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This article appears in JNF’s recent newsletter B’yachad

When Eti Golan, an Israeli herbalist, began studying her trade, she was surprised to find that while European, North American, and Asian plants were well-represented in the available literature, information on medicinal use of native Israeli plants was much harder to access.

“When you learn how to heal in Israel, most everything—the herbs and the knowledge about them—is imported. There is no emphasis on Israeli herbs. You really have to struggle to learn more about them, especially those from the desert,” said Ms. Golan, who is the Manager of Medicinal Plant Product Development at Project Wadi Attir, a model sustainable agricultural operation led by a Bedouin community in the Negev. The project has been designed to leverage Bedouin traditional values, know-how and experience with modern-day science and cutting edge technologies. There, Ms. Golan works alongside the Director of the Medicinal Plants Operation, traditional Bedouin healer Ali Alhawashla, an expert in Negev medicinal plants who has dedicated his life to studying their characteristics and preserving knowledge of their uses.

There are two reasons why Israeli herbs are little represented on the world stage. One reason is because cultures with rich plant-based healing traditions, like Bedouin culture, are largely oral, and have never formally published or scientifically examined their unique knowledge. The second is simply that not many people within Israel have taken up the cause of Israeli medicinal plants, which means that many safe, advantageous plants have never been presented to the Health Department for approval. As a result, say Ms. Golan and Mr. Alhawashla, essential knowledge about native healing plants and traditions is a mere generation away from being lost, effectively increasing Israel’s dependence on non-native species, as opposed to homegrown alternatives.

The Medicinal Plants Operation at Project Wadi Attir represents a responsibility and an opportunity: to preserve endangered Bedouin knowledge of desert herbs and natural healing remedies, and to apply this knowledge towards the creation of a high-quality brand of healing products, including soaps and creams, essential oils and infusion teas. The creation of this brand will provide economic independence for members of the Wadi Attir Cooperative while employing women and youth in the Bedouin community.

To this end, Mr. Alhawashla has continued his work gathering and consolidating unavailable data relating to traditional desert plants, as well as Bedouin agricultural practices, remedies and treatments, for compilation in his own healing guide, to be published in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Of almost 35 species of desert medicinal plants identified by Mr. Alhawashla, 15 are intended for growth on a dedicated plot at Project Wadi Attir’s 100-acre site. Six species are already thriving there, a combination of well-known herbs like sage, luiza (aka lemon verbena), and za’atar (aka Lebanese oregano), and other lesser-known varieties like wormwood, ballota and felty germander. The latter three are the result of several years of Mr. Alhawashla’s trial-and-error experimentation with cultivation methods and strategies for these otherwise wild, native species.

In April of this year, the Medicinal Plants team at Project Wadi Attir oversaw the first harvest of medicinal herbs. The harvested herbs have been dried and put aside for further experimentation on the best methods to effectively and uniformly extract essential oils and active ingredients for use in formulas.

While the team begins developing products from a pre-approved selection of herbs, they will also be working in conjunction with the authorities to widen the scope of Negev medicinal plants used in Israeli products, with the hopes of bringing something to market, to the healing community, and to the world, which has never been seen before.

Ms. Golan points to matricaria aurea, a leafy desert plant with yellow flowers that has no common English name, but is related to both sunflowers and chamomile.

“This is a plant used widely in Bedouin healing. It’s not approved, not because its dangerous—its cousins are used in teas and other healing treatments all over the world. It’s not approved because nobody has ever asked,” explains Ms. Golan.

This underscores the urgency and importance of the Medicinal Plant Operation’s efforts at Project Wadi Attir. “If we don’t do this now,” said Ms. Golan, “no one will ever know what we have right under our noses.”

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