Think of the Israeli desert blooming, and you might picture juicy Jaffa oranges, prickly Sabra cactus fruit, luscious tomatoes or hothouse flowers that get shipped to a waiting world market.
But the miracle of turning the desert green extends beyond agriculture. Despite chronic water shortages, Israel's soil supports meticulously landscaped and riotously colorful public gardens. Many of these sites also house botanical and agricultural research projects.
The approach of autumn is a perfect time to put on your walking shoes and explore the public gardens dotting the Holy Land.
Our Top 10 list begins with:
1. Baha'i Gardens
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The main Haifa garden consists of 19 landscaped terraces, extending one kilometer up the northern slope of Mount Carmel and overlooking Haifa Bay. The 450 plant species, most of them native to the region, were chosen for their color, height, hardiness and ability to survive Israel's desert climate.
The smaller Acre garden surrounds the mansion where the prophet-founder of the Bahai faith is believed to have resided during the final years of his life. The Acre garden will soon be expanded.
The two gardens are tended by 90 local workers from a variety of ethnic and religious communities, as well as Baha'i volunteers from overseas.
2. Ramat Hanadiv
Situated at the southern end of Mount Carmel, between Zichron Ya'akov and Binyamina, Ramat Hanadiv is a memorial to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a major benefactor of the modern state.
At the Memorial Gardens, there are wheelchair-accessible pathways among a combination of formal European and Mediterranean-style plantings, pine and cypress groves surrounding the crypt of the baron and his wife.
The Nature Park features circular hiking trails, observation points and remnants of ancient human settlement, as well as an acclimatization cage where birds of prey are prepared for release back into the wild.
Ramat Hanadiv's Visitors Pavilion was Israel's first certified "green" building. Catch a film about the story of Ramat Hanadiv here or have a bite at Scenicafé, a kosher dairy café-restaurant serving fresh seasonal specialties with aromatic herbs and olive oil, fine wines and goat's milk beverages.
3. Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens host a yearly wine festival, and kids love the train ride that takes them through the garden to the lake with swans.
An interactive Children's Discovery Path is planned, as well as a biodiversity education center at the tropical conservatory. An entrance fee is charged.
4. Tel Aviv University's Botanical Gardens
The site encompasses the Noah Naftulsky Ecological Garden; specialized gardens for economic and medicinal plants and endangered species; a Garden for the Blind; and the Daphna Carasso Garden of Tropical Plants -- Israel's largest collection of tropical plants -- punctuated with greenhouses, flowerbeds, giant bird of paradise plants, orchids, coffee, vanilla and cacao along with thousands of exotic species and ornamentals.
The Sarah Racine Root Laboratory on site is designed to study the structure, physiology and reactions to various effects of roots and root systems.
5. Kibbutz Ein Gedi Botanical Garden
Olive, pomegranate and fig trees grow alongside tropical plants from Madagascar, while Australian plants sprout near local desert shrubbery such as the Apple of Sodom. The Scented Arugot area holds healing and fragrant spices, as well as biblical plants such as myrrh and frankincense.
6. Wohl Rose Garden, Jerusalem
There is an experimental section where new varieties of roses are tested to see if they can survive in Israel. The garden won an award for excellence in an international competition for rose gardens in 2003, and was named one of the 11 most beautiful rose gardens in the world.
Expansive lawns, hills, quarries, an ornamental fishpond, waterfall, sculptures and sixth-century mosaic floor complete the atmosphere.
7. Utopia Orchid Park
The grounds include waterfalls, pools, fish, birds and tens of thousands of tropical plants, including carnivorous ones. The Butterfly Garden houses hundreds of butterflies and nourishing plants. You'll encounter goats, spotted deer, sheep, peacocks and rabbits as you walk along. An entrance fee is charged.
8. Neot Kedumim
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Located halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Neot Kedumim is a non-profit 620-acre biblical reserve that won an Israel Prize in 1994 as a model of restoration ecology.
You can see plants and trees, water and agricultural installations as they were thousands of years ago, with special areas for the seven species of the Land of Israel - olives, wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates and grapes.
Several hiking paths wind through hundreds of varieties of biblical and talmudic plants; wild and domesticated animals; ancient and reconstructed olive and wine presses, threshing floors, cisterns and ritual baths.
9. Eilat Botanical Garden and Organic Farm
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A botanical garden in a city that gets virtually no rain? Yes, right near the entrance to Eilat, spread over wild desert hills, the Eilat Botanical Garden grows in the midst of the first organic farm in Israel.
Filled with 1,000 species of fruit trees, ornamental trees, herbs, shrubs and flowers from around the world, with viewpoints overlooking the Red Sea and the Edom mountains, the garden has sign-posted paths, a reconstructed stream, lakes, waterfalls and stone and wood buildings to explore.
10. Yarkon Park
The five-acre tropical garden has a wooden walkway shaded by palm trees leading to a small lake. Its rainforest-like microclimate supports a large variety of orchids and vines. Nearby, a bike-rental center offers two-wheelers, tandem cycles and family bikes for three or four riders.
Telephone: 03/642-2828 or 03/699-0307.