Bulletin 27 - November 1985: A Botanical Reconnaissance of the Northern Emirates, February 1985
A Botanical Reconnaissance of the Northern Emirates, February 1985 by R.A. Western
February is always a good time for plant recording in the Emirates. Temperatures are comfortable to work in all day, there should have been recent rainfall, and annual species begin to be conspicuous by their presence. Winter rains in 1984-85 were below average, but with the prospect of perhaps heavier local rainfall in the mountains Bish Brown* and I had planned a five-day reconnaissance that would take us from Abu Dhabi in a broad anti-clockwise loop across to Fujeirah and back down the Arabian Gulf coast. This in fact was only the latest of several undertakings with the ENHG in recent years, myself concentrating on vegetation and Bish on birds, reptiles and various insects. Our plan was to cross the Abu Dhabi hinterland quickly, work our way up to Dhaid, over the mountains to Fujeirah, up the east coast to Dibba, into the Wadi Khabb Shamsi and up to the summit of the southern Ruus al Jibal, finally returning via Ras al Khaimah, Falaj al Moalla and Jebel Ali. (See Fig.1)
By February 1985 the Group's plant records were fairly extensive, and we did not expect much in the way of new species, though as eternal optimists we never gave up searching, especially for annuals. As it turned out, we made several first recordings for the Group, and not all of them in the mountains. Since taking photographs was a primary objective of the trip, we were interested as much in photogenic stands and individual plants as in recording and collecting. The final tally considerably extends our records for the Wadi Khabb Shamsi area, a region that has received less botanic attention than the northerly ranges of the Ruus al Jibal towards the Strait of Hormuz, which is logistically easier to reach by air from Muscat. This latter area had been extensively sampled by J.P.Mandaville** in February 1979, following a brief survey by the RGS Musandam Expedition in the winter of 1971-72***.
The weather was inauspicious as we set off in the late morning of 19th February. A westerly wind was gusting, raising sand and dust and limiting visibility so we picked up speed on this early stage. Crossing the main Dubai road near Abu Dhabi Airport we headed east towards Sueyhan, prepared to stop only for anything out of the usual. Being so close to Abu Dhabi we had a fairly clear idea of the vegetation distribution here. In this landscape of low, undulating dunes dominated by bushy clumps of Hamada elegans, Cornulaca monacantha and Zygophyllum hamiense there were a few personal landmarks; the first signs of Calligonum comosum and Leptadenia pyrotechnica, and a brackish pool beside the old sand track at 35 kms. About 15 kms past the Airport we stopped the Nissan Patrol to check out an old favourite -- a three metre tall specimen of L.pyrotechnica just off the road. Despite having been the victim of a hit-and-run accident a few months previously, this particular plant had managed to retain most of its battered dignity, though on this occasion the thin, pliant, almost leafless branches were dotted with dead flowers, which we attributed to recent unusually cold winds. According to our records this specimen flowers irregularly for over half of the year, and it always sports old pod-like follicles. Deep in the heart of the shrub was the beginnings of a palm dove's nest.
By now the wind had subsided considerably though the air remained leaden, and at our next stop, some eight kms farther on we did not have to screw up our eyes against flying dust. Here the road fringed an area of subkha that was very slowly being invaded by Z. hamiense around its edges. The very wet winters of 1981-82 and 1982-83 had enabled this species to dominate this subkha region and by now they were consolidated, despite an extremely salty water table about one metre below the salt pan. As we expected the larger plants were flowering prolifically with buds, new white petals and older flowers all present on each plant; another species that flowers irregularly throughout the year.
Since the autumn of 1982 we had been recording the growth of three particular specimens: (a) close to the road and likely to benefit from dew runoff, (b) a few metres away on sand covering the subkha to a depth of about 10 cms and unaffected by the construction of the road, and (c) some eighty metres further west on the very edge of the salt pan where the sand cover was negligible. Each individual had originally measured 20 cms high. In February 1985, (a) measured 28.5 cms, (b) 34.25 cms and (c) 35 cms. (c) had for the past two years been slowly catching up and had now overtaken the others, presumably because its roots had reached the water table soonest.
