(Marijcke is a member of the Dubai Natural History Group and ex-Botany Recorder for the Al Ain Group. She has been photographing and collecting plants in the UAE for many years and is the author of ‘The Living Desert’, published by Motivate Publishing, Dubai, in 1987. Many of the plant species mentioned in this article were identified later by Prof. Loutfy Boulos at the University of Kuwait.)
With three days off in a row and the weather still cool, I was determined to make the most of what would probably be one of the last trips of the season.
The morning of Friday April 1st therefore found me on top of Jebel Hafit near Al Ain at 6:30 am. A year ago I had found some interesting plants at the very end of the road construction on the summit, but this year the activities of bulldozers and scrapers had destroyed every single plant and seedling. I walked for an hour without seeing anything at all. Disappointed, I returned to a lower level near the first radio tower, where I had more success. Beautiful flowering specimens of Rhanterium epapposum, Iphiona scabra, Helianthemum kahiricum, Convolvulus glomeratus (which at the time I assumed to be C. virgatus), Reseda aucheri, Echiochilon persicum and Launaea spp. were all photographed as a record, as well as a remarkably pink Pseudogaillonia hymenostephana, the popcorn plant. The caper Capparis cartilaginea was not in flower this early in the year and some Helichrysum plants were too far off for me to bother with. Some small weeds seemed new to me but were later identified as the small mountain plantain Plantago ciliata. One small plant was certainly new to me: a rosette of pointed leaves surrounding a central cluster of composite buds. This turned out to be not a hypothetical Asteriscus, but Gymnarrhena micrantha. I knew of only one other site for this plant, namely Jebel Qatar just over the Omani border beyond nearby Buraimi, so it was mot satisfying to find it here on Hafit and technically within the UAE. A few samples were collected for identification.
I drove down the mountain and along the base near the cement factory, where bright yellow flowers caught my eye. Clusters of lemon-yellow blooms on long, slender stems emerged from a low arrangement of leaves – well known to me as Haplophyllum tuberculatum, but never before seen so beautiful. All around me shrubs of Fagonia indica were a riot of pink blossoms; Tribulus terrestris, the local spiny-fruited caltrop, spread small carpets of yellow ‘buttercups’; and white stars of the annual Eremobium aegyptiacum were sprinkled around amongst other plants. A large bush was unfamiliar: dark green crinkled leaves, woody stems and large yellow, aster-like flowers. I recognized it from last year’s seed heads that still clung like black tufts to the stems. This was Anvillea garcinii of which I had once found a dried-up specimen in a valley nearby.
Later in the morning I set out for Fossil Valley. Along the route large bushes of Dipterigium glaucum swayed in the stiff breeze that whistled across the plain between Buraimi and Jebel Huwayyah. Why does it always blow whenever I go plant hunting? Even in wind still conditions I find close-up photography difficult enough.
The floor of Fossil Valley [Ed. Note: See Bulletin No. 14, ENHG Field Trip to Fossil Valley, pp 9-17.] was amazingly green. Camels were conspicuous on the carpets of grass stretching between the ‘ghaf’ and Acacia trees. Walking towards the hillside, I saw beautiful flowering specimens of the desert squash Citrullus colocynthis, the Rose of Jericho or Hand of Miriam Anastatica hierochuntica, the sorrel Rumex vesicarius and Cleome rupicola. Some bright, brick-red patches of color turned out to be the legume Indigofera arabica, never seen like this before.
The hillside was a veritable rock garden. Between the fossil-imprinted rocks all manner of plants were flowering: Erucaria hispanica, the Arabian primrose Arnebia hispidissima, the little mesembryanthemum Aizoon canariense, Diplotaxis harra (sometimes confused with Haplophyllum tuberculatum), the storksbill Erodium laciniatum, Argyrolobium roseum, the mallow Malva aegyptiaca, Leucas inflata with its symmetrical white petals, and the dandelion types Launaea spinosa and L. capitata. Butterflies fluttered by and one large one that I had not seen before settled on a small labiate flower that was also not familiar. From the leaves I believed it to be a Teucrium but later identification of a collected specimen proved it to be Salvia aegyptiaca. I came across only a single lonely specimen of Vicoa pentanema with its lemon-yellow flowers, a species I had previously recorded only in the Musandam mountains. All in all, more than 30 different species of plant were found in one small area.
