Man vs. Nature

Man vs. Nature – who will win the battle for domination?

By Dr. Sarah Oren, Curator of the Neot Kedumim Botanical Garden and Ouria Orren, Head Botanist

Plant of the Month – Kislev: (Inula viscosa )

Quarrying and construction often leave nature wounded, injured and degraded ─ referred to in botanical parlance as “disturbed land”. But in areas where such destruction ceases, nature in its amazing vitality is “challenged” to conquer and rehabilitate.

For example, ruderal plants (from the Latin rudus, meaning rubble) appear by chance in disturbed land and are initially fertilized by human activity. Over time, new local species of plants take over from these ruderal plants to take hold in the once-ruined land.

One such heroic plant is Inula viscosa, also known as False Yellowhead and Strong-Smelling Inula. In Israel, it is most commonly referred to by its Arabic name, tayun davik (sticky tayun). It takes bold hold in such disturbed lands and is conspicuous both in appearance and its pronounced odor.

The tayun is a member of the Asteraceae family. Because it flowers in Israel in summer and fall (July –December) it avoids competition for the pollinators that are attracted to most plants from later winter to early summer.The tayun bears clusters of small yellow flowers and a large number of seeds. The seeds contain cottony puffs that enable them to be easily spread far and wide by wind. The elongated leaves contain a sticky resin that has a very distinctive smell (hence another of the plant’s names – Sticky fleabane). When the rains begin in late November, its growth slows down.

photo credit: Irit Shernicoff

The plant is commonly found in large groups throughout the Mediterranean basin; in Israel it is found in the Mediterranean growing region as well as scattered in the desert and in the mountainous Hermon area. The plant’s primary habitat is “riparian,” meaning that it grows along waterways such as stream and river banks, ponds, marshes – and leaky water lines.

As mentioned, the tayun is a first stage pioneer in the re-establishment of plants in a disturbed area. Once it takes hold, other plants can also establish footholds in what is called the process of “succession,” a gradual process in which a vanguard plant such as the Inula viscosa morphs into the primary plant in the area.

Since the tayun is closely connected to water, it often serves as an indicator of nearby streams and high ground water. This fact led Hannah and Ephraim Hareuveni, the parents of Neot Kedumim founder Nogah Hareuveni, to identify the dense stands of tayun by water sources as the biblical nettle (sirpad) plant.

The tayun shares a habitat with the common myrtle (Myrtus communis), one of the last plants to appear in the aforementioned “succession.” According to the Hareuvenis, this botanical process is beautifully described by the Prophet Isaiah “You will depart (from exile) in joy, and you shall be led (home) in peace.…In place of the prickly oak (na’atzutz), the juniper will rise, and in place of the nettle, a myrtle will grow.” (Isaiah 55:12-13).

The Hareuvenis understood the verse to compare two pairs of plants that demand very different climates. The prickly oak trees (which they identified as the biblical na’atzutz) that thrive in the dry Judean hills will be replaced by the juniper (biblical brosh), a refreshing tree found where there is plenty of water. And the nettle, the biblical sirpad identified by the Hareuvenis as the pungent tayun that is found in abundance alongside Israel’s dry wadis, will be replaced by sweet-smelling myrtles.

One of the traits the tayun uses when dominating an area is called allelopathy, from the Greek allon = neighbor and pathos = suffering, meaning plants that cause their “neighbor,” i.e. the land around them, to “suffer.” In this case, the tayun secretes a substance that inhibits the growth of other plants around it. Laboratory tests have revealed that this substance is antibiotic and anti-fungal and can be used to fight weeds, pests and organic plant diseases.

The tayun contains a wealth of substances that make it an excellent medicinal plant. Israel’s Arab population claims (perhaps with some exaggeration) that the tayun can heal some 40 ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic cough, gastrointestinal problems, cancer, swelling and pain in the joints, allergies and more. It is customary in Spain to hang stalks of tayun on walls to lure flies.

At Neot Kedumim, visitors can see the tayun in several areas, for example near “Abraham’s Tent” and on “The Hill of the Menorah.”

At this time of year, before the significant winter rains have begun in earnest, the tayun, at the height of its blossoming, is a testament to the power of life itself, which is occasionally able to rise up against all odds and demonstrate the determination of nature to assert itself under any circumstance. One can even see the tayun as “nature’s representative,” attempting to gain a foothold wherever the natural order has been disturbed, as though to hint at the ongoing struggle between man and nature.