Deep roots: How important plants play an role in Kuwait history
Researcher talks about flora's impact on Kuwait's ecosystem, cultural influence
Plants are the basis of life for humans and other creatures on earth. Plants are of great value for the environment too. Every plant has a history and some have stories that have become part of heritage. Kuwaitis in the past were strongly attached to the environment and particularly plants, and they named many old areas after them.
Nouf Al-Hashash is a researcher at the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources (PAAAFR) and rapporteur of the wildlife protection committee at the Kuwait Environment Protection Society, with a specialization in the natural flora of Kuwait. There are over 400 native plant species in Kuwait. "About 70 percent of them are annuals, while the rest are perennials. Annuals are seasonal plants that grow after rains, so their lifecycle is short - less than two years - while the perennials live longer," Hashash told Kuwait Times.
"There is only one native tree in Kuwait - the 'talha'. It's a kind of acacia, and it's only found naturally in the Sabah Al-Ahmad Nature Reserve. There is only one of these trees standing, and it's over 150 years old. PAAAFR and the Kuwait Institution for Scientific Research are working on reproducing this tree, but it's very difficult," Hashash explained.
"It's possible that it was present in other areas of Kuwait, but is now extinct due to overgrazing, the urban sprawl and other human activities. This tree was discovered at the reserve and was protected with a fence. The area was called Talha after this tree. It is also found in Saudi Arabia, and it's listed on the Red List (of endangered species)," she added.
According to Hashash, vegetation studies in Kuwait started in 1907, but most of those conducting them were amateurs. "Professional studies started in the 1940s, when some experts working at a research institution studied plant communities and their locations in Kuwait. Violet Dickson (wife of British colonial administrator HRP Dickson) adored plants, and sent plant species she didn't recognize to the Royal Botanical Gardens in London to classify them. She was the first to discover a kind of lavender plant (khuzama) in Kuwait that wasn't known yet, so it was named Horwoodia dicksoniae after her," she pointed out.
Some Popular Native Shrubs in Kuwait
Rhanterium epapposum (arfaj) is the national flower of Kuwait. "Unfortunately, this popular plant that was widespread all over Kuwait has disappeared from many places due to human activities and overgrazing. Today, it's a rare plant that can mostly only be seen in protected areas, while in the past it was the most common plant. The area of Arifjan was named after this plant. It has historical and medicinal value, and was used in cooking. Its yellow color was used to dye fabrics like sadu. PAAAFR is reproducing and distributing hundreds of thousands of arfaj seedlings to various farms and reserves to rehabilitate the Kuwaiti environment," stressed Hashash.
Haloxylon salicornicum (remth) is another native popular shrub. "The area of Rumaithiya was named after this shrub. It has almost disappeared from this area due to urbanization. It is a kind of perennial and has many benefits. It is a rare plant in Kuwait due to overgrazing and logging," she said.
One of the most popular flowers in Kuwait is the senecio (nuwair). "In the past, Kuwaitis used to call any yellow plant nuwair, so this is how this plant got this name. This is not a native plant, but was brought from abroad about 50 years ago, then spread in Kuwait and became one of the local plants. Most probably it came with manure and then spread quickly, as its seeds are light and can be carried by wind. It can be planted in any soil, so it's found in many countries," explained Hashash.
In the 1980s, an Amiri decree by Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah was issued that forbade plucking or cutting arfaj flowers. "Many people think that the nuwair is the national plant of Kuwait, but in fact it's the arfaj. This is due to the importance and strength of the arfaj, which can't be uprooted from the soil even during gusts, as its roots are firmly attached to the land. Also, it lives for long, usually more than 25 years, has a nice smell, medicinal benefits in curing some diseases, and was used for cooking and dyeing fabrics," she added.
Plants Facing Extinction
Many plants in Kuwait are facing the danger of extinction. "Besides the previously mentioned talha tree, the Calligonum comosum (arta) is a plant that is endangered. It has a strong and nice fragrance that can be smelled from meters away. When blooming, it turns red, so it can be used for beautification purposes. The problem is that it completely dries out in summer as if it is dead. But in winter, when it rains, it turns green again. This plant has disappeared and can now only be found inside protected areas," Hashash noted.
Ephedra alata (alanda) is another endangered plant. "It is one of the very rare and few plants that have distinct male and female parts (dioecious). It is only found in two locations - the Sabah Al-Ahmad Nature Reserve and the northern borders near Iraq. PAAAFR is currently working on its reproduction, but it's very difficult. It has medical value as well," Hashash told Kuwait Times.
Cakile arabica (suleih) is another native annual plant that can be found in the desert where people are not camping. "Arnebia is yet another native plant, which has four subtypes in Kuwait. It has a strong red dye in the root, so it was used in dyeing textiles and in cosmetics for coloring lips and cheeks. Some of its kinds are rare, while others are widespread. Now there are studies being conducted on it to take extracts for treating cancer," she said.
Some plants are used in cooking and most plants are nutritious for animals. "They also have an aesthetic value, which is very important for the quality of human life. Unfortunately, we don't have a red list of plants that are in danger of extinction. We only have estimations from our visits that they may be endangered. If we continue with urbanization and other human activities, the plants will become extinct. As a result, insects will die out, then the animals. Plants are the first link of the chain," Hashash noted.
"Also, many hobbies are based around nature - artists, photographers and even fashion designers are inspired by nature, and if it disappears, art will disappear. Most plants are also used in medicines. Many desert plants have genes that help them sustain high temperatures, salinity and drought. These properties can be added to certain kinds of crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and other plants, so these plants will consume less water, thrive in saline conditions and can be planted in any soil," stated Hashash.
Kuwait recently signed an agreement banning exporting any plant outside Kuwait. They can only be exported for biological diversity and gene exchange, which helps protect native plants. In 2014, law no. 42/2014 on environmental protection was issued. This law sets sanctions and large fines for those who destroy, uproot or cut plants. "I advise and remind people that any plant they see in the desert is a living creature, and other creatures depend on it. If we lose it, we lose our genes along with it, which guard us from present and future diseases," she concluded.
The Talha tree.
Overgrazing remains one of the main problems that Kuwait’s flora faces.
The senecio plant, commonly known in Kuwait as ‘nuwair’.
KUWAIT: Nouf Al-Hashash, Researcher at the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources.
The arnebia plant.
The arta plant.
The arfaj plant.