After a well-deserved rest, I set out in the afternoon to “do” the zoo at Al Ain.< Here also all the well-known plants had developed to lush proportions. I saw a meter-high yellow thistle Centaurea pseudosinaica, an enormous Bassia muricata bush and a Corchorus depressus specimen nearly a meter in diameter. Behind the Cat House was a meadow covered with the glossy white plumes of Aristida grass. A few plants were collected for identification but are not worth describing here. I did like the pink flowers of an unknown legume with feathered leaves and it was duly photographed and collected. This turned out to be Tephrosia uniflora and indeed the flowers are attached singly to the stems instead of in erect spikes as in the common T. apollinea.
I was directed to one corner of the zoo to look at an unusual plant with stiff, crinkly leaves and tiny (2 mm diameter) greenish-white flowers. The surprise was the seedpod, a 5 cm long prickly pear. This turned out to be not a Euphorbia as I had thought, but Glossonema varians of the milkweed family. The only moving wildlife besides birds was a mantle shaped like a peanut shell.
The following day, Saturday, we collected a 4WD and drove out to Dibba and thence up Wadi Khabb to the high plateaus of the Musandam mountains. On the way up the wadi gorge, we noticed some fine specimens of the almost leafless Periploca aphylla, branches loaded with the strange aubergine-colored flowers with white hairs. A very lush green tree turned out to be a fig, Ficus carica. Among the roadside jumble of rocks we came across Geranium mascatense, Vernonia arabica and a number of minor species. Astragalus spinosa bushes were adorned with thousands of white ‘balloons’ – the seedpods. Last year, these pods were pink and red; are they white now because the plants are older or is there another reason?
We stopped on the plateau at the head of the pass. While my companion explored some nearby hilltops, I wandered around the tiny terraced fields of an old and half-abandoned farm. In an enclosed area, one last blue mountain lily of spring Ixiolirion tataricum was flowering, but dozens of seeding plants showed that this must have been a fine blue field a few weeks earlier. Behind a clump of palm trees, I found a seeding specimen of Gladiolus italicus (which at the time I thought to be Iris sisyrinchium). Unfortunately, no flower remained. The Solanum incanum plant mentioned by Rob Western in Abu Dhabi records for two years previously was still present within the enclosure. Without the wire fence these blue-flowering plants by now would certainly have fallen prey to grazing goats. Outside the fence, all plants had been grazed to within a centimeter of the ground. Only some large Farsetia aegyptiaca bushes were intact – perhaps they were unpalatable to goats. This particular species I had once found on Jebel Hafit – in fact, it was one of the plants I had wished to check out the day before and which had been eradicated by the new road construction.
Smaller plants I now found among the rocks included Vicoa pentanema, Scrophularia deserti, Trigonella stellata, Asteriscus pygmaeus, a possible Hippocrepis bicontorta and a possible Teucrium stocksianum, as well as several grasses. One flat fallow field seemed to be covered in grass but a closer inspection revealed the greenery to be a carpet of dwarf Vicoa pentanema. Many plants had caterpillars on them – there may have been at least three different types unless they change appearance drastically in different phases of their life.
My companion returned from higher realms reporting sightings of bulbuls, crested larks and a red-tailed wheatear. Right on the summit in a dry area he had found a lush stand of the fragile fern Onychium melanolepis – a very unlikely site. He also brought with him an ungrazed specimen of Teucrium and Anagallis arvensis (blue pimpernel).
On the way back we counted 23 Indian rollers seated at regular intervals on the wires along the road around Dibba. Later, driving back to Dubai, the many Boerhavia elegans plants along the highway were strikingly beautiful, gleaming magenta in the late afternoon sunlight.
On Easter Sunday, I joined two fellow-countrymen on a trip around Masafi. The wadi feeding the aflaj of the Marbad oasis had a riot of plants bordering rushing streams and limpid pools. Enormous lavender bushes stood between white cushions of Convolvulus virgatus, Trichodesma africana with its blue flowers, while Rumex vesicarius poked bright red candles through the grass. Dodonaea viscose (usually found at higher elevations) and Pteropyrum scoparium bushes carried full loads of winged seeds, looking like blossoms. There were countless shrubs of Ochradenus aucheri in flower, and popcorn plants were abundant.
