time. Scientific plant names used to identify species in FLORAPALE are generally the accepted Latin name although some names are unresolved or there are conflicting opinions that could not be readily resolved by us. Plants are also identified by their vernacular/ common names in English, Hebrew & Arabic as well as some synonyms by which a species has been known in the past (Species Page).
A description of the content, creation and use of the FLORAPALE web site follows.
1. Flora Palaestina: History & Overview
For thousands of years the Holy Land, today comprising Israel,
The Palestinian Authority (West Bank & Gaza) and Jordan has attracted
explorers, students of natural history and biblical scholars.
Amongst the earliest floristic descriptions of this region are those attributed to “The Father of Botany”, Theophrastos of Eresos (4th century BCE), said to have received plants collected during the campaigns of Alexander the Great.
Later works include those by; Nicolaus of Damascus (1st century BCE) thought to have authored the botanical treatise “De plantis” (“On Plants”); Strabo (Geography XVI Chap 2); and Pliny the Elder (Natural History XIII Chap 9).
In later centuries (8th-14th century CE),
Arabic scholars made an enormous contribution to the natural history of this
region. Amongst the most famous were geographers; Al-Muqaddasi (ٱلْمُقَدَّسِي),
(Jerusalem 945/946- 991CE); Ibn Hawqal, author of Ṣūrat al-‘Arḍ (صورة
(“The Face of the Earth”); Yaqut al-Hamawi, (1179–1229),
author of “KitabMu’jam ul-Buldān”(“Dictionary of Countries”); Mamaluk
era Syrian geographer Abu l-Fida (1273-1331);
and Al-Istakhri (977 CE).
Amongst the great physicians of this period Al-Tamimi (Jerusalem 10th century CE) was renowned for “Al-Murshid” (“Guidebook to Basics in Food Nutrition and Properties of Non-Compounded Medicines”), based on his extensive knowledge of plant use in Syria and Palestine during the early Muslim period.
Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), (Afshana, present-day Uzbekistan ≈980 CE), amongst the most influential Moslem physicians was the author of Al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb, (“The Canon of Medicine”). This 5 volume textbook, a standard medical work in the Islamic world and Europe until the 18th century, was also an important contributor to the “Unani” (Yunani) traditional Persian-Arabic medical system.
Ibn al-Baytar ( ابن البيطار) (Andalusia, 1197–1248 CE), renowned pharmacist, botanist, physician and scientist was the author of Kitāb al-Jāmiʿ li-Mufradāt al-Adwiya wa-l-Aghdhiya (Compendium on Simple Medicaments and Foods), a pharmacopoeia listing about 1400 plants, animal products and minerals used in medicine. His work was based on his collection of plants over a wide area including N. Africa, Anatolia, Syria, Arabia and Palestine and on his compilation and critical evaluation of older sources.
Amongst medieval Jewish physicians Moses Maimonides (Cordoba 1138-1204 CE) is acknowledged as the greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages. Personal physician to the Sultan in Cairo, Maimonides wrote prolifically on plants and medicine including treatises, monographs and a pharmacopeia that includes species found in this region.
Christian pilgrimage literature also made an important contribution to our understanding of the natural history of this region. These include works by monastic travelers Felix Fabri, (1441-1502), Abbot Daniel (12th century) and the German priest and author Burchard of Mount Sion (13th century) who recounted his travels in the Middle East in “Description of the Holy Land”.
Later travel accounts describing natural history include those by Henry Timberlake an English ship-captain, who journeyed from Egypt to Jerusalem in 1601 and Henry Maundrell (1665-1701), clergyman and academic who described his journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem.
In the early modern period “Flora Orientalis” published by Gronovius
(1755) describes the findings of Leonard Rauwolf, one of the
first modern botanists who visited the region from 1573-1575.
The first published work on Flora Palaestina however was by Johan Strand and Carl Von Linne (Linnaeus) in 1756 in which ≈600 species native to the region were described based on sources including; botanical collections of Leonard Rauwolf and Swedish naturalist/ botanist Fredrik Hasselquist; lectures by Linnaeus; and “Hierobotanicum”, a catalogue of Biblical plants compiled by Swedish botanist/ clergyman Olof Celsius (The Elder), (1670-1756).
Fredrik Hasselquist (1722-1752), the pupil of Linnaeus is also responsible for “Iter Palaestinium” based on numerous plant samples collected from the region and published by Linnaeus after the former`s early death.
In the 19th century many botanists and collectors visited the region
including; French botanist “Aucher” (Pierre
Martin Rémi Aucher-Éloy) (1792-1838); Austrian botanist Karl Kotschy (1813-1866);
and German botanist/ physician Albrecht Wilhelm Roth (1757-1834). Together their work
served as the basis for the conclusive “Flora Orientalis” published in
1867-68 by Swiss botanist/ explorer Pierre Edmond Boissier (1810-1885).
Later in the 19th century valuable contributions to the flora of this region were made by Henry Baker Tristam in “Flora and Fauna of Palestine” (1884) and George E. Post (1838-1909) in “Plantae Postianae (1890-1900) and “Flora of Syria, Palestine and Sinai”(1896).
