Science in israel: Making the desert bloom one olive tree at a time

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has launched “Plant a Tree to Seed Desert Research” to coincide with Earth Day and Arbor Day. This new initiative to advance desert agriculture will benefit Israel and offer hope to millions of people living in the world’s drylands.

An olive tree forest is being planted in Wadi Mashash, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s agricultural research farm located about 20 miles south of Beersheva. Wadi Mashash is the only site in Israel where agricultural production is entirely based on the collection and use of the desert’s rare flood waters.

Freshly made olive oil from trees grown in the Negev

The techniques developed at Wadi Mashash are used to combat desertification worldwide and facilitate sustainable development of drylands. Already, much of the knowledge gained by past experiments, such as an acacia tree forest, is helping many countries in Africa grow trees for food, fodder and firewood without depleting all their resources.

“The research done at Wadi Mashash will bring knowledge to the world — knowledge that will help produce food, cash crops and more sustainable farming practices,” said Doron Krakow, AABGU executive vice president.

In between each row of olive trees, a grain will be planted. Because of the wide breadth of their roots and branches, trees cannot be planted too closely to each other, resulting in water evaporation from the top of the soil — an unacceptable condition in the desert where every drop of water counts.

“Instead of letting that happen we developed a system in which we put crops in between the rows of trees,” said professor Pedro Berliner, director of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research. “These plants take up the water that would be lost to the atmosphere, while also providing another commercial opportunity crop.”

The commercial grain crop will provide food for both animals and people. The fruit of the olive trees will be used to produce high-quality olive oil. The grove is being planted, managed and studied by students at the University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies under the direction of Berliner.

The first phase of planting, about 240 olive trees, has already been completed, as Wadi Mashash was the lucky recipient of a rare winter flood this past January. Two more successive plots of about 350 trees each will follow. The grain crop will be added one year after each planting to allow the olive saplings to take root.

Supporters will have the opportunity to dedicate an olive tree in someone’s name. To learn more about the Seed Desert Research initiative, or to plant an olive tree, visit