Several specimens of Cometes surattensis, hitherto unfamiliar, with its white, saxifrage-like flowers were photographed and collected. Beneath a lush Lycium shawii I saw a flash of yellow: a fragile herb with arrow-like leaves on long, slender stems, carrying yellow labiate flowers. This later turned out to be Kickxia hastate. I had seen the plant before, but without flowers or fruit it could not be identified positively. Nearby a caper Capparis spinosa was in full flower, the first time I had seen a flowering specimen; large white petals surrounded a tuft of purple stamens. The heavy sweet scent of these flowers attracted many butterflies. We saw caper whites, salmon arabs, blue pansies, small blues and pierrots in large numbers. At one point a wadi racer Coluber rhodorhachis slid off a sunny rock to hide in the mud of a pool. Elsewhere a blue-headed agamid fixed a beady eye on us before leaping away across the boulders.
After lunch, we drove down Wadi Asimah, a route we would have avoided if we had known the state of the track after the rains. We had to overcome a few major obstacles before we emerged, miraculously unscathed, in Wadi Sidr, where we took the southern arm back to the Dibba-Masafi road. Along this road I noted Astragalus fasciculifolius bushes, the first time I had actually recorded them in UAE proper, since previously I had known them only from the higher altitudes of the Musandam. At the point where the road emerges from the pass above the plain there is a magnificent view. When we stopped to admire the landscape, we found yet another plant, some specimens of what we later found to be Hyosycamus muticus.
The large purple-speckled flowers were arranged in elegant drooping clusters. Dusk fell and the evening sun painted a golden glow across the grassy plains and hillsides. Just before we set course for Dubai, there was one last surprise in store for us. The graveyard at Masafi was a solid yellow field of the annual Zygophyllum simplex, looking as handsome as graveyards do at home sometimes. All in all, a most pleasant weekend with plenty of new finds.
One small plant came back from Kuwait with the improbably name Lallemantia royleana and Prof. Boulos mentions that this may be a new recording for the UAE. It is depicted in Sheila Collenette’s Flora of Saudi Arabia where it is given the status of a new record for that country as well. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in botanical collecting, my specimen was sent to Kuwait unrecognized as something different in a group of pressed plants. It is probably that I received it from John Martin, so his name is mentioned as the collector. I sent off 63 specimens in all, of which 31 turned out to be new ones for the herbarium.
Arnegia hispidissima, the Arabian primrose, is known as ‘alhammar’ in Arabic, and this name is reported to indicate that a dye can be extracted from the plant that local people used to use as a rouge make-up. The dye was contained in the roots, I read. In the past I had tried to crush the roots to get at the colored substance, but without success. I did not get round to trying to extract the dye in any other way. I was thus not quite sure I believed the story I had read until a few days ago when, by chance, I discovered it to be true. From time to time, I have to go through all of my herbarium to remove all the specimens and package them tightly in plastic in order to freeze them. This is to kill small plant-eating bugs that destroy the specimens. I have covered all my specimens with a transparent sticky plastic, which keeps them safe when the sheets are handled. One primrose specimen is a small plant complete with root. This specimen shows a bright magenta root now, while even the adjacent paper has been stained red. One of the chemicals contained in the glue of the plastic must have extracted the dye from the root of the plant. Nice discovery.
I have noticed that every single specimen of Boerhavia elegans growing in the grounds of Al Ain Zoo has sand-colored stems and flowers instead of the more usual reddish-pink ones. Initially I thought I had found a sub-species, but the specimen, which was sent away for identification last year, was named B. elegans without further remarks. This year there are quite a few large plants growing in the back section of the Zoo and they are all the same: a non-descript sandy color, no pink on the plant anywhere.
During the March DNHG meeting, I mentioned two possible Ibex that were brought from Oman to one of the Al Ain sheikhs. Both animals have since died from the stress that was inflicted upon them by the way in which they were tied down. The female turned out to have been pregnant and, of course, the young was lost, too. We salvaged the skin of the young male and I tried to send it to Dr. Harrison in the UK for positive identification. Unfortunately, the Customs officials in the UK found and confiscated the item, and now we shall never know whether these were truly the rare animals that we suspect they might have been.