Spring comes early in Lebanon. In fact, it is hard to say just when winter ends spring begins. While the high mountain ranges are covered in snow and the ski runs attract crowds of winter-sportsmen, the lower slopes and the coastal plain are at their greenest. But it is not just a matter of altitude: on the coldest, most blustery day in January the almond tree puts out delicate pink blossoms that defy the elements, and anemones and cyclamen find shelter from icy rains in the crannies of an old stone wall. Spring and winter commingle here: the high snows feed the streambeds with rushing torrents, which in turn awaken the green life along their banks.
The spring advances in waves of color. First green, starting before Christmas and growing lusher and more verdant as the year turns. Then it's pink time: the time of asphodel, cyclamen, rock roses, and wild geraniums. This deepens to the lilac, purple, mauve of the Judas tree, wild gladiolus, orchis, salvia, lupine. Later still the dominant color is yellow: golden broom, yellow-green euphorbia, pale butter-colored snapdragon, flame and yellow tulips, and the whole wide-eyed family of daisies and chrysanthemums. And on the threshold of summer, the blues take over with wild flax, grape hyacinth, buddleia, campanula, and a wide range of blue thistles, some with even the branches and leaves a bright cobalt. Of course the colors are not stictly segregated. Often contiguous fields will form a checkerboard of yellow, lilac, green and blue, and a patch of river bank may look like a corner of one of those medieval tapestries where a profusion of small variegated flowers forms a background for a lady with a unicorn.
Wild flowers? Anemone, cyclamen, gladiolus, tulip, chrysanthemum, geranium—these are names from the seed catalogues and herbaceous borders of the West. But they are natives of Lebanon, or very early immigrants long acclimatized. Many of our favorite cultivated plants came originally from the Middle East, brought back by Crusaders and missionaries, explorers and intrepid Victorian tourists. The list can be extended: iris, heliotrope, poppy, hollyhock, larkspur, narcissus, mignonette, pink. They have been bred to larger sizes and different colors by western botanists and gardeners, but they are recognizably the same as their wild ancestors.
Some of them are old in song and story. The lily of the field that surpassed Solomon in all his glory is thought by some to be the red and purple anemone, by others the rosy purple gladiola. The Biblical lily of the valley was probably the wild hyacinth. The Greeks, for some strange reason, thought that the rather disappointing grayish-pink spike of the asphodel grew in Paradise. The bright red adonis was believed to have sprung from the drops of blood of the corn-god Adonis, when he was gored by a wild boar. Egyptian mummies have been found garlanded with larkspur, and the blue has hardly faded. The French fleur-de-lys was modeled on the wild iris. And Judas by tradition hanged himself on the Judas tree, whose flowers blushed to their present hue with shame.
Photographer Gene Johnson lived in Lebanon for three years during which he compiled a collection of wildflower photographs from which these few have been chosen.