Five Dazzling Desert Flora of Saudi Arabia
Dry, arid and hot, the Saudi Arabian desert landscape is often seen and thought to be barren. But lo and behold! Wait till springtime and you will see the predominantly beige-toned terrain turn into a lively green and colorful garden, especially after the generous winter rains that start from November till March.
This is also the best time to go out desert-trekking because it is the period for most desert blooms. Annual plants would sprout and display their hidden beauty of wonderful colors, shape and form that the ancient scripture says, “Yet, I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”
Not only they are stunningly beautiful, some of these gorgeous, perennial plants are edible and have great nutritional value. Others are recognized for their medicinal properties, known to cure various aliments since generations past.
Here, I have selected five dazzling desert plants whose flamboyant flowers never fail to catch the attention of a biologist like me or anyone who simply has an eye for nature. These are the plants that I had a first-hand encounter with.
I am glad to share these with you. Enjoy them, much as I do.
1. Caralluma retrospisciens
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the gorgeous, intriguing ball-shaped flowers as we drove back from Abha, in the Southwest to Jeddah, the center of the Western Region, during Eid 2018 break. It was all over a certain area of rocky terrain. It looked peculiar as it appears black from a distance. Excited, as always, I asked my friend to stop by the roadside for me to examine the plant which I have seen for the first time.
Probing curiously, the eye-catching balls of flowers at Wadi Taiah in Southwestern Saudi Arabia, are actually dark maroon to almost black in color and belongs to Family Apocynaceae. I had to contact my Botany professor in college, Dr. Annalee Soligam, to identify the plant because I was excited to blog about it. She eventually referred me to her friend, Dr Faten Filimban, a seasoned plant taxonomist at King Abdulaziz University, Colleges of Sciences in Jeddah.
The Kew account notes that Caralluma retrospisciens is perhaps the largest of the stapeliads. Like most plants belonging to the tribe Stapiliae, Caralluma retrospisciens has a succulent stem that is olive green in color. It resembles a cactus, though it is not closely related to it. It is an example of convergent evolution, according to the link on Wikipedia. In fact, I initially thought it is one of the species of the genus Euphorbia.
I was stunned by its conspicuous flowers. A website, https://plants.jstor.org describes it as “very large terminal cluster of umbel-like inflourescenses with pedicels of 4-6 centimeters long. The corolla or petals is about 15-20 mm wide. The corona or the sepals have the same color as the petals. The stunning flowers, however, emit a foul-smelling odor to attract pollinators.
Caralluma retrospisciens, or tenidwar in (Mali) Arabic, is among the many species of the same genus which is used for traditional medicine. It is known to treat rheumatism, even diabetes, leprosy, paralysis and inflammation. It also has anti-malarial, antitrypanosomal and anti-ulcer properties. Like most plants, it contains a generous amount of antioxidants.
Growing up to a maximum of 150 centimeters tall, the lovely plant loves to grow in dry and warm climate that is why it is widespread not only in Saudi Arabia and Yemen but also in East Africa including Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda, among others.
2. Cistanche tubulosa
I was overjoyed when I saw a Desert Hyacinth on a roadside while driving to work on March 7, 2019 at Jeddah Second Industrila City. It was the second time I chanced upon this elusive desert flower. My first encounter with Cistanche tubulosa was when I was in Al-Khobar, Eastern Province 23 years ago!
As a plant enthusiast, I jumped out of the car immediately and took photos of it. A week later, I came back with friends to show them and to take a video of this rare rendezvous.
The life of this desert denizen is very interesting! It is parasitic! Yes, folks, it couldn’t live on ts own.
Cistanche tubulosa has no chlorophyll. It grows near the roots of other plants to sustain its life. The plant is connected with its host plant via a thin root that stretches from the tuber over a distance of several meters. From where I found it, the gaudy yellow flower grew with its host plant, Camphorosma monspeliaca, where it saps up nutrient and energy.
Common in coastal areas of the Arabian Gulf coast and on inland saline sand plains, Cistanche tubulosa could grow up to one meter high with erect whitish single stem, up to four centimeters thick. The bright yellow flowers, some with white to orange-purplish lobes are compactly arranged in dense spikes. It consists of five calyx and a funnel-shaped corolla (petals). The black-colored fruit is encapsulated, pea-liked with huge amount of dust-fine seeds.
Called Rou Cong Rong or the “ginseng of the desert” in China, the Desert Hyacinth is highly-prized for its powerful health benefits, similar to that of ginseng.
Powder from the herb’s stem is said to boost the immune system, helps with erectile dysfunction, improves memory, helps with fatigue and kidney disease and it could be the secret to a youthful look as it is said to slow the aging process. With its potent medicinal properties, it is not a surprise that this endangered shrub contain a generous amount of antioxidants.
In the Middle East, they use the boiled stem of Thanoon, its Arabic name, to treat diarrhea. Also, the dried powdered plant, mixed with camel milk, is used as a remedy for contusions. More than that, it is known to have aphrodisiac properties in North Africa and in China.
