Bulletin 23 July 1984: Plants in the UAE -- the Carnation family

Plants in the UAE -- the Carnation family

by R.A. Western

The Caryophyllaceae or Carnation {Pink} Family is fairly widely-spread throughout the Emirates except the Western Region and has been recorded in coastal, desert and mountain areas. There are at least fourteen species present, but each has its own distinct habitat, and one or two are restricted to very localised regions. Most people think of this Family in terms of the type-species which through refined breeding has given rise to the various cultivated carnations we are familiar with in temperature gardens and in flowershops. While a typical carnation does exist in the wild in the Northern Emirates, most local Caryophyllaceae species do not conform in general appearance to this stereotype. However, there are certain similarities which enable the various species to be classified under one Family name. These include opposite and simple leaves, cymose flower heads, corollas of five petals, and fruits that consist of many-seeded nuts or capsules.

The following brief descriptions refer only to those species definitely recorded by the Group, some of which are on display in the workroom as pressed specimens. Others may, and probably do exist, but are likely to have restricted habitats insofar as they haven't yet been recorded during surveys throughout the Emirates and at different times of the year since systematic recording began in 1981.

Some of these species are annuals, some perennials, and some overlap depending on weather conditions. A plant may be found flowering two or even three years in a row and then disappear, to reappear a year or two later in an annual form. Certainly a wet winter and spring, as in 1982 and 1983, tends to increase the number of annuals, whereas in a very dry season, as in 1984, annuals are much fewer and some flowering plants are apparently the survivors of the previous year. It is these which ensure that the species survives; whether in an ephemeral or perennial form doesn't matter. The locations given are thus necessarily general, and indicate only where species have been recorded by the Group, and not necessarily every year. For the same reason no attempt has been made to quantify families.

Dimensions given are also approximate, since in a dry year the mature plant is likely to be smaller than in wet years.

Cometes Surattensis L.
This is a small annual herb, rarely more than 10 cms. tall with strong but tiny woody stems branching laterally just above ground level for a few centimetres from a central taproot. There is often a collar around the root at ground level from the parent seed. Leaves are dark green, up to 2 cm. long, I cm. broad and shaped like a miniature spearhead on short stalks. The flower stalks are also very short, each bearing three tiny white flowers. The fruit capsule does not open when ripe but is covered with stiff hairs gradually turning from white to amber. When in full fruit the plant resembles a small circular or oval pincushion.

The species is particularly prevalent on the lower slopes of Jebel Hafit and in the foothills of the Hatta region. It has also been recorded in the hills between Khatt and Dibba, and occasionally overlooking the east coast. Flowering time is variable between mid-February and late May.

Dianthus cf. Crinitus Sm.

This is the nearest in appearance to a standard carnation in the UAE. It is a perennial that dies right back to the woody rootstock each year but whether any annual form exists has not been determined. The opposite leaves are very thin and hug the n-ain stern which is also narrow. The main stern grows to a maximum 30 crns. and bears nodes at 4/5 crn. intervals. The calyx of sepals that surrounds the flower is up to 4 crns. long with minutely parallel vertical veins. The single flowers comprise five petals in a variety of corolla shapes, sonetines rounded and close together, sornetimes toothed with very ragged ends.

So far in the UAE the species has only been recorded at one location in the hills southwest of Dibba. This was on an open hillside, at about 2500 feet, on a northwest-facing slope. Associated plants included Launea spinosa, Convolvulus virgatus, Teucrium stocksianum, Leucas inflata, Grewia erythraea, Heliotropiurn calcareurn and Jaubertia aucheri. All of these were in flower and fruit in early May 1982. A Dianthus species, that could be the same, was recorded in mid-September 1983 in very late flower and fruit on the north-facing slopes of Jebel Qawah near the village of Al Agebat on the track from Dibba to Musandam.

Gymnocarpos Decander Forrsk.
A low shrub with intricately-branched angular thin woody stems, the older, lower ones often waxy white, the upper new ones often a pale creamy green. The leaves are also pale green, about 1 cm. long in opposite pairs which frequently 'fuse together to m3ke clusters of four or six and occasionally up to twelve. The leaf shape, being fleshy, short and circular in cross-section, resembles that of several coastal species of Chenopodiaceae. The flowers are in clusters on tiny stalks, the minute petals enclosed by brick-red sepals which spread out in a many-pointed star formation. The flowers cover the branches, both young and old. The fruits consist of small nutlets covered with whitish-yellow hairs.

