Scarce Marsh Helleborine

If you follow the Wandering through Wadis Facebook page, you might recall the photographs of orchids that I shared a few weeks ago. I had no idea that there were orchids growing in the desert, but after my friend sent me photos of the blooms she had seen, I obviously had no choice but to go see them for myself.

I had identified the orchids in my friend’s photos as Scarce (or Eastern) Marsh Helliborine (Epipactis veratrifolia) but, admittedly, I knew nothing about orchids. So I’ve been reading up on them. And I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things about orchids in general, but also about these rare beauties that are native to Sinai. (They are not found in mainland Egypt.)

Most orchids (more than 99% of all species) are epiphytic and use their roots to attach themselves to and grow on trees. The Scarce Marsh Helleborine, however, is a terrestrial, or ground, orchid and grows its roots firmly in soil.

This helleborine is a perennial herb and grows, from a fleshy rhizome, to be between 25 – 150 cm tall. The leaves are ovate (egg-shaped) and pointed at both ends. They grow along the stem and can be 8 – 25 cm long. The inflorescence, or cluster of flowers, grows atop an erect stem. The flowers are fairly open and are green to yellowish-green in color with purplish or reddish radial stripes. The lip, or bottom middle petal, is tipped in white. The upper part of the stems, bracts, ovaries, and sepals are covered in short, fine hairs. In Dahab, the orchids were found growing among native grasses in a wet area.

Like all orchids, this helleborine is dependent on a mycorrhizal symbiosis, a mutually beneficial relationship between a plant and a fungus, to complete its life cycle. The plant’s fruit capsule is full of microscopic seeds (in some species, over a million), but these seeds all lack endosperm. Endosperm is the tissue usually found inside seeds that provides nutrition to the plant as it sprouts. Because an orchid’s seeds don’t have this inborn nutrition, they rely on fungi to provide them with the nutrients they need to germinate. The chance of germination is so small that only a minute fraction of the released seeds grow into adult plants.

But before a plant can even produce any of these seeds, it must first be pollinated. And to help ensure that, the Scarce Marsh Helleborine employs a trick, a special mimicry, to lure pollinating hoverflies to its flowers. The flowers emit three chemical substances that are usually released as alarm pheromones among aphids. Aphids are the preferred diet of hoverfly larvae. So female hoverflies smell these chemicals, interpret this to mean that aphids are nearby, and proceed to lay their eggs near the source of the scent – the flowers. The hoverflies are rewarded with a small sip of nectar, but their larvae are doomed to starve because, when they hatch, there will be no aphids around to consume. (This is a strange contradiction from an evolutionary perspective because since the larvae die, the number of potential pollinators decreases.) The orchids are mimicking the aphids, taking advantage of the female hoverflies and deceiving them into pollinating the flowers.

As you can see, these rare orchid blooms are not only beautiful but also full of amazing natural wonder!

Resources:

Plants of the World Online (Epipactis veratrifolia)

Orchid tricks hoverflies (Max Planck Society)

Desert Plant Adaptations (IV) ~ Leaf Adaptations

Getting back to my series on desert plant adaptations, let’s discuss some of the ways that leaves have adapted to help plants survive the hot and dry conditions of the desert wadis.

Besides dropping all of their leaves like drought-deciduous plants, some plants simply have smaller or fewer leaves. Smaller leaves means there is less surface area open to the wind and sun, and so less water is lost through transpiration. Semi-shrubs and shrubs may have large leaves in the winter that are shed during the dry season and are replaced with smaller leaves in the summer. Artemisia herba-alba and Phlomis aurea both have smaller summer leaves.

Another strategy that helps conserve water is folding or rolling up the leaves so that the stomata are facing inwards, reducing the surface area subject to transpiration. This adaptation is employed by Helianthemum species, Fumana thymifolia, and many perennial grasses.

But it’s not just transpiration that leads to water loss. Leaves also lose water through their cell walls. To combat this, the leaves of some desert plants have a waxy coating or a thick cuticle, the film covering the surface, which helps seal in and protect moisture already in the leaves. Most xerophytes have a thick cuticle.

Hair on the leaves and stems also helps reduce water loss by providing shade and trapping water vapor near the plant’s surface. Artemisia herba-alba, Phlomis spp., Majorana syriaca, and other plants utilize this adaptation.

Plants needs energy from the sun to photosynthesize. What energy they don’t use to make food is used to heat the leaf up. That is very useful for plants growing in cold climates whose leaves need to be a bit warmer to photosynthesize but not so necessary for desert plants, which must reflect some of this solar radiation or risk over-heating. How do they do this? Some plants, like Capparis sinaica, have a waxy coating on their summer leaves which gives them a lighter – and more reflective – color than their winter leaves.

Leaves of Atriplex species also have a different color depending on the season, but they don’t use a waxy coat. Instead, the leaves are covered in vesicular hairs that contain a salty solution. In the winter, the hairs are full and transparent, allowing more absorption of the sun’s energy. In the summer, the water evaporates and the hairs dry out causing the leaves to be a lighter color that reflects the sun’s rays.

You can read more about each of the species photographed above in my book. In the next post in this series, we’ll learn about stem adaptations. Stay tuned!

Desert Plant Adaptations (III) ~ Drought-escaping Plants

I’ve written about two general strategies that plants employ to survive in desert habitats – succulence and drought-deciduousness. Today I’ll introduce the most successful adapters to life in the desert – drought-escaping plants. Plants escape drought in one of two ways. They either survive only as seeds or they use taproots.