Would you blame me if I uprooted one and brought it home? :)
3. Calotropis procera
Having one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, Calotropis procera is a species of flowering plant in the family Apocynaceae, just like Caralluma retrospisciens and “Kalachuchi.” It is native to North Africa, Tropical Africa, Western Asia, South Asia, and Indochina. Its wide territorial presence could be attributed to the way it disperses its seed by the wind.
I am not surprise to see Monarch butterflies every time I see a Milkweed tree, one of its common names. This particular species of butterfly (Danaus plexippus) uses this perennial desert plant as its host for all stages of its life cycle. The tree has a large, thick, green, silvery-gray leaves that appears waxy, which, in Latin is called procera, from where its name is derived. The size of the leaves is huge enough for caterpillars to feed. Cross-pollination is mostly done by this equally beautiful yet ephemeral insects. Monarch butterflies sap the nectar from its spectacular flowers that blooms year-round. It is always a delight to see Calotropis procera’s flowers in bloom, an eye-soothing perfect combination of greenish-white and purple!
Also called Sodom’s apple, Kings Crown, Swallow-wort, Stabragh, Rubber tree and Milkweed tree, it grows up to 15 feet high. The stem is crooked and yields a fiber useful for making ropes, bags, nets and paper. The fruit is huge and inflated and each seed is equipped with white silky floss to facilitate dispersion by the wind.
Interestingly, Feedipedia cited some of the recent breakthrough uses of the plant’s many parts. One is its milky sap (latex) which is used in food, particularly as a coagulation agent for cheese making in West Africa. The other remarkable news about Calotropis is its potential to become a source of renewable energy. It was reported that it could yield 90 tons of biomass twice a year.
Calotropis procera has myriads of ethno-medicinal properties. The bark and rootbark is used for digestive disorders like diarrhea, constipation and stomach ulcers. Likewise, it is used for painful conditions such as joint paints and cramps and for parasitic infections such as elephantiasis and worms. This mighty tree has also been known to possess analgesic, antitumor, antihelmintic, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, antidiarrhoeal, anticonvulsant, antimicrobial, oestrogenic, antinociceptive, and antimalarial activity.
There are several other uses of the plant especially in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, it cultivated in certain parts of India for its pharmacological significance.
4. Rumex vesicarius
What a great surprise that this beautiful plant with colorful flower is edible; otherwise, I should have picked some and brought home during our visit to Al-Wahba Crater recently.
Known as smartweed, buckwheat or knotweed, Rumer vesicarius L. belongs to Polygonacaea family with 50 genera and 1120 species. It is widely distributed worldwide, mostly in temperate and tropical regions.
The photos shown in here were taken at the Al-Wahba Crater at Harrat Kishb plateau, 250 kilometers away from Taif on February 2, 2019.
It is an annual semi-succulent herb that stands between 15-30 centimeters high, with pale green leaves. It is monoecious, meaning it has both its male and female reproductive organs. It branches dichotomously. The stunningly beautiful flowers morph from white to pale pink to blushing red as it matures and fruits during the months of January to March.
What is interesting is that Smartweed or Humiedh in Arabic, is cultivated as a vegetable and for its medicinal properties in some provinces in India namely Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Leaves are said to be best when cooked along with pulses. Some prefer to consume the leaves fresh; and, in Egypt, it is used as a component in beverage products.
In a study done by Sidanand V. Kambhar of the Karnataka State Women’s University, entitled “Rumex vesicarius L. (POLYGONACEAE): An Overview,” published by Journal of Global Ecology and Environment, he found out that this leafy vegetable is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fibers, carotenes and flavonoids with many health benefits.
The plant is rich in antioxidant hence, it has anti-cancer properties and decreases blood sugar and cholesterol level. No wonder, this super plant is extremely useful.
Antioxidants are powerful substances that prohibit, and in some cases even prevent, the oxidation of other molecules in the body. These are very important to good health because they challenge the presence of free radicals. Without antioxidants, they can cause a wide range of illnesses and chronic diseases.
Go out now and hunt for these beautiful wild plant. I, definitely, will for its nutritional and medicinal benefits.
5. Diplotaxis acris
Traveling to Al-Ula in Northwestern Saudi Arabia last January 29-30, 2019, I saw a carpet of purple flowers in the desert. The sight was very inviting but I couldn’t ask the bus driver to stop even if I so wanted to. But when we visited Al-Bidea, where several ancient tombs carved from sandstone cliffs were located, I did not miss the opportunity to examine this glamorous desert dweller which also abound in the place.
The winter rains allowed this gorgeous annual plant to sprout and our visit was timely because Diplotaxis acris displayed its stunningly pretty light purple flowers. Diplotaxis acris is edible - both its leaves and its attractive flowers. Not a surprise because it belongs to the cabbage family. Commonly called wild mustard, Diplotaxis acris has serrated-edged leaves arranged alternately. The leaves grow out from the base in a rosette pattern. The leaves are said to be juicy and peppery in flavor which is why these make a good component of fresh salad, including its four-petaled lovely flowers.
It is also a feast for goats, sheep and camels during this time when the wild mustard are growing profusely, especially in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia where it is mostly distributed.