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    There is a small spring flower that appears in abundance after rain, forming a thick carpet of green and white on otherwise barren sand. It is called Eremobium - desert life!

  This year we will not see much of it, since the rain came too late and there was too little. But the seeds of "desert life" will just stay hidden in the sand until next year, when good rains will cause them to germinate and start their short lifecycle, inshallah.

   Desert plants are amazing. Any life in the desert has to adapt to harsh temperatures and periods of drought; but animals can move away - find shade, hide in a cool burrow, and find water to drink. Plants have to stay where they are, and often have to make do with just a little moisture from dew in the morning. They have developed incredibly clever adaptations to cope with these problems.

   Many plants, especially the larger, bushy ones, are perennials - they are alive all year around. Some of them may lose all their greenery and show only a few barren sticks during the hot season, so people often tend to think that these "dead" bushes are only good for firewood. But they are not dead - give them one good rain and a few cool nights and soon bits of green start sprouting, followed by buds, flowers and eventually seeds.

   Because leaves present a large surface to the outside air, from which the plant can evaporate a lot of moisture, many desert plants have reduced their leaves to twigs as in  Euphorbia larica or needles (Tamarix sp.). Others just do without leaves (Periploca aphylla, adult Moringa peregrina)

   There are many plants that go "underground" during the hot season - those with bulbs such as the Irises and Lilies spend the summer here the way they would spend the winter in colder climates.

   The variety of flowering shrubs and bushes in the UAE is quite astounding. But how is it then that so few people seem to know this? It is mainly because most of the desert flowers are tiny; they do not need to be showy and large, because most of the pollination in the desert is done by means of the wind, as is the distribution of the seeds. Many of the seeds are either fitted with their own little parachute of silken hairs, or with papery thin "wings," or they are contained in thin balloons, which drift away on the wind.

   Of course animals are also used as distributors, by way of their digestive system. Seedpods are eaten as fodder, and the seeds that are protected from the gastric juices are excreted and deposited far away from the original plant, sometimes even inside a bit of manure ready for use. A few plants surround their seeds with sticky or prickly covers, which attach themselves as burrs to animal furs or with spines that imbed themselves in shoes and hooves.

   There are some plants that have developed a very innovative way of spreading their seeds. There is the Rose of Jericho Anastatica hierochuntica, locally called Kaf Miriam, because it is claimed that holding it in your hand during childbirth or drinking an infusion of its leaves will ease the birth pains. In its dried up state it looks like a tightly closed fist, but a good dousing with water will open up the plant and cause the seeds to be propelled outwards with force. This "hygroscopic mechanism" is also evident in Blepharis ciliaris, the Eyelash plant. During a heavy rain, this plant will shoot its seeds like bullets all around it! Blepharis is called "kahil" or "kohl" locally. The burnt woody parts of the plant used to be mixed with antimony to make the black powder that was applied to the eyes, both as a cosmetic and as a medicine for eye infections.

   The small composite Asteriscus pygmaeus also opens its seed heads during rains, but its seeds only manage to reach a few inches away from the original plant.

   Often plants are better known for their seeds than for their flowers: an important bush of the sandy desert is called the “Fire bush”, because of its bright red, prickly lantern-shaped fruits. This Calligonum comosum is a good stabilizer of sand, and the Bedus used the young shoots as a vegetable and the red fruits as a spice. Cassia italica has dark brown pods that are used medicinally as a laxative - senna. The plant is therefore better known as the senna plant. The desert squash, Citrullus colocynthis, has attractive yellow fruits, but they are know as "bitter gourds" for that is what they are - very bitter. Although desert ungulates like gazelles and oryx do eat them and the gerbil is said to be partial to the seeds, they are not fit for human consumption, even if they are not poisonous as some people say. The mountain tree Moringa peregrina is also known as the Drumstick tree, because its fruits are foot-long brown pods that could easily be used as drumsticks.

   The mountains are home to many interesting shrubs and bushes. A very strange one is Periploca aphylla. The bush looks like a straggly bit of dead wood, but every spring, even without rain, a few twigs will sprout buds that open up to strange flowers. The five petals are in a dark aubergine colour and the tips are covered in long white hairs. No leaves appear on the bush ever

   Interesting as the perennial shrubs and bushes are, the amazing flowers of the desert are the spring flowers. Unfortunately we have not seen many (or even any) in the last few years because of four years of drought. The thunderstorm that brought some rain a few weeks ago was not enough to get things started. Still, even in these desperate times, you can sometimes come across some spring annuals in irrigated gardens, along the small water channels in the oases, or sometimes in a spot where water was standing for a while.

   There are so many wonderful wild annuals that it is hard to know which ones to mention. One of my favourites is a white beauty that opens at night and is at its best early in the morning, when the dew lies on its soft petals: the Desert Campion Silene villosa. It grows in sandy areas, on sandy plains and among low dunes. Often the Arabian primrose Arnebia hispidissima is nearby. This plant contains a purple dye in its roots and leaves and was used in the past as a cosmetic by the Bedu women.