From the beginning of the 20th century botanical research was enriched by many individuals; Aaron Aaronsohn, botanist/ agronomist living in Palestine from 1905-15 established a herbarium near Haifa; Hillel Oppenheimer (1899-1971) and Michael Evanari (1904-1989) edited Aaronsohn`s works; Czech botanist František Nabalek (1884−1965) explored the Middle East, particularly southern Jordan (1909-10); John Edward Dinsmore (1862-1951) made important additions to Flora Palaestina and revised Post`s original work.
With the establishment in 1925 of the Dept. of Botany at the Institute of
Agriculture and Natural History in Tel Aviv and its transfer in 1929 to the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem many more additions were made to Flora
New species were recorded by Hebrew University botanists Alexander Eig (1894-1938), Michael Zohary (1898-1983) and Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan (1900-1995), who together with botanist Otto Warburg (1859-1938), established the first National Botanical Garden of Israel in Jerusalem in 1931.
Published in the same year The Analytical Flora of Palestine became the first comprehensive systematic study of plants in the Land of Israel. Later the scope of the Botany department would be expanded by Tcharna Reiss, David Zaitschek (See Zaitschek collection) and Michael Even-Ari.
In 1966 Michael Zohary and Naomi Feinbrum-Dothan published Flora Palaestina, a comprehensive study of the plants of this region. Most recently updated in 2015 the latest edition contains many new taxa, changes to eco-geographical distribution and in several cases amended taxonomic status and nomenclature.
2. Flora Palaestina: Phytogeography & current status
Today Flora Palaestina consists of some 2750
species and 114 families.
This rich diversity in such a relatively small area is attributed partly to the region`s unique position at the meeting of 3 plant geographical regions: Mediterranaen, Irano-Turanina and Saharo-Sindian. These conditions have given rise to a highly diverse topography, climate and soil that includes; mediterranean coast with its typical sand dune vegetation; broad expanses of alluvial soils with rich weed flora and abundant multi-regional types including Judean mountains containing mediterranean forest & maquis vegetation; Judean desert with Irano-Turanian vegetation; desert landscape containing tropical savannah, salines and rock-floored “hammadas”.
In paleo-plant geography the regional flora has undergone many changes since the
Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene periods (66-23 million years BP) with
successive invasions and retreats of flora leaving behind their
Agriculture thought to have developed in this region during the Neolithic period (approx.10,000 BCE) has also contributed over its long history to the rich diversity of local species including wild crop relatives and progenitors of some of the world`s most important domesticated crops e.g. barley, wheat, oats, garlic, peas, lentils and chick peas.
Today however many Flora Palaestina species are
seriously threatened by environmental degradation, climate change, urban
expansion and an accelerating loss of wild habitat. Currently some 373 local
plants (16.3%) are on the “Red List” of endangered species of which 273
species are mediterranean, significantly over-represented when compared to the
whole flora of this region.
In addition 30% are classified as rare and at least 34 species have become locally extinct in the last 50 years with an average Red Number of 8.6, significantly higher than the average of the current Red List. Only 15 species however have been limited to one site before extinction, indicating that rarity is not the only factor in the extinction of local flora.
3. Flora Palaestina: Ethnobotany
For thousands of years the plants of this region have played a vital role in its economy, culture and traditions. Their many uses have included food, agriculture, medicines (human and veterinary), cosmetics, spices, perfumes, dyes, raw materials for building, clothing, basket and rope making and for ritual, ceremonial and religious observance. Medicinal plants are particularly prevalent with many descriptions of their use described particularly in the writings of medieval Arab and Jewish physicians (See History & Overview). Information on plant use has also been passed down verbally from generation to generation, both within local communities as well as by Jewish immigrants to Israel from Middle Eastern countries which share many of the same species as this region.
This information provides an important insight into the multi-cultural and historical uses of many local species through successive generations.
Today however the continuation of this tradition is seriously threatened. Local healers in both Arab and Jewish communities who once played an important role in communal life have been largely replaced by modern medical clinics, while local natural resources on which village economies were once dependent, have now been largely replaced by imported/ commercial products. Thus a rich legacy of plant use and a valuable historical tradition acquired by Jews and Arabs over thousands of years is rapidly being lost.
4.Preserving the Knowledge
A. FLORAPALE and its Data sources
Data on the traditional/ historic uses of plants of this region for the FLORAPALE ethnobotany web site are based on 2 sources of information; the archival Zaitschek collection translated, annotated & edited by The Natural Medicine Research Centre (NMRC) and more recent ethnobotanical surveys carried out by The Biodiversity and Environmental Research Centre (BERC) in the West Bank and Gaza strip from 1996-2016.
a. The Zaitschek collection
This archive of botanical and ethnobotanical material was prepared by the
late Prof David Zaitschek, a scientist at the Dept. of Botany,
Hebrew University and later the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Medicine,
Collected over many years (1935-1971) and largely unpublished during his lifetime, the collection included over 3000 specimens of labelled dried plant parts, ethnobotanical data in the form of several thousand handwritten notes mainly in Hebrew (and some German) listed alphabetically in a cardex and an extensive library.
