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5 Dazzling Desert Flora of Saudi Arabia

Marjun is a Biologist/Microbiologist by training. He loves to read, write, speak and travel.

A beautifull natural garden at the Al-Wahba crater with the salt residue at the background. Gardens such as this is not uncommon in the Arabian desert during spring.

A beautifull natural garden at the Al-Wahba crater with the salt residue at the background. Gardens such as this is not uncommon in the Arabian desert during spring.

The Geography of Saudia Arabia

The Saudi Arabian desert landscape is often seen and thought to be barren because of its dry, arid and hot climates. But lo and behold if you wait until springtime, you will see the predominantly beige-toned terrain turn into a lively, colorful garden. This is especially true after the generous winter rains that start from November and last until March.

The springtime is also the best time to go out desert-trekking because it is the period with the most desert blooms. Annual plants sprout and display their hidden beauty through the expression of wonderful colors, shapes and forms.

Not only are they stunningly beautiful, some of these gorgeous, perennial plants are edible and have great nutritional value. Others are recognized for their medicinal properties and are known to cure various aliments since generations past.

In this article, I have selected five dazzling desert plants whose flamboyant flowers never fail to catch the attention of a biologist like myself or anyone else who simply has an eye for nature. These are the plants that I had a first-hand encounter with

I am glad to share these with you, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

  1. Caralluma retrospisciens
  2. Cistanche tubulosa
  3. Calotropis procera
  4. Rumex vesicarius
  5. Diplotaxis acris

1. Caralluma retrospisciens

The stunning flowers of Caralluma retrospisciens in Wadi Taiah, Sotuhwest Saudi Arabia. (August 22, 2018)

The stunning flowers of Caralluma retrospisciens in Wadi Taiah, Sotuhwest Saudi Arabia. (August 22, 2018)

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the gorgeous, ball-shaped Caralluma retrospisciens flowers. They were all over a certain area of rocky terrain during our drive to Jeddah, in the center of the Western Region, from Abha in the Southwest, in the center of the Western Region. The landscape looked peculiar because it appeared black from a distance. Excited as always, I asked my friend to stop by the roadside for me to examine the plant for the first time.

This lovely plan can grow up to a maximum of 150 centimeters tall. It enjoys warm and dry climates in Yemen, East Africa, Eritrea, Kenya, and Uganda among other places.

Characteristics

After probing curiously, I realized that the eye-catching balls of flowers at Wadi Taiah in Southwestern Saudi Arabia are actually dark maroon to almost black in color and belong to Family Apocynaceae. I had to contact my Botany professor in college, Dr. Annalee Soligam, to identify the plant because I was excited to blog about it. She eventually referred me to her friend, Dr Faten Filimban, a seasoned plant taxonomist at King Abdulaziz University Colleges of Sciences in Jeddah.

The Kew account notes that Caralluma retrospisciens is perhaps the largest of the stapeliads. Like most plants belonging to the tribe Stapiliae, Caralluma retrospisciens has a succulent stem that is olive green in color. It resembles a cactus, though it is not closely related to it. It is said to be an example of convergent evolution. I initially thought it is one of the species of the genus Euphorbia.

I was stunned by its conspicuous flowers that are described as "very large terminal cluster[s] of umbel-like inflourescenses with pedicels of 4 to 6 centimeters long." The corolla or petals is about 15 to 20 mm wide. The corona or the sepals have the same color as the petals. The stunning flowers, however, emit a foul-smelling odor to attract pollinators.

Uses

Caralluma retrospisciens, or tenidwar in (Mali) Arabic, is among the many species of the same genus which is used for traditional medicine. It is known to treat rheumatism, even diabetes, leprosy, paralysis and inflammation. It also has anti-malarial, antitrypanosomal and anti-ulcer properties. Like most plants, it contains a generous amount of antioxidants.

UsesCharacteristicsMiscellaneous Facts

contains a generous amount of antioxidants

dark maroon to almost black colored flowers

Family name is Apocynaceae

has anti-malarial, antitrypanosomal and anti-ulcer properties

petals are about 15 to 20 mm wide

perhaps the largest of the stapeliads

known to treat rheumatism, even diabetes, leprosy, paralysis and inflammation

grow up to a maximum of 150 centimeters tall

emit a foul-smelling odor to attract pollinators

I was overjoyed when I spotted a Desert Hyacinth on a roadside while driving to work in Jeddah. It was only the second time I chanced upon this elusive desert flower. My first encounter was when I was in Al-Khobar, Eastern Province 23 years ago!

As a plant enthusiast, I jumped out of the car immediately and took photos of it. A week later, I came back with friends to show them and to take a video of this rare rendezvous.

