Deep roots: How im­por­tant plants play an role in Kuwait his­tory

Re­searcher talks about flora's im­pact on Kuwait's ecosys­tem, cul­tural in­flu­ence

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Nawara Fat­ta­hova

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’.

— Photo by Joseph Sha­gra

KUWAIT: Nouf Al-Hashash, Re­searcher at the Pub­lic Au­thor­ity for Agri­cul­tural Af­fairs and Fish Re­sources.

The arnebia plant.

The arta plant.

The ar­faj plant.

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