This same spot is the only locality where the Group had recorded Agriophyllum minus, a tiny, bristly annual chenopod that turns golden when dead. This February we did not observe a single specimen. The first Prosopis spicigera trees appeared in isolated clumps among the dunes some 15 kms before Sueyhan village, which we passed through quickly, checking out a cluster of small Acacia tortillis trees, each branching outwards from beneath ground level into a dozen or more stems. These trees traced the outline of seasonal water channels, but there were no annuals beneath their scanty shade. None was in flower, though several s,till bore the open, characteristically twisted pods of the previous year.
As the road approaches Al Hair, marking the junction with the Dubai to Al Ain road, the dunes become larger and denser, and take on a pinky-orange colour. A. tortillis trees in places attain the status of very open forest. Some trees are colonised by Salvadora persica ('raq'), a robust climber with stems sometimes 10-12 cms in diameter. Even if the stems are not immediately noticeable, the species is easily recognised by the contrast its bright green leaves make against the duller hues of the host tree. There were a few flowers and some early fruit. It is likely that the Salvadora was introduced here by Bedouin, for 'raq' is still used to make toothbrushes ('miswak'); branches or roots some 1-2 cms thick are cut into 20-25 cm lengths, one end of which has the bark peeled away before the centre is chewed into a brush-like tip. Bundles of these twigs can still be found on sale in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and no doubt other souks.
At Al Hair we turned left onto the Dubai road and after some 13 kms turned right opposite the Zamzam Hotel, a plywood transport cafe typical of such establishments along the UAE's highways, towards Shwayb. Here the open acacia forest had declined markedly over the past five years, which we attributed to a steady lowering of the water table because of offtake via local wells for local farms and villages. However, the 'green belt' of grasses and shrubs parallel to the sides of the road was full of Rhynchosia shrubs in excellent condition. We had previously only recorded these within a 40 km radius of Jebel Ali. This is a summer flowering legume with lemon yellow petals and distinctively-marked pods and spherical black seeds.
Before reaching Shwayb the main road bears left up and over a huge settled dune and across a wide wadi which after rain is normally full of desert gourds, Citrullus colocynthis, but which on this occasion was empty and dry. This is the southern side of the Madam Plain that stretches ahead towards Dhaid. The 20 kms between Shwayb and the roundabout on the Jebel Ali to Hatta road is notable for its extensive stands of Calotropis procera trees, which have always been an attraction for the insect hunters in the Group. This flat plain has a mixed gravel and sand surface and is sometimes flooded after heavy rainfall, sometimes uprooting the trees. The Calotropis were now in flower, and in between, forming small phytogenic dunes of their own, numerous clumps of Calligonum comosum were also in flower. Smaller mounds of Hamada elegans looked parched while the more open sandy spots were colonised by the ubiquitous sedge Cyperus conglomeratuso So far we had been distinctly disappointed at the lack of annuals, which was unusual judging by our records from previous years. It was therefore with no great optimism that we selected a campsite on a spur of Jebel Fa'iyah, just north of Madam village, and a few kms off the road. The locality was an outwash slope with several east-west trending shallow wadi systems, much littered with boulders, the intervening fans dotted with low acacia scrub. The wadis themselves were lined with the bright green new growth of Pulicaria glutinosa bushes that are so numerous around lower mountain zones throughout the Emirates.
A few were in bud. And sprinkled among them we at last came across our first annuals, all dwarf versions in this season of so little rain. There was Anastatica hierochuntica, just tiny points of leaves at this stage surrounding the more easily recognised dormant form of the parent plants which resemble miniature baskets; the minute yellow flowers of Arnebia hispidissima, which in wet years can attain the dizzy heights of a bushy biennial; and odd trifoliates which might have been Argyrolobium roseum. Although on a small scale, things were beginning to look up.
