MAGHDOUSHE, Lebanon: Just a few kilometers southeast of Sidon, in the village of Maghdoushe, two elderly women sit in front of a house sorting through a pile of bitter orange blossoms.
They are preparing to make bitter orange blossom water, a clear, perfumed liquid made by distilling the potent smelling flowers.
Hind Hakim, who is in her 80s, remembers when Maghdoushe’s springtime hills were filled with hundreds of bitter orange trees.
“I’ve been harvesting these flowers for 40 years. In the past, the work - including the harvesting - was done by hand. Now, we use a machine that shakes the tree until the fruit drops to the ground.”
The women distill some of the bitter orange blossoms in their homes and sell the rest to a local distillery run by a cooperative in Maghdoushe.
The plant was established by the Hariri Foundation in 2008 and enables cultivators to sell their production more easily.
Bitter orange blossom water has many uses, Hakim explains.
“It can be used to make white coffee, an alternative to the black kind that we normally drink. You can also use it to make traditional Arabic sweets.”
“But of course the most important use is for abdominal pain,” she says. “We learned from our grandparents that you should take a spoonful if you have stomach cramps. This is what we still teach to the young generations, if a trip to the doctor doesn’t work.”
Hakim’s friend and helper Bahia Laound is busy removing leaves from the blossoms.
“I hope that my children and grandchildren continue to look after these trees, from which we also make marmalade,” Laound says.
“The trees enchant everyone. When anyone says ‘Maghdoushe,’ [the] first you think of [is] the town in which the Virgin Mary waited for her son Jesus. Then you think of a place of flowers and spring.”
Lemon and orange grower Abu Hasin keeps a grove in Anqoun, 2 kilometers from Maghdoushe.
He also sells his lemon flowers to the distillery in Maghdoushe.
“Before the onslaught of cement, Sidon was the capital of spring flowers,” Abu Hasin says.
“In spring months, Sidon and the agricultural lands of the south would smell of lemon and orange blossom. But now other trees have taken their place.” - Writing by Jacob Boswall