Characteristics

The life of this desert denizen is very interesting—it is actually parasitic! Yes, folks, it couldn’t live on its own.

Cistanche tubulosa has no chlorophyll. It grows near the roots of other plants to sustain its life. The plant is connected with its host plant via a thin root that stretches from the tuber over a distance of several meters. From where I found it, the gaudy, yellow flower grew with its host plant, Camphorosma monspeliaca, where it saps up nutrients and energy.

Cistanche tubulosa is common in the coastal areas of the Arabian Gulf coast as well as on inland saline sand plains. It can grow up to one meter high with erect whitish single stem and up to four centimeters thick. The bright, yellow flowers sometimes have white to orange-purplish lobes that are compactly arranged in dense spikes. It has a total of five calyx and a funnel-shaped corolla (petals). The black-colored fruit is encapsulated, pea-liked with huge amount of dust-fine seeds.

Uses

The Desert Hyacinth is highly-prized for its powerful health benefits similar to that of ginseng. It is refered to as the Rou Cong Rong or the “ginseng of the desert” in China.

Powder from the herb’s stem is said to boost the immune system, help with erectile dysfunction, improve memory, and help with fatigue and kidney disease. This plant could be the secret to a youthful look, as it is said to slow the aging process. With its potent medicinal properties, it is not a surprise that this endangered shrub contains a generous amount of antioxidants.

In the Middle East, they use the boiled stem to treat diarrhea. Also, the dried powdered plant is mixed with camel milk to use as a remedy for contusions. More than that, it is known to have aphrodisiac properties in North Africa and in China.

Would you blame me if I uprooted one and brought it home? :)

Characteristics UsesMiscellaneous Facts

can grow up to one meter high with erect whitish single stem and up to four centimeters thick

the boiled stem to treat diarrhea

is actually parasitic

the bright, yellow flowers sometimes have white to orange-purplish lobes that are compactly arranged in dense spikes

is mixed with camel milk to use as a remedy for contusions

has no chlorophyl

is known to have aphrodisiac properties

contains a generous amount of antioxidants

is refered to as the Rou Cong Rong or the “ginseng of the desert” in China

Calotropis procera is a species of flowering plant in the family Apocynaceae just like Caralluma retrospisciens and “Kalachuchi.” It is one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen and is native to North Africa, Tropical Africa, Western Asia, South Asia, and Indochina. Its wide territorial presence could be attributed to the way its seed is dispersed by the wind.

Characteristics

I am no longer surprised to see Monarch butterflies every time I see a Milkweed tree, one of its common names. This particular species of butterfly (Danaus plexippus) uses this perennial desert plant as its host for all stages of its life cycle. The tree has a large, thick, green, silvery-gray leaves that appear waxy (which in Latin is called procera) from where its name is derived. The size of the leaves is huge enough for caterpillars to feed. Cross-pollination is mostly done by this equally beautiful yet ephemeral insects. Monarch butterflies sap the nectar from its spectacular flowers that bloom year-round. It is always a delight to see Calotropis procera’s eye-soothing perfect combination of greenish-white and purple flowers in bloom!

Calotrotropis procera is also commonly referred to as Sodom’s apple, Kings Crown, Swallow-wort, Stabragh, and Rubber tree. It grows up to 15 feet high, and the fruit is huge and inflated and each seed is equipped with white silky floss to facilitate dispersion by the wind.

Uses

The stem of the flower is crooked and yields a fiber useful for making ropes, bags, nets and paper. Interestingly, Feedipedia cited some of the recent breakthrough uses of the plant’s many parts. One is its milky sap (latex) which is used in food, particularly as a coagulation agent for cheese making in West Africa. The other remarkable news about Calotropis is its potential to become a source of renewable energy. It was reported that it could yield 90 tons of biomass twice a year.

Calotropis procera has myriads of ethno-medicinal properties. The bark and rootbark is used for digestive disorders like diarrhea, constipation and stomach ulcers. Likewise, it is used for painful conditions such as joint pains and cramps and for parasitic infections such as elephantiasis and worms. This mighty tree has also been known to possess analgesic, antitumor, antihelmintic, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, antidiarrhoeal, anticonvulsant, antimicrobial, oestrogenic, antinociceptive, and antimalarial activity.

There are several other uses of the plant especially in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, it is cultivated in certain parts of India for its pharmacological significance.