Dawn is by far the best time of day reconnoitering for plants. It is then that the air is most still and conditions for the next hour or two are best for photography -- the heat is not too intense and subtle use can be made of light and shade. Because of the dew, it is also an excellent time to search for insect and mammal tracks on the wet sand, while bedrolls and blankets are draped over rocks or trees to dry out. This particular morning at Jebel Fa'iyah was also notable for its panoramic views east across the dip of the plain to the Hajar range, as the fiery dome of the sun rose inexorably and slowly burnt off the wreaths of mist below.
With the prospect of these mountains to come, we struck camp early and were soon on the road again, cold now that we were moving in the Nissan. At Mileiha all was silent at this early hour, though people shuffled around in ones or twos, heavily blanketed, while hobbled camels stood in forlorn groups in makeshift corrals. Within three hours the whole plain would be an oven.
Past Mileiha we could see small patches of dwarf annuals as we bowled along. Apart from grasses, nothing was more than 5 cms tall, and these we would have missed had we not been looking out specifically for them. Towards Dhaid extensive tracts of Rhazya stricta appeared between the expanding market gardens. Dhaid itself has been transformed in recent years from a sleepy market village to a twentieth century town UAE-style complete with video shops, car salerooms and furniture stores. Five years ago you could count the glass-fronted shops; now there were none that weren't. On the road out of town to the east, citrus plantations stretched away on either side, and at intervals there were tanks of drinking water for the thirsty traveller.
Near the turn to Siji we saw the first evidence that spring had not completely passed us by after all. Under the crash barrier on the gravelly central reservation of the highway were a number of annuals in flower, including Morettia parviflora and Polycarpea repens, both fragile, delicate branches and tiny snow-white flowers. On the road side were odd dandelion Launeas, plus a few shrubs of Tephrosia apollinea to herald the proximity of the mountain zone. Sheep or goats had obviously had a field day here, despite the risk inherent in being any species of pedestrian on such fast stretches of road.
As we climbed higher towards Masafi and the heart of the mountains, there was a dramatic change in the vegetation. Large stands of Cleome rupicola with masses of golden-orange blooms now stood out all along the roadsides, plants up to 80 cms tall. Interspersed among these on the rocky slopes above narrow, dry wadis were clumps of the local lavender (Lavandula subnuda), and a variety of crucifers in flower. These latter bear four-petalled flowers in the form of a cross, and are well represented in the UAE. On this stretch we also recorded Physorrhynchus chamaerapistrum, a woody perennial that produces long slender branches each spring dotted with pale lilac cruciform flowers and, later, small conical fruits; the smaller Diplotaxis harra with its lemon yellow heads; and the occasional Zilla spinoza, with spinescent branches and pale mauve flowers.
Past Masafi we made a lengthy stop at a wadi site off the road beyond Bithna, where we had once camped some three years previously. Crucifers were less in evidence here, but there was a profusion of smaller annuals and in places the sand was still damp a few cms below the surface. Here we recorded the first of the asphodels that were with us constantly for the next three days, plus a number of legumes in flower and/or fruit. By now it was hot and as we dropped towards Fujeirah, past the new dam that was empty, we felt that we had already enjoyed a good day's recording. Fujeirah, as always to us, seemed a town with no reference point and we continued straight through to Kalba which, for all its modernisation and vast new suburbs, still retains something of the quality of an oasis village. Woolly white heads of Aerva javanica stood out along the wadi banks coming down past the date palms. At Khor Kalba, Bish was disappointed not to see the white-collared kingfisher (Halcyon chloris kalbaensis), a subspecies limited in range to these local mangrove swamps, but a fair number of waders was recorded. There had been little or no rain here and the vegetation had been decimated by sheep or goats. Apart from the thriving mangroves, only a few of the more persistent perennials, such as Atriplex leucoclada and Heliotropium kotschyi, seemed to be surviving.