Collected by Prof Zaitschek`s assistants (Samir Ibrahim, Khana ‘Ilabuni, Elias Mu’amar, Eitan Friedman, Aharon Fikel, Malka Gvirz & Yocheved Re’ani), this ethnobotanical information was based on interviews carried out in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It recorded how local plants were used at that time by different communities including Palestinian Arab, Samaritan, Bedouin, Druse and Jewish immigrants from the Middle East including North Africa, Yemen and Persia.
Traditional uses were described for ≈500 plants (as well as several genera) of which 212 were classified as native Flora Palaestina species (see below) and the remainder as introduced, non-native species originating from other parts of the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Accompanied by dried plant specimens, the species were identified at the time by Prof Avinoam Danin (1939-2015), a leading botanist & phytogeographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and creator of the data base “Flora and Vegetation of Israel” (Flora of Israel Online)
Following Prof Zaitschek`s death in 1990, his daughter gave approval for the ethnobotanical collection to be made available for detailed study after being approached by Prof Clara Heyn (1924-1998), Director of the Natural Herbarium of Israel and one of Israel`s foremost botanists, together with Dr Sarah Sallon, Director of The Natural Medicine Research Centre (NMRC) at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem.
Initially the collection was transferred under the supervision of Prof Heyn, from Prof. Zaitschek`s office to the permanent Biological Collections of the Hebrew University in the Berman-Lubin Building at the Givat Ram campus, Jerusalem.
Between 1995-2000 information on the ethnobotanical uses of the plants was translated by NMRC staff (Dr Tamara Lax) from Hebrew to English. It was then added into a data base specially designed for NMRC by David Myers where it formed the basis of NMRC`s Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant Project (MEMP), an ethnobotanical and conservation program on local flora.
The cardex containing Prof Zaitschek`s original hand written notes was subsequently returned by NMRC to join the rest of the Zaitschek collection at the permanent Biological Collections of the Hebrew University.
b. The Biodiversity and Environmental Research Centre (BERC)
Established in 2001 in the village of Til near Nablus,
The Biodiversity and Environmental
Research Centre (BERC) is a non-governmental organization whose aims include
documenting and conducting research into Palestinian plant and fungal
diversity, supporting environmental protection by encouraging sustainable use
of resources & disseminating scientific knowledge of plants and fungi
collected by BERC for scientific, educational & conservation policy and
From 1996-2016 BERC carried out ethnobotanical surveys in the West Bank and Gaza strip on the use of flora by local communities. This information has formed the basis of BERC`s Arabic language ethnobotanical web site containing information on the traditional uses of 368 plants.
B. Selecting Flora Palaestina species for the FLORAPALE web site
Flora Palaestina currently includes about 2750
species. However there are many more plants, trees and shrubs found in this
region that are considered alien and not native having been introduced over the
centuries from Asia, Europe, other parts of the Middle East and the
Although both the Zaitschek collection and BERC`s Arabic language web site, contain ethnobotanical information on these introduced species, only native species were entered into the FLORAPALE web site based on the following sources:
FLORA OF ISRAEL ONLINE (FOIO) the most extensive documentation of Israeli and Flora Palaestina species.
The PLANT LIST (PL), a working list of all known plant species produced by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Missouri Botanical Garden and other collaborators.
PLANTS OF THE WORLD ONLINE (POWO), the first online database providing authoritative information of the world’s flora including identification, distribution, threat status etc. developed by Kew Science.
FLORA PALAESTINA: Michael Zohary and Naomi Feinbrun-Dotham Israel Academy of Sciences
and Humanities, Jerusalem 1986.(Zohary)
Originally published as 1931 as The Analytical Flora of Palestine this comprehensive systematic study was republished In 1966 as Flora Palaestina with its latest updated edition in 2015.
DISTRIBUTION ATLAS OF PLANTS IN THE FLORA PALAESTINA AREA Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem, 2004. An extensive description of the geographical distribution and frequency of Flora Palaestina species by Prof Avinoam Danin.
In total 321 species considered native to the region and their uses were entered into FLORAPALE including: 217 species in the Zaitschek collection and 204 species from BERC`s Arabic ethnobotanical website (100 species were common to both sources). Excluded were introduced/ “alien’ species as well as those described in the Zaitschek collection only by their genus.
Nevertheless some species in both Zaitschek and BERC collections, which although not strictly native have been present in this region for hundreds of years, have been included in FLORAPALE. Brief discussions on their inclusion can be found in COMMENTS.
C. Preserving & updating the original information
As far as possible we have tried to preserve the original
language of the informants when entering the Zaitschek and BERC
ethnobotanical data into FLORAPALE.
This is particularly true of Zaitschek data collected over 60 years ago which often employs “old fashioned” and archaic terms to describe a condition or use. These terms have been included in FLORAPALE with explanations given either in parenthesis following the original complaint or in the separate NOTES section.
The Web site however also contains additional data fields that explain and update the traditional/ historic Complaint/ Use using various terms that interpret or describe a plant`s possible or potential activity (See also Activity/ Interpretation).
These fields may be helpful in drug discovery programs that use focused scientific screening methods based on ethno-directed sampling.