This species has so far only been recorded in the Northern Emirates in conjunction with Dianthus cf. crinitus in May, 1982.

Gypsophila Bellidifolia Boiss.
A small annual up to 15 cms. branching from the base or, rarely, forming a single stem. The leaves form a rosette at ground level, each leaf up to 2 cms. long and about 1 cffi. wide, gently pointed. Occasionally an odd leaf may be as broad as it is long, about 1 cm. The older leaves turn brown quickly, and the hair-like young stems branch and rebranch continuously at a wide angle. The flowers are borne on spreading panicles and arranged in tiny tubular corollas, white (sometimes pink-tinged) and enclosed by a distinctly-veined but small calyx. From above it is difficult to notice the thin stems and branches beneath the clusters of flowerheads.

This species is fairly common among the hills of the Northern Emirates and Hatta region, prefering rock-strewn slopes to open, exposed areas. I t has been recorded flowering in April and May but is likely to be earlier in some years.

Herniaria Hemistemon J. Gay
A small mat-shaped prostrate perennial herb, intricately-branched from the base with small linear leaves ~ to 4 mm long and 2 mm wide spaced at 5 mm intervals. There is a distinct central vein running the length of the underside. The base of the plant is woody, and apparently hairless in the UAE. Flowers are minute, green and very much resemble small leaves at first glance. Magnification is necessary to check the floral details.
This plant is found on limestone outcrops in coastal areas particularly on the inshore islands around Abu Dhabi and further north. It has been recorded along the Ras Al Khaimah coastline but is not common there. The flowering period varies between February and late April. It is associated with Limonium axillare on the limestone itself and with Halopeplis perfoliata in the surrounding subkha (salt flats). 'Herniaria' is derived from the Greek for this species; since it was thought that the rupturewort was an aid in the treatment of hernia.

Polycarpea Repens (Forssk.) Aschers & Schweinf.
A prostrate perennial with slightly curving stems ('repens' = creeping) and a grey-green or slightly silvery aspect. The lower leaves are opposite and the upper ones clustered, tiny and stiffly-pointed. The clustered leaves sometimes have a slight hairy down over them, and it is the clasping shape of the leaves, not the flowers, that makes the plant most easily identifiable. The flowers are minute, barely lrnm. long, in dense terminal cymes of silvery tone. The whole plant is very small and has to be sought out.

It is fairly common on limestone and shallow sand in association with Herniaria hemistemon, for example in depressions along either side of the Abu Dhabi - Dubai road. It was also recorded in December 1982 on the island of Sir Bu Nu'air, where it was in excellent condition in association with the grasses Poa annua and Stipa capensis. The healthy growth was due no doubt to the total absence of herbivores on the island.

Polycarpea Spicata Wight ex. Arn.
This is a small but erect annual, up to 18 cms. high with a brownish stem and elongated leaves with a narrow base and broadly-rounded tip. The young leaves form a basal rosette whereas further up the stem they tend to clasp, particularly where branches fork. The flowers are in a terminal spike enclosed by a silvery calyx. It is far more erect than the trailing P. repens P. spicata has only been recorded by the Group on the sand and gravel beach at Khor Kalba on the east coast, in flower in April 1983.

Sclerocephalus Arabicus Boiss.
This is a small annual which spreads from a single stem but clings close to the ground. It is often only 5 or 6 cros. high. The leaves are thin, pointed and fleshy, light green, and surround the knots that comprise the flowerheads, which themselves are only about l cm. across. It is difficult to distinguish between the upper leaves and the flowers, except that after flowering these leaves appear spiny. The flowering and fruiting heads are tinged with white compared with the green of the lower leaves. This species is common on the summit of Jebel Hafit and among the hill slopes of Hatta and the Northern Emirates, facing in all directions.

