E-mail Us


    We were making our way down a flowing wadi at the edge of a large plantation. Water rushed over big boulders, giant red dragonflies skitted across the surface of stagnant pools along the banks, a bulbul could be heard singing its melodious song from within the palm grove. The sky was as brightly blue as it can only get in Arabia in the cool season.

    A wonderful scent caught my attention; it was an old-fashioned scent, very "floral" and sweet. "Mignonette" - I learned later.

    The tree that carried the sweet-smelling blossoms grew to a height of about 4 meters, looking a bit straggly with fine branches and small leaves. The blossoms were grouped in small clusters and were white in colour. I realised I was looking at the henna tree, whose scientific name is Lawsonia inermis. It is a shrubby tree, the only species in the Loosestrife or Lythraceae family. It is also commonly called “Egyptian privet” or “mignonette tree”. It is well suited to survive a harsh dry climate as long as it receives regular water. A perfume is isolated from the flowers, which is used as the base for many local scents.

    Wherever in the world men and women have interacted, they have always tried to find ways in which to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. Women have discovered cosmetics, using coloured dyes or pastes to enhance their natural colours or accentuate their features. In this way the magenta dyes in the roots of the Arabian primrose (Arnebia hispidissima) were used as rouge, and the black colour of charcoal made from the roots of the "eyelash plant" (Blepharis ciliaris) was used in a paste with antimone to outline the eyes as well as treat inflammations of the eye. In North Africa, the indigo dye in the indigo plant was used to colour skin as well as textiles. In northern Oman even men used to dye their beards with henna.

    The use of the juices of the henna plant to dye hair and nails was discovered some 5000 years ago in Egypt. From there the practice spread over most of North Africa and the Middle East, and was brought to India with the spread of Islam. The henna tree is considered to be one of the "plants of Paradise" (shajarat al jinna) and it was forbidden to damage or cut down a tree or use its wood as fuel.

    The fresh leaves and twigs of the plant were ground into a fine powder and then mixed with lemon juice and various herbs to form a dark brown paste. This paste had a cooling effect and was originally just used to paint the soles of feet and the tips of the fingers. Many medicinal powers were ascribed to henna, from the treatment of bee-stings, burns and boils to that of headaches, hysteria and tumors. It was claimed to have positive effects in smallpox and leprosy, in jaundice and venereal disease, and was used as a deodorant, an aphrodisiac and an astringent.

    North African Berbers believed that henna protects, brings luck and wealth, wards off the evil eye and guards against black magic and harmful genies.

    This rather varied list of treatments tells us more about the lack of remedies in the past than about the true worth of henna.

    Nowadays henna is still known as a medicine for a variety of ailments, but it is best known for its use in the application of intricate henna drawings to the skin, resulting in pretty decorations that last for many days. The active component of the henna, that causes the dye to penetrate the skin, is a chemical called hennotannic acid. The design remains until new skin cells have grown to replace the old coloured ones.

    Henna art is also called the art of Mehendi. The designs that are applied to hands and feet vary from region to region. Whereas the Africans have bold geometric shapes and favour the very dark colours, the Arabs prefer large floral patterns and a more reddish shade of the design. In India the henna patterns are very lacey, with paisley like designs. Over the years the tools to apply henna have evolved so that the designs could become more intricate and additives to the henna paste make the dye more intensely coloured and glossy.

    The henna designs are particularly intricate and extensive when they are applied on the occasion of a wedding. In one region the women who apply the henna incorporate the name of the bridegroom somewhere in the design. If the groom, on the wedding night, can find his name, this is deemed a propitious sign.

    Another tradition allows for the bride to be excused from any housework as long as her wedding henna is still visible on her body. Having the henna applied to her also teaches the bride patience, for it takes many hours to apply the designs and then another many hours for the henna to dry.

    The henna paste is made from finely ground fresh leaves (one part) mixed with two parts of lemon or lime juice that has been boiled with whole cloves or cardamom, and 1/2 part of sugar. Some oil, such as eucalyptus oil, is often added to allow the smooth flow of the henna from the application tool. Sometimes in the case of bridal henna, rose water or orange blossom water is added as well. Different types of henna release the dye at different times. For instance, Moroccan henna has to be used as soon as it is made; others have to be prepared the day before they are used to have a proper effect. After the design is finished a fixative is used: one teaspoon of sugar in two teaspoons of lemon juice. Then the decorated skin is covered overnight (saran wrap can be used) in order to let the henna dry and the dye penetrate into the skin. In the morning the paste is wiped off the skin and the brow-red design becomes clearly visible.


The application of henna is part of the culture of the Middle East. Particularly prominent at weddings, henna is also used for other celebrations such as the Eids. Henna art has spread to the West and is very popular among some groups of people in Europe and the USA. On the internet one can even find photo galleries of henna designs as well as extensive information about the use of henna as a cosmetic and a medicinal herb. Recent medical research has proved that henna extracts show antibacterial, anti-fungal and UV light screening activity.

Besides that the shrub is popular in gardens because of its white or pink blossoms, its cluster of red and orange fruits and especially its lingering sweet smell.




| Top | Home | Al Habtoor Group | Metropolitan Hotels | Al Habtoor Automobiles |
Diamond Leasing | Emirates International School |
Designed and maintained by alMATRIX.com