Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Royal Garden

Botanic Superlatives: The Oldest Royal Garden

March 23, 2012
Photo by: Hnuecke / Panoramio

The ultimate garden revival project is underway at the site of an ancient palace in modern day–Jerusalem, where scientists are reconstructing what was in bloom in the kingdom of Biblical Judah. The gardens at Ramat Rachel, they say, were designed with a wealth of exotic plants and native fruit trees—the origins of a horticultural tradition in Israel. It is a glimpse of 7th century B.C opulence, a vision afforded by the recent discovery of ancient pollen grains, preserved in the garden's plaster waterways. Now that they have identified the garden's species, botanists plan to re-create the gardens onsite. 

The garden's elaborate design was no surprise—researchers had previously discovered an impressive irrigation system, which collected rainwater to disperse in a system of fountains, pools, and underground channels. However, they couldn't speculate what had grown in the opulent grounds, until they discovered a cache of pollen—likely embedded in the wet plaster of new irrigation installations. 

What they discovered was a surprising variety of plants—the usual indigenous suspects, as well as a a lush list of introduced species. They found pollen from myrtle, water lilies, grape vines, common figs and olives, and imported willow and poplar trees, which would have needed irrigation to survive in the arid garden. They found pollen from birch trees, cedar of Lebanon, and an imported citron-like tree—the etrog, a fruit that would become embedded in Jewish tradition as a prized plant in Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. The etrog's first cultivation in Israel is now mapped to these gardens. 

It's the first time such precise botanical artifacts have been extracted and reconstructed in an ancient royal garden, researchers say, and it has offered an incredible insight into the sociological value of a garden. Landscaped on a hilltop between Old Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the lush gardens would have been an unmistakable vision of wealth in a very dry climate. It's believed that the exotic species were imported from far-away lands to further emphasize the palace's status. Dating the layers of preserved pollen, researchers have also been able to create a timeline of the garden, indicating that periods of indigenous plants alternated with waves of introduced species—the rise of a palace, the growth of a garden. 

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.