Bible and Beyond
Generations of Christian Pilgrims to the Holy land brought home traditional mementos such as pressed wild flowers from Jerusalem, olive-wood covered Bibles, and a homely little ball of dried-out twigs with miraculous properties—the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). The desiccated skeletons of the small desert plant are still sold at souvenir shops in Jerusalem’s Old City and in Bethlehem.

The miraculous quality of the Jericho Rose is demonstrated when the plant is immersed in water. Gradually opening before one’s eyes, the plant will extend its branches like a small tree. When the water evaporates, the skeleton will ball up again. Reimmersed in water, the plant will reopen. Because the same reaction can be made to occur over and over again, the plant’s scientific name is anastica (that is, not static). Pilgrims interpret the properties of the Rose of Jericho as being symbolic of the Resurrection; botanists describe the plant as hygrochastic.

The Rose of Jericho is not a true rose, but is rather a member of the mustard family. An annual, the plant lives but one season, dies and becomes a hard, dry skeleton which remains rooted in the ground for many years. In bloom, in March and April, the Rose of Jericho has small spikes of white flowers set in a cluster of green oval leaves which grow close to the ground. The flowers soon fall off and the seeds of the fruit begin to ripen. By May or June, the seeds are ripe but dormant, enclosed within tightly-sealed fruits. By that time, the leaves, too, have fallen off and the dry, hard, twiggy skeleton has become a ball resembling a closed fist. On the upper surface of the incurring branches, the tough skinned fruit rests patiently, enclosing the dormant seeds.

Although many desert plants also grow in damper habitats where they are more numerous and better developed, the Rose of Jericho, whose survival mechanisms are peculiarly adapted to the desert, does not. In Israel, the plant is found only in the driest parts of the Negev, the Judean wilderness, and the Sinai (it also grows in certain areas of the Sahara desert), where the average annual rainfall is between three-quarters of an inch and two inches. Roses of Jericho are completely absent where the average annual rainfall exceeds four inches.

We recently conducted studies of the Rose of Jericho and found its botanical techniques for species survival to be as fully amazing as the hygrochastic characteristic of its dried-out skeleton. Like other desert plants, the Rose of Jericho has developed a special system for measuring rainfall and intermittently dispensing its seeds in order to insure survival.

Fruits at the periphery of the skeleton have two loosely connected covers or valves. These covers are more firmly attached at the center of the skeleton and considerable force is necessary to open the seed-bearing valves. The dry skeleton of the Rose of Jericho will last in the field for many years, opening and closing with each rain. If after the skeleton opens, further rain falls, some of the peripheral seeds will drop. Other seeds will wait for a more opportune time, however, in case the first seeds aren’t successful. Seeds at the center of the skeleton will wait for many years, perhaps for decades or even for centuries until the most propitious moment arrives after a particularly heavy series of rains. Indeed, those seeds “will consider” dropping only after their fruits, located in the center of the skeleton, have worn away. We found in the field many skeletons that seemed to be quite old. Most of the fruits of these plants had liberated their seeds, but a few fruits containing viable seeds could be seen in the center of some plants.

While excavating an ancient cult center at Kuntillet Ajruda (between the Negev and Sinai deserts) dating from about 800 B.C., Dr. Ze’ev Meshel, an archaeologist at the Institute for Nature Conservation Research, Tel Aviv University, recovered a seed-bearing Rose of Jericho skeleton under a three and a half foot layer of debris. Its seeds were not alive but it proved the extreme durability of skeletons of the Rose of Jericho. The age of old skeletons in the field is still a mystery, although efforts are being made to determine it.b

Laboratory tests have revealed that a skeleton will open more readily if the soil is wet. The drier the soil, the more rain it takes to open the skeleton. If the soil is wet, the dead root of the plant absorbs some of the water which is then conducted to the dead branches, so less rain is needed to open the skeleton. No seeds will be dropped unless a second shower falls before the skeleton is re-dried and closed. When it rains on an opened skeleton, drops of water hit the fruit valves and separate them. The seeds are then dropped on soil, which is sufficiently wet to cause them to germinate. The seeds, falling near the parent skeleton, thus sprout in a place that has already shown itself to be suitable. When the soil is dry, four millimeters of rain are necessary just to open the skeleton. Hard, dry skeletons rapidly absorb large amounts of water. Every gram of dry material soaks up an equivalent weight of water within a few minutes. The skeleton opens gradually, however, and exposes the seed bearing fruit in a two hour process.