Silene Linearis Dcne.
A tall plant, probably an annual but possibly a biennial or even perennial if a favourable series of seasons occurs. It can grow to 50 cm but rarely so in the UAE, 35 - 40 cm being the usual maximum here. The stiff stem and occasional branches are upright. The lower leaves are linear and up to 1 cm long, clustered around the nodes; further up they become progressively shorter. The pairs of leaves at the base of the flowering sterns are extremely small by comparison. Apart from Dianthus species the Silenes have perhaps the most conspicuous flowers in this Family, with petals fused into a long tube. The white corolla is very distinctively surrounded by parallel-veined sepals, a feature which makes the species easily identifiable.

A common species of hillsides in the Northern Emirates and Hatta region, it flowers in April and May. 'Silene' is derived from Greek 'sialon', meaning saliva, a reference to the sticky secretion this species exudes and which entraps small flies; hence the common English name Catchfly for these plants.

Silene Villosa Forssk.
A very common annual throughout the Emirates except in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, this is an attractive plant because the flowers as so large in proportion to height, which is variable .up to 15 CInS. The plant may be single or many-stemmed, tending to be the latter only in favourable wet springs. The leaves are large, linear and softly rounded at the ends, in pairs at 2 - 4 cIn. intervals. The stem is herbaceous and the whole plant is delicate. The tubular corollas are enclosed by a soft calyx and the flowers range in colour from snow-white to pink or rose. The flowers droop down around the stems and along with the calyx are often dusted with fine sand.

This species is abundant in stabilised sandy areas inland from the Gulf coast, in plantations and in the gravel plains and foothills to the east and north. It is generally in association with other annuals such as Arnebia hispidissima, Mansonia nivea (sometimes a biennial) and, in the north, Asphodelus fistulosus.

Spergula Fallax (Lowe) Krause
In the UAE this spurrey is not a common annual except in certain defined areas. It can be recognised by its leaves which are extremely thin but up to 4 cms. in length, and splayed out around the stern from the same node. Though bright green the leaves often appear as thickened hairs. The tiny flowers are in dense panicles and compr ise small pointed white petals. The fruit is a small globular capsule and the seeds are winged, though this can only be seen with magnification. The whole plant is small, rarely above 15crns. tall in the UAE.

This is a common species on Qarnain Island, and possibly other offshore islands, in association with Lotus schirnperi and Argyrolobiurn roseurn. It was recorded in fruit there in late April 1982, but no plants were observed during a visit the following December. On the mainland it has been recorded along the Ras Al Khaimah coastline north of Rams in flower in February 1983. The specific epithet 'fallax' (=false) comes from the fact that the leaves appear whorled but are not in fact so.

Spergularia Diandra (Guss.) Heldr. & Sart.
In general appearance this species of spurrey is almost identical to S. fallax with which it can easily be confused. It is also an annual with similar stern and leaf features, though the leaves are rather less clustered. The flowers are white (in the UAE) but perhaps a little smaller than with S. fallax, and the seeds are not winged.
This species has been recorded only in gravel on the coastal plain north of Rams, in February 1983. The tallest plants were about 14cms., in both flower and fruit. It can perhaps be described as a weed found only in cultivated areas or in abandoned plantations.

Spergularia Marina (L.) Griseb.
This is a larger annual than S. diandra, but similar in general appearance. However, the stems and branches are thicker and the leaves up to twice as long, in pairs at the nodes. It grows in clumps among grasses (e,g. Echinocloa colonum) in damp plantation areas where there is plenty of shade, as under Acacia or Indian Almond trees. The flowers are dark pink and stand out against the green background of surrounding vegetation. This species relies on nearby plants for support; if these are removed the branches droop, unable to support their own weight. The flowerheads and fruit capsules are similar to other S. species, but the seeds are a lighter brown and do not appear to be winged. As its name suggests, this ~urrey is associated with saline soil conditions.

Sphaerocoma Aucheri Boiss.
A perennial shrub with hard woody stems and knotted branches growing to 70 cms. and often blue-green in appearance. The leaves are opposite and fleshy along the many-branched stems. The small flowers are arranged in globular heads (hence 'Sphaero-') which gradually turn spiny. The young flower heads are green, aging to a golden yellow, and then dark brown in fruit.

This is a common species on thin sand and gravel over limestone along the coast between Ras Ghanada and Dubai and stretching inland for a few kilometres. It has also been recorded in flower on the summit of Jebel Hafit (May 1983). It is frequently associated with Helianthemum lippii, Zygophyllum hamiense and Cenchrus ciliaris.


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