In the spring of 1967, a teacher in Jerusalem shared a disappointment with her kindergarten class. The previous autumn, they had planted a handful of daffodil bulbs in the school garden, and the teacher, Batsheva, had told the children how the dry bulbs would wake and sprout: first roots, then leaves and, finally, beautiful yellow flowers. But there was no such display.
One member of the class, Oron Peri, knew why, however: he had been so fascinated by his teacher’s description that he had stolen the bulbs. They were fulfilling their promised potential, but in his parents’ garden, where he had replanted them.
Peri now lives in Kiryat Tiv’on, halfway between Nazareth and Haifa, where he works as a garden designer. When his collection of bulbous plants outgrew his garden, he knew he needed help. “It became a nightmare,” he says. “My cats had nowhere to lie down but on my precious plants.” The solution came in the form of a friend, Mansour Yassin, who had helped build gardens for Peri’s clients, and in a plot of land down the road.
“Mansour was the obvious choice,” Peri says. “I knew how much he loved nature, and he is practical.” Yassin is Muslim and Peri is Jewish: did that cause problems? “The area where we live is mixed; it is not an issue here. Unlike in Tel Aviv, say, Arabs and Jews have been living and working together here for centuries. Maybe we are naive, but it is our tradition and very natural.”
Yassin adds, “We have the same ideas about relationships between Christians, Jews and Muslim people. We don’t hold to stereotypes about where you come from.”
Peri realised the time had come to formalise the way he shared plants with other enthusiasts. So Seeds of Peace was born; a scheme where seed sales of garden-worthy bulbous plants support conservation of rare species. Yassin is gradually matching up botanic names with the Hebrew he naturally uses for plants he has known since playing in the mountains as a boy. His parents and grandparents would collect the leaves of wild plants for food, and he keeps the tradition alive by taking his young family out to gather wild asparagus and chicory to eat at home.
For Peri, the collection represents 20 years of travel and botanising, specialising in plants from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Indigenous populations have suffered due to tourism (particularly on the Greek islands and Cyprus) and illegal harvesting for the bulb market. Some plants are endangered in the wild, with no conservation scheme to protect them in their native country. They give these refugees, as Peri refers to them, a place to thrive and set seed.
The nursery’s raised beds allow each species to find their optimal depth, which saves the time-consuming job of cleaning and repotting the bulbs each year. Part of the plot is netted for cyclamen and other woodlanders that need shade; Yassin and Peri have sealed the nursery against wild boars and porcupines, which eat the bulbs.
Rare seeds are collected and stored, then made available free of charge to botanic gardens and collectors around the world. The money-earners are the plants grown solely for their beauty – crocus and iris are particularly popular. The pair joke that maybe these will boost their pension income, but at the moment they pay only for the land rental and Peri’s botanising trips abroad.
The display of muscari, irises and anemones set against the backdrop of the Jezreel Valley is a long way from Peri’s first daffodils. I ask whether he ever owned up to his early misdemeanour. “No,” he says sheepishly, then he and Yassin roar with laughter.
Five Eastern Mediterranean plants to grow in your garden
These plants prefer a free-draining, light soil. Or grow in pots filled with loam-based compost and added grit.
Scilla hyacinthoides Blue flowers from May to July on violet stems up to 1m tall. Will clump up over time.
Asphodeline lutea An easy plant, forming rosettes of grassy, grey leaves from which emerge tall spikes of spidery, yellow flowers in May.
Fritillaria persica Pale, grey-green leaves. Up to 1m spires bear dusky purple bells in April and May. Plant on their side, to prevent rotting.
Anemone coronaria Naturalises easily to create carpets of red, purple and white in March and April.
Ornithogalum nutans Elegant, silvery-white, star-shaped flowers in May and June.
• Bulbs Of The Eastern Mediterranean, by Oron Peri, will be published by the Alpine Garden Society this summer.
Latest posts by Chris Beardshaw (see all)
- Hay fever infographic – which trees make us sneeze? - April 13, 2015
- Japanese hepaticas: pastel perfection - April 13, 2015
- Give your garden a spring makeover: 13 tips from the gardening experts - April 7, 2015