The seeds germinate within eight hours. This insures that a released seed (which fell only after a sufficient amount of rainfall was measured by the skeleton) will be able to root in the soil, before the upper crust of earth dries out.

Though many skeletons of the Rose of Jericho are found in large, dense concentrations, individual plants are commonly found along a wadi bed or runner, thus indicating a method of seed dispersal. Seeds of the Rose of Jericho float readily, carried by the surface run-off after a rainfall. By following the flow channels, we found that the density of the plants and their size increases downstream, but that this migration is strictly limited. Further downstream where still more water flows in the wadi beds, the number of perennial plants increased, but, strangely enough, the number of Roses of Jericho diminished until they disappeared altogether.

This puzzling absence of the Rose of Jericho downstream is explained by the behavior of a gerbil-like rodent, known as the fat jird.c The fat jird lives in little burrows which provide it with all the protection it needs. We found fat jird burrows in profusion near the green plants in the lower portions of the wadi. Perennial leaves are green there even in the summer, thus indicating the existence of enough water for the fat jirds. Farther up the wadi where less water accumulates during winter, perennials become rare and the fat jird burrows thin out. At the densest concentration of Roses of Jericho, we found only one fat jird burrow every 500 meters.

To understand the relationship of the rodent to the plant, we placed some dry Roses of Jericho in a cage of captive fat jirds. The rodents broke open the skeletons and the fruits and ate the seeds with obvious relish. Here was the reason the Roses of Jericho disappeared downstream- the seeds were eaten by the fat jirds. As the fat jirds’ burrows decreased upstream, the Roses of Jericho increased in beautifully inverse proportion.

The dead plant skeleton has a seed dispersal mechanism delicately regulated by the amount of rainfall; it is also an easy target for seed eating rodents. Fat jirds, however, fear nocturnal predators, so they have a very short activity radius, only a few dozen meters from their burrows.
The few fat jirds with burrows among the dense Rose of Jericho concentration along the upper reaches of the wadi can also be short distance seed dispersal agents. They probably account for the occasional Rose of Jericho which grows on the slopes of the wadi.

Birds also distribute Rose of Jericho seeds to remote areas of an absolute desert, where once every several years soil topography favors rainfall accumulation. During the short time the skeletons are open, we have watched a desert partridge eat scores of seeds from opened skeletons.

A sticky layer (mucilage) around the seeds insures that a small number of seeds will adhere to the bird’s feathers. In the vast Negev desert plains, where no plant is encountered for miles, one may discover dried up skeletons of the Rose of Jericho. In a little impression in the sand, which perhaps becomes a small puddle of rainwater once every ten years, a dry skeleton will patiently wait for its baptism by rain and its ultimate resurrection.

The regenerative phenomenon of the Rose of Jericho figures in the folk tradition of Jews and Moslems as well as Christians. The plant is often used as a charm in a pregnant Arab woman’s room. When labor begins, a dried skeleton of a Rose of Jericho is dipped in water. The plant’s reaction is supposed to induce the same reaction in the woman’s womb, thus facilitating the birth. Legend says that in Syria, women in labor drink the water in which a Rose of Jericho is immersed.

According to Jewish legend when Moses was to die on Mount Nebo, gentle breezes brought him the scents of the land he was not permitted to enter. The aroma of laurel, sage, thyme, hyssop, and all the mountain plants of the Promised Land wafted toward him. As Moses inhaled the fresh scents, his heart was at ease. Suddenly, something tumbled through the air and came down at his feet. Moses picked up the object and saw that it was a dry, curled-up Rose of Jericho. He wondered- “Is this a sign that I will be as this plant, dry and blown out of the land?” And God answered, “Take a little water and pour it on the plant.” And Moses did as he was bidden. And God said, “Fear not, my servant Moses; as this plant, so will be thy spirit, and thy memory will be blessed forever.” And Moses was comforted as he saw how the plant had opened its branches wide, and his heart was at rest, for he knew that although he was to die, his soul would live forever.

(For further details see- J. Friedman and Z. Stein, Israel—Land and Nature, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 76 (Winter 1979–80); Oecologia (Berlin- Springer), Vol. 32, pp. 289–301 (1978), and Journal of Ecology, Vol. 68 (1)- 43–50, 1980. Annals of Botany, 1980 (in press). Other literature- E. and J. Lehner (1980), Folklore and Symbolism of Flower, Plants and Fruits, Tudor Publishing Co. New York; G. M. Crowfoot and L. Baldensperger (1932), From Cedar to Hyssop. The Sheldon Press, London.)