To seek some shade we turned into the main oasis area and were shown around Mazra' Plantation by one of the workers, a Pakistani called Yousif. He proudly pointed out the mulberry, lime, mango, indian almond and date trees, then took us to his market garden where lines of healthy-looking radish, cabbage, tomato, eggplant, pepper, marrow and sweet potato were all nearly ready for harvesting. House crows and Indian rollers glided among the groves issuing raucous cries as we were coffered the traditional sweet tea and dates, and resting on a mat in deep shade it was indeed a peaceful interlude. The oasis of course also attracts an indigenous vegetation despite the constant weeding that goes on. Around the boles of the palms were tall clumps of the grass Desmostachya bipinnata that was periodically cut for animal fodder, while the irrigated squares around the trees were dotted with rich clumps of Frankenia pulverulenta, a salt-tolerant species with half prostrate branches and tiny mauve flowers, a reminder that the underground water at Kalba is becoming more and more brackish. That afternoon we drove up the coast, stopping at Khor Fakkan and Badiyah for one of our regular vegetation crosschecks, but there was no grand display of annuals and we didn't linger. Nightfall saw us beyond Dibba at the entrance of the Wadi Khabb Shamsi, technically in Oman. Where we camped the wadi was a series of dry meandering channels and a main channel, in all about half a kilometre across and full of tiny asphodels. Our trips always seem to coincide with a full moon and that night we were subjected to its full intensity for a few hours, but nevertheless it highlighted the jagged peaks surrounding us as if to remind us that we had left civilization behind and that before us lay a botanical unknown.
The first job next morning was to laboriously pick innumerable spiny Fagonia indica fruits from our blankets. Wherever we camped in the mountains these fruits always turned up to plague us and we had learnt from experience to deal with the problem in the morning rather than the following evening.
From this point the wadi upstream enters a narrow gorge which at times is more of a cleft with 1500 foot cliffs above. The graded track follows the wadi bed, crossing it frequently, so it is advisable to check weather conditions before going in. Bulbuls called to each other from the anonymity of huge fig trees (Ficus salicifolia) and at our first stop we came across the remains of a wild cat strung up with wire, presumably trapped by the local people whose tiny stone hamlets were almost inconspicuous against the soaring walls of rock.
We made two major stops in the gorge, one to survey a ledged cliff face and the other a side wadi littered with huge boulders. The cliff face rewarded us with our first records of the fern Onychium divaricatum, which was so abundant, with fronds up to 20 cms long, that we wondered why we had never seen it before. Here there were also stone-like Caralluma plants, their thick, fleshy stems and black flowers attractive to flies. The little blue pimpernel, Anagallis arvensis, carpeted some of the ledges while various dandelion-like composites and geranium species were numerous, though very small, wherever sand and silt had accumulated between the rocks. Moringa trees were in full flower with. cascades of. pink or white blossom. The side wadi was dominated by larger perennials, including Dyerophytum indicum with its delicate yellow-orange flowers and bloom covered leaves; Periploca aphylla with its thin erect wands topped by deep purple flowers; and spiny Lycium shawii shrubs usually in the shade of Ziziphus spina-christi trees.
Approaching the top of the wadi and the open summit plateaux, large clumps of Astragalus fasciculifolius with red and white translucent fruit cases were very numerous, as were shrubs of Gymnocarpos decander with tiny, glistening yellow flowers and taller bushes, almost trees, of the wild almond Amygdalus arabicus. Despite the lack of continuous rain, there was a fair variety of species in flower on the summit slopes, and one could feel the freshness of the air at this altitude. Some of the tiny terraced fields had a thin cover of grass. One such field contained a tiny fenced enclosure perhaps of ten square metres, in which there was a number of unexpected species, presumably imported with fertilizer and protected from the attentions of a donkey nearby. Here we recorded our first ever Iris sisyrinchium, Medicago polymorpha, and Heterocaryum szovitsianum, besides more familiar annuals and grasses.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps from the isolation of the high plateau back through the darkening, echoing gorge to our campsite of the previous night. The open summit is very appealing from a botanical point of view, partly because it has been little explored and therefore fairly natural, and partly because of its vegetation links with Iran (e.g. Amygdalus arabicus). A future trip is planned to survey the gorge vertically.