Annuals are plants that wither and die during the dry seasons but not before completing their life cycle, sometimes in just a few weeks. Their seeds are covered by a thick protective coat and are dispersed, only to wait underground as part of the desert’s “seed bank”. Contained within their seed coats are certain chemicals that prohibit germination. The seeds must wait for rain to wash these chemicals away before they can sprout. These are the plants that amaze us here in Sinai when our desert sands are suddenly covered in green after a spring rainstorm. These are also the plants that are so important to the Bedouins’ herds of goats and sheep. Some of these annuals that survive dry seasons as seeds include Astragalus spp., Artemisia spp., Diplotaxis spp., and Tribulus spp. and are pictured below.

Using taproots is also a successful strategy to avoid the problems associated with drought. A taproot is a very thick and long root that grows directly downward. Think of a carrot. The taproot is the main central root which other smaller roots grow off of. The long taproot allows the plant to reach water stored deep underground, providing an almost constant source of water. The taproots of Convolvulus lanatus, pictured below, and Artemisia monosperma are also covered with a thick bark that helps the roots to withstand the withering caused by wind.

You can learn more about these desert plants in my book, Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai.

Desert Plant Adaptations (II) ~ Drought-deciduous Plants

It’s been longer than I had planned, and I’m not sure where the time went (well, a lot of it went to waiting for a new computer when my old one bit the dust), but I’m finally back with more information about how the plants in South Sinai have adapted to survive the harsh desert conditions! In the first installment of this series, I talked about succulence, the ability of plants to store water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots.

Lycium shawii, Desert Thorn

Today, I’ll discuss drought-deciduous plants. Instead of storing water like succulents, these plants use a different method to deal with drought conditions. During the dry seasons, they drop their leaves, allowing them to save water that would otherwise be lost during transpiration (similar to sweating in humans).

Because these plants don’t have their leaves to make food in the summer, their stems take over the photosynthesis process. (More on this in a future post.) Drought-deciduous plants also slow down their metabolism, making only enough energy to keep the plant alive. This means when conditions for growth are favorable again, the plants don’t have to start from zero. They’re already idling and ready to go, if we think in car terms; they don’t have to turn the ignition on first.

Lycium shawii, or Desert Thorn, is one example of a plant that is completely leafless in the summer. (It also has succulent leaves, so more than one adaptation to help it survive.) And because I don’t hike in the summertime, I don’t have photographs of this plant without leaves. But here’s a pic of their beautiful lush leaves:

In my next post, I’ll discuss the most successful adapters to life in the desert – the drought-escaping plants – so be sure to follow the blog or the Facebook page so you don’t miss out!

Desert Plant Adaptations (I) ~ Succulence

Plants that have adapted to living in dry habitats are called xerophytes, and they are the characteristic plants of deserts and semi-deserts. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be explaining some of the adaptations that allow them to survive in such a harsh desert environment. And it is harsh! Besides the limited supply of water, these plants must also survive high daytime temperatures, high levels of solar radiation, high levels of salinity, and strong winds. Water, however, is the most important ingredient in their lives and they must prevent water loss and overheating to survive. In general, to overcome these obstacles, desert plants can be classified into three main groups according to how they deal with the drought conditions – succulence, drought-deciduous, and drought-escaping. Today, I’ll talk about succulence.

Succulence is the ability of plants to store water in their leaves, stems, and/or roots. Cacti are a classic example. Succulent plants have shallow roots, allowing them to quickly absorb any available moisture, including dew. These plants can begin to grow 24 – 48 hours after rain. You may have noticed that there aren’t many cacti growing in the wadis of South Sinai, but there several species of succulents.

Species with Succulent Leaves

If you think back to your high school biology class, you’ll recall that photosynthesis is the process that allows plants to use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into sugar. Basically, it’s how plants make their food. There are pores, called stomata, on the leaves that open and close to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. When these stomata open and close, water vapor is also released and evaporated. This release of water is called transpiration. It’s similar to sweating in humans and can help cool the plant. And we know that if we sweat a lot, we should drink more water to stay hydrated. However, desert plants do not receive a lot of rain to replace this lost water. So they have adapted to conserve as much water as possible.

Species with Succulent Stems

One way succulents do this is to use a different type of photosynthesis, one that allows the plants to make food without losing a lot of water to transpiration. It’s called crassulacean acid metabolism, or CAM photosynthesis. Plants that use CAM open their stomata at night when temperatures are cooler and keep them closed during the day. Instead of using sunlight to convert the CO2 to food right away, plants store the CO2 they absorbed at night as crassulacean acid. As the day begins and the temperature starts to rise, the acid is changed back into carbon dioxide and then used in photosynthesis. This allows the plants to conserve water and use it to make food instead of losing it to evaporation.

Species with Succulent Stems and Leaves

That’s a pretty fascinating adaptation, isn’t it? But it’s only the start! Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll discuss drought-deciduous and drought-escaping plants.

Stagshorn Lavender

Many people are surprised to learn that lavender grows in the desert wadis of South Sinai.

Stagshorn Lavender (Lavandula coronopifolia) is one of 47 lavender species in the Lavandula genus and one of two that are native to Sinai. While not as fragrant as its cousins, the leaves of Stagshorn Lavender do have a pleasant scent and are edible, grazed by the local herds of goats, sheep, and camels.

And I can attest to their tastiness! When I had a plant growing in my desert garden, we often added the leaves to our salads.

It is in fact their distinctively branched stems that gave this species its common name – stagshorn. In Arabic, this plant is known as zeiti, diktae, or netash.

Stagshorn Lavender is a small shrub in the mint family and can grow up to one meter in height. Lavandula coronopifolia grows in open rocky habitats, desert plains, and foothills and is the most widespread species of lavender across northern Africa.

The flowers are sky blue to lilac in color and bloom between January and April.

Which means you can seem them in bloom right now! When I was wandering through wadis last weekend, the lavender plants were one of the few plants with flowers. There would be more if the area had received more rain this season, so my fingers are crossed that the small chance of