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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Squill Season

August 19, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

After several weeks of unbroken heat, yesterday there was a break, with clouds at sunset, and a cool breeze in the evening. It seems that every summer we complain that we don't remember it being so hot, or so humid, for so long, in previous summers. But I don't know if in fact the feeling is supported by statistics. In any case, today there was finally the sense that a change in seasons is approaching. And in fact, today is Rosh Hochesh Elul - so as summery as the weather has been, we know that autumn is about to begin.

The surest sign of the transition from summer to fall is the sprouting of the hatzav - and indeed, this past week, while hiking at nearby Yodfat, I saw the first hatzav shoots of the year. The hatzav, or Mediterranean squill, is one of the most distinctive wildflowers of Israel, and holds a special place in popular culture as a marker of the change of seasons. The hatzav sprouts from a large onion-like bulb that is often visible above ground. In the early spring, it puts out smooth dark green leaves about a foot long, sort of like an oversized tulip plant. These shrivel up and die as spring turns to summer, and throughout the summer the hatzav is invisible unless the bulb happens to protrude above the surface of the soil. Then, as summer wanes, and the landscape has been bleached to shades of brown and gray, no flowers in sight, suddenly a lone thick stalk sprouts from each hatzav bulb and in a matter of a few days reaches three feet in height. The top half of this stalk is covered with tiny buds, and each day, starting from the bottom, a band of them open to delicate white flowers; they close at night, and the next day the band moves up the stalk. In a week or two all the flowers have opened, and seed formation begins. By the end of winter, the seed pods have opened, and the stalk has dried up and been broken off by the wind, leaving only bulb again.

Hatzav bulbs contain an irritating chemical that makes them unappealing to animals - and makes them a popular medicinal plant throughout the region - as an emetic, pain reliever, heart stimulant, etc. And there are folktales about hatzavim preventing real-estate chicanery by revealing the true boundaries of fields: farmers who find them when plowing toss them along the border of the field; if someone then tries to move the border (not seeing the buried bulbs), he will have his comeuppance when the bulbs sprout next season, with a row of leaves or flower stalks running through the field along the original boundary.

The main role of the hatzav in modern Israeli folk culture is as one of the few natural markers of the transition from summer to fall. We don't have maple leaves and "fall colors." But we do have hillsides covered with the stalks of white hatzav flowers, always just before Rosh Hashana. Elementary school classes make excursions to see hatzav fields, and sing songs about them; the blooming of the hatzavim is definitely an event in the lives of Israeli children, probably made so by the conscious efforts of Zionist educators to create links between their immigrant pupils and the natural landscape of Eretz Yisrael.

Growing up in the American midwest, the sensory memories of fall - the clarity of the sunlight, the color and sound of the leaves, the change in the air - are deeply imprinted in me, and if I happen to be in the US in October, experiencing these sensations generates a powerful resonance within me; happy and sad, time passing, cycle turning, new year.

Nothing can replace or erase that imprint in me; but I have been here long enough that the glowing white stalks of hatzavim on the rocky hillsides of the Galilee arouse in me an echo of that same feeling of transition, of loss and renewal, that come with Elul every year, in every climate, in every generation.

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