Next day saw us winding our way from Dibba to Masafi via the Wadi Uyaynat. We had surveyed this area on several previous occasions but the joy of any botanical reconnaissance is that there is always something new. Now we discovered, for example, that those little pentagonal grey fruits strewn on the gravels of the foothills were of Aizoon canariense of the Mesmbryanthemum family; and that previously we had overlooked the fact that Cornulaca monacantha was one of the major constituents of the Dibba Plain. The Wadi Uyaynat was very quiet this Friday morning, but then we were there well before the first of the Friday picnickers. In the upper reaches of this narrow, twisting gorge we recorded the same little fern we had photographed the previous day in Khabb Shamsi thus confirming its status within the UAE proper.
At the Manama turn we recorded Tephrosia persica for the first time. At the Ghayl junction, further on, where the sand dunes are bright orange, the Calligonum comosum bushes were prolific with the reddest fruits we had ever seen. Here was a large variety of annuals, including plantains and members of the buckwheat, borage and carnation families. The day was now turning unexpectedly hot and we took refuge at lunchtime beneath some acacias at Digdaga. In seasons of heavy rain this region is one of the most spectacular in the country for its wild flowers, but this February it was burnt and arid.
We passed through Ras al Khaimah in mid-afternoon, pausing only to photograph large expanses of the yellow daisy Senecio desfontainei which was lining the roadsides allover town, and then turned north for a rapid look at the Rams lagoon area. In a recently flooded depression there were several huge bushes of Solanum incanum up to a metre tall with large purple flowers and yellow fruits the size of small apples. The reed-like grass Phragmites australis and the mangroves were thriving on the seaward side of the road.
Back through Ras al Khaimah we headed down the coast to Tell Abrak, opposite Umm al Oawain for our final night's camp. It was chilly and damp in our exposed position but the next morning were rewarded with some superb specimens of deep red Rumex pictus and healthy greenish yellow Aizoon canariense. Most plants were infested with black aphids here. That morning we headed east towards Falaj al Moalla with frequent stops for photography and collecting as we soon discovered that this region had obviously had a greater amount of spring rain than anywhere else we had seen on the trip. The low, rolling dunes were full of acacia scrub and the innumerable hollows contained more annual species in one area than we had hitherto recorded. We could hardly tear ourselves away from one locality to move on to the next, and several first recordings for the Group were made, particularly of crucifers. Conditions were ideal for both photography and collecting and we had a field day along a stretch of road that we had never previously surveyed. Even the frequent herds of goats and sheep we encountered seemed to have little effect on the vegetation cover, such was the abundance of annuals.
By late morning it was again too glaring for good photography and once past Falaj al Moalla we decided to head for home. Our route took us back through Dhaid and Madam, from where we branched off to Jebel Ali. There we collected a legume that had long confused us and later had it positively identified as Indigofera argentea.
That evening was spent in sorting out notes and some 90 pressed specimens for onward despatch to the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, to whom we are indebted for all the identifications in this article. It was gratifying to learn that one or two of our plants were first records for this part of Arabia and this provides further evidence that much more botanical work needs to be carried out in the Emirates.
The following list of species collected during the excursion is presented alphabetically by family. Our criteria for collection were based on (a) species unfamiliar to us; (b) species known but not previously collected; (c) good specimens of species of which we had collected only poor examples previously. First recordings for the Group are marked *.
*J.N.B. (Bish) Brown, ex-Chairman of the ENHG. (Return to top.)
**A Botanical Reconnaissance in the Musandam Region of Oman, by J.P. Mandaville, Journal of Oman Studies, Vol 7, pp.9 - 28. (Return to top.)
*** The Musandam (Northern Oman) Expedition 1971-72, by N.L. Falcon, Geographical Journal 139 (1), pp.1 - 19. (Return to top.)
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan
Served from Molalla, Oregon, United States of America