x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Desert survival: plants that heal

The Bedouins became experts on using desert plants for food and medicine and many Emirati households still rely on their knowledge.

Many Emirati households rely on natural remedies such as gum arabic - used to treat chest infections - and plants such as fuuga, the nutritious wild mushrooms also known as desert truffles.
Many Emirati households rely on natural remedies such as gum arabic - used to treat chest infections - and plants such as fuuga, the nutritious wild mushrooms also known as desert truffles.

DUBAI // Through brave trial and error, the Bedouins - rarely with enough access to food and water - became experts on desert plants and trees for food and medicine, and passed their knowledge down through generations.

And that knowledge remains, with many Emirati households relying on natural remedies such as gum arabic - used to treat chest infections - and eating plants such as fuuga, the nutritious wild mushrooms also known as desert truffles.

The truffles were an important source of protein for Bedouins, and were roasted or boiled in camel milk. The Pharaohs regarded them as royal delicacies.

Rashad Bukhash, the director of Architectural Heritage, Dubai Municipality, said fuuga, which are found in winter, remain a prized rarity. Just one kilo can fetch up to Dh300.

Abdelaziz Mohammed Saleh Al Shihi, a historian at Dubai Municipality, said those who specialised in natural medicine and sold it were known as "al aatar" ("fragrant oil").

Many Emirati families, including his own he admitted, never travelled without al jaada - a plant from the mountains of Ras al Khaimah and Oman that is known for its treatment of abdominal pain and food poisoning.

"Life in the desert forced Bedouins [to live in an environment] with limited numbers of plants, animals and attractions but there was a harmony between them and the surrounding harsh microclimate," said Dr Abdul Muhsen Salem, the assistant dean for Research and Graduate Studies, Faculty of Food and Agriculture, UAE University.

Desert plants and trees tend not only to be long-lived - invaluable for travelling nomads - but also very hardy. Even a brief rainstorm can trigger a bloom of growth, reviving shrubs for several months. The ghaaf (Prosopis cineraria), can live for more than 120 years, and was sought by the Bedouins for its seeds to make bread and its leaves, which were eaten with rice.

Dr Taoufik Saleh Ksiksi, a biologist at UAE University, said extracts of the stem bark also exhibit anti-inflammatory properties.

The Neem tree lives even longer - at least 200 years. It also repels insects due a compound in its leaves they find poisonous, said Mr Al-Shihi.

"Neem oil is extracted from the seeds and has insecticidal and medicinal properties," said Dr Ksiksi. It has been used for thousands of years in pest control, cosmetics and medicines. The Neem also has anti-bacterial properties against skin infections such as acne, psoriasis and eczema, according to Dr Ksiksi.

For more sinister problems, such as black magic, Bedouins turned to the sidr tree, which grew near oases, bathing with extracts of their leaves.

But the tree had a more mundane use, too. "If the leaves are put in the sun for a while then mixed with water, it can also be used as hair treatment to cleanse and make the hair strong and shiny," said Mr Al Shihi. The tree's oil softens the hair, he said.

The leaves also contain natural chemical compounds including alpha terpineol (fragrant oil), linalol (essential oil with a calming effect and good for the immune system) and saponins, which can reduce blood cholesterol, Dr Ksiksi said.

"In the Sahel region, the roots are used to treat headaches, while the spines or ashes of this species are applied to snake bites.

Because Bedouins moved around, they were limited in what they could take with them, making foods such as dates invaluable. But dates, too, were good for more than food.

"If you have broken bones, you can also use the cream of the dates to put on a wound and bandage it to give it heat which will help it heal quickly," said Mr Bukhash.

Other painful wounds such as aching teeth could be treated with the bitter sap of the milkweed, which was dried and used for fillings.

"The older generation, they prefer the traditional medicine but the younger generation not so much," said Mr Al Shihi. "But it really depends - some do like to try it also."

melshoush@thenational.ae