   In the low mountains the pretty sorrel, Rumex vesicarius, is collected as a salad green by people who like its tart taste. I love to chew on the bright green leaves when I am thirsty during a hike in the mountains. If the rains are plentiful the gravel plains and lower mountain sides are covered with waving fronds of yellow Diplotaxis harra and pink mustard Erucaria hispanica. In between grow interesting larger plants like the sage Salvia spinosa and the henbane Hyoscyamus muticus which is very poisonous.

   In shady oases along water channels the maidenhair fern Adiantum capillus-veneris and the local orchid Epipactis veratrifolia always grow together. The bright yellow flowers of Oxalis corniculata and the pink flowers of Centaurium pulchellum twinkle on the oasis floor like little stars.

   There is one tiny flower that always gladdens my heart when I see it: Anagallis arvensis, the Blue pimpernel, has a small cornflower blue flower with a magenta heart and yellow stamens. They can grow singly, in nice little clumps, or sometimes as a carpet in a field. The Dutch name for this plant means: "it heals when you have a mental illness" - and I can believe it, especially if the mental illness would be depression. It would be impossible to stay depressed if you take a good look at this tiny miracle!

   In good years you come across plants that you would not expect in a desert: a tiny red poppy (Papaver dubium), and a slightly larger dark purple one (Roemeria hybridus), wild carnations (Dianthus cyri) and fragile small blue bells (Campanula erinus)

   Because of the large herds of feral goats and donkeys that roam the mountains, the vegetation of the country is far less than it could be. You don't realise what the mountains could look like until you come across an area that has been protected from grazing animals by a fence: Inside the fence the mountain herbs and flowers grow knee high - a glorious mixture of gladioli, irises, lilies and vetches. As it is you have to search between boulders and under overhangs to find the plants that the goats have overlooked.

   Last year many goats died in the mountains, probably because they ate plants that did not agree with them, the only ones that were still around due to the long drought. As a consequence, in a few wadis that received rainfall the spring flowers had a chance to grow up and show themselves. In one such wadi we found so many plants that it was difficult at times to place your feet between them! The bright yellow Calendula arvensis vied for space with armoatic mints and sages, while various grasses showed their graceful plumes. We found several new species, so far unrecorded in this region: the pretty Kickxia floribunda and the spectacularly large thistle-like Lactuca dissecta.

   Near plants of the Nightshade family, one can find the parasitic Broomrapes. One has a foot-long stem with a lax cylindrical bunch of off-white or pale purple flowers (Orobanche cernua), the other is smaller, with the bright blue flowers tightly clustered and forming a pyramid shape (Orobanche aegyptiaca). They do not have any chlorophyll themselves and are therefore dependent on the bushes or plants that serve as their hosts

  On the low ground along the coast two other parasitic plants have their home. The most spectacular of these is the Desert Hyacinth Cistanche tubulosa that pops up just after the New Year. With its showy yellow and maroon flowers, it is easily recognised. The local belief that this plant is poisonous is not based on fact. Another parasite, the Red Thumb Cynomorium coccineum, is collected and eaten by some people. The underground part of this strange parasite is cooked as if it were asparagus. It must be an acquired taste, for the cooked plant is bitter and quite uninteresting to my palate at least.

   Also in the sabkha along the coast grows a very strange fern. It has three or four narrow leaves, that are the sterile leaves of the fern, and a couple of erect stalks that bear the sporangia and represent the fertile part of the plant. This Ophioglossum polyphyllum also used to be collected and eaten, but it is now becoming very rare, due to the urban development of the coastal areas.

   To see the flowers of some plants you have to get up early. The bindweeds and capers can be very showy, but their flowers close up or start drooping.in mid-morning. Some flowers are really tiny. The flowers of Euphorbia prostrata are barely 1 mm across, but seen under a magnifying glass they are very pretty. It took me many years to find the local violet, Viola cinerea, not because it was so rare but because it was so tiny that I only noticed it when I was climbing a steep hill and had my face about 10 inches from the ground! Other plants like Alhagi maurorum flower mainly in the hot summer months and you have to be able to take the heat to see them. The latter plant is also called the "manna" plant. The biblical story was that a sugary substance that covered the sand in the morning, fed the tribes trekking in the desert. This sugary substance is secreted by this plant when insects bore into its stems. It crystallizes on the surface and is blown away by the wind.

   So far, over 800 species of plants have been recorded in the UAE and the neighbouring parts of Oman. Those in the high mountains will rarely be seen by anyone but the hardiest hikers but the lower mountains and the sandy areas are also full of fantastic flowering plants. Many of these you will only notice if you explore on foot. The flowers and sometimes even the plants are too small to be noticed from a car. Once you make the effort, you will understand why it is so important that cars stay on the established roads and tracks. Each time a 4WD vehicle goes off-road plants are destroyed (as are the burrows of animals that use the plant as their shelter) and seeds are compacted into the sand, preventing them from sprouting even when the rains finally come!

   N.B. The author is currently working on the comprehensive Guide to the Wildflowers of the UAE, to be published in March 2003. The project is being sponsored by the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) in Abu Dhabi.


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