Desert Thumb (Cynomorium coccineum), aka Red Thumb or Tarthuth in Arabic, is not a common plant in Sinai. Growing in the spring only after a wet winter, this rare plant makes for a special spotting! I was intrigued when I came across these for the first time in 2014. I mistakenly thought they were mushrooms (so did the Maltese back in the 1600s so I’m not the only one!). With the help of my fellow nature lovers at Project Noah, I learned that these thumbs of the desert were actually plants.
But they are no ordinary plants! They are parasitic; they have no chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize. Instead, they live most of their lives underground as a rhizome, attached to the roots of another plant. In Sinai, Desert Thumbs most likely parasitize salt bushes (Atriplex spp.), but they are also known to live off the roots of Amaranthus and Tamarix species.
The stalk emerges in the spring, covered by clusters of tiny dark red to purplish flowers. The flowers are pollinated by flies that are attracted to their cabbage-like aroma. Once pollinated and mature, the spike turns black and produces small, black, nut-like fruit.
Desert Thumbs are edible and are believed, throughout the region where they grow, to have an array of medicinal properties. In fact, Arab physicians during the Middle Ages referred to Desert Thumbs as “the treasure of drugs” because it was used to treat a range of problems from blood disorders to digestive and reproductive ailments. In Sinai, Bedouin have traditionally used these plants to cure colic.
Bedouin in Saudi Arabia have been harvesting tarthuth for thousands of years as food for themselves and their camels. Tarthuth has been especially useful during long caravan treks through the desert as well as during times of famine. The spikes are cleaned and the outer skin is peeled off. The inner white flesh is reported to be like an apple – sweet, crisp, and juicy.
If I had known that three years ago, I definitely would have tasted this plant! We’ve had a relatively wet winter this year, so maybe I’ll get lucky and have another chance to sample a Desert Thumb this spring. I’ll be sure to let you know. 🙂
References and Further Reading:
Cynomorium coccineum – Flora of Qatar
The Matelse Mushroom (Cynomorium coccineum): An Epic History of the Rise and Fall of the Treasure of Drugs
The Treasure of Tarthuth by Robert W. Lebling Jr. – Saudi Aramco World