Israel’s cactus industry begins life in a matchbox

June 30, 2008 - 2:25 PM by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Business, General, History and Culture, Life, War 

I was leafing through this wonderful old gardening book by Walter Frankl the other day, when I came across an interesting entry about Israel’s cactus industry.

Apparently, the first importer of the many ornamental cacti you can now find at virtually every nursery in Israel today was a man called Israel Hebel, from Darmstadt in Germany.


He was a bank clerk by profession, and an amateur gardener and cacti lover by hobby.

When Hitler came to power, Hebel managed to escape Germany for Palestine, but the Nazis forced him to leave all his possessions behind. The only thing he did manage to smuggle out, however, was a matchbox full of hundreds of tiny cactus seeds.

These seeds became Hebel’s fortune. He set up a nursery in Ran’anana and soon become the first big cacti supplier to florists all over the country. For decades, his family lived off the earnings of these German seeds, and in 1981 – when Frankl’s book was published, the original nursery still existed.

I did an Internet search to find out if it was still there, but sadly drew a blank. It would be a shame to think this page of history has closed.

This isn’t the only story in Israel about an industry being founded on smuggled goods. Legend has it that Israel’s growing ostrich industry was founded in 1982 when an Israeli made the trip to South Africa and smuggled a few eggs in on the way back home. There are also rumors that one of the country’s most prominent high-tech firms was set up on modems smuggled in from the US.

That’s what I like about Israel. It’s still a young enough country for enterprising people to start an industry based on the contents of a matchbox or a suitcase.


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