CharacteristicsUsesMiscellaneous Facts

has large, thick, green, silvery-gray leaves that appear waxy

the stem of the flower is crooked and yields a fiber useful for making ropes, bags, nets and paper

is also commonly referred to as Sodom’s apple, Kings Crown, Swallow-wort, Stabragh, and Rubber tree

grows up to 15 feet high

its milky sap (latex) is used in food particularly as a coagulation agent for cheese making in West Africa

has potential to become a source of renewable energy

the fruit is huge and inflated and each seed is equipped with white silky floss to facilitate dispersion by the wind

bark and rootbark is used for digestive disorders like diarrhea, constipation and stomach ulcers

cultivated in certain parts of India for its pharmacological significance

What a great surprise that this beautiful plant with colorful flower is edible; otherwise, I should have picked some and brought home during our visit to Al-Wahba Crater recently.

Characteristics

Rumer vesicarius belongs to Polygonacaea family with 50 genera and 1120 species. It is known as smartweed, buckwheat or knotweed and is widely distributed worldwide in mostly temperate and tropical regions.

Rumer vesicarius is an annual semi-succulent herb that stands between 15 to 30 centimeters high. It has pale green leaves, and it is monoecious meaning that it has both its male and female reproductive organs. The plant branches dichotomously. The stunningly beautiful flowers morph from white to pale pink to blushing red as it matures and fruits from January to March.

Uses

What is interesting about the plant is that smartweed (or Humiedh in Arabic) is cultivated as a vegetable and for its medicinal properties in the Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka provinces in India. The leaves are said to be best when cooked along with pulses. Some prefer to consume the leaves fresh; it is used as a component in beverage products in Egypt.

This leafy vegetable is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fibers, carotenoids and flavonoids with many health benefits. The plant is also rich in antioxidants hence, it has anti-cancer properties and decreases blood sugar and cholesterol level. No wonder this super plant is extremely useful.

CharacteristicsUsesMiscellaneous Facts

is widely distributed worldwide in mostly temperate and tropical regions

is rich in antioxidants hence, it has anti-cancer properties

plant branches dichotomously

stands between 15 to 30 centimeters high

decreases blood sugar and cholesterol level. No wonder this super plant is extremely useful

has both its male and female reproductive organs

flowers morph from white to pale pink to blushing red as it matures and fruits from January to March

is used as a component in beverage products in Egypt

is known as smartweed, buckwheat or knotweed

Characteristics

I saw a carpet of purple flowers in the desert as I was traveling to Al-Ula in Northwestern Saudi Arabia last January. The sight was very inviting, but I couldn’t ask the bus driver to stop even if I wanted to. But when we visited Al-Bidea, where several ancient tombs carved from sandstone cliffs were located, I did not miss the opportunity to examine this glamorous desert dweller which also abounds in the place.

The winter rains allowed this gorgeous annual plant to sprout and our visit was timely because Diplotaxis acris displayed its pretty light purple flowers. Diplotaxis acris has edible leaves and flowers. This is not a surprise because it belongs to the cabbage family. The leaves are said to be juicy and peppery in flavor which is why these make a good component of fresh salad, including its four-petaled lovely flowers. It is commonly called wild mustard. Diplotaxis acris has serrated-edged leaves arranged alternately. The leaves grow out from the base in a rosette pattern.

Uses

Diplotaxis acris is a feast for goats, sheep and camels when the wild mustard are growing profusely. This is especially true in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia where it is mostly distributed.

CharacteristicsUsesMiscellaneous Facts

has pretty, light purple flowers

is a feast for goats, sheep and camels

is an annual plant

leaves grow out from the base in a rosette pattern

makes a good component of fresh salad

belongs to the cabbage family

has serrated-edged leaves arranged alternately

*

commonly called wild mustard

Comments

Marjun Angolluan Canceran (author) from Philippines on May 26, 2020:

Hi Neil, unfortunately I do not have top 10. I wish I could have. :)

neil on October 15, 2019:

this is great information, very inspiring. do you have a top 10?

thanks for sharing.

Marjun Angolluan Canceran (author) from Philippines on March 15, 2019:

Wow! Thanks for the compliment Dr Faten!

Regards,

Marjun

Dr Faten Filimban on March 15, 2019:

Dear Murjan,

Such wonderful shots..!

Fantastic colour, depth and composition

We can travel just with your photos.

Congratulations for these spectacular work.

Faten

Donna Garcia on March 14, 2019:

Very interesting read. Great job Marjun! Keep them coming. :)

Marjun Angolluan Canceran (author) from Philippines on March 14, 2019:

Thank you. Eman. I believe these are also widespread in Egypt.

Marjun Angolluan Canceran (author) from Philippines on March 14, 2019:

Thank you, Ma'am. I hope we can share it. :)

Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on March 14, 2019:

A very useful article about amazing plants.

Marjun Angolluan Canceran (author) from Philippines on March 14, 2019:

Thank you, Ma'am. I hope I can. Do you have her email address?

Annalee Soligam on March 14, 2019:

Congratulations Marjun.. Hope you can share this with Dr. Faten Filimban. She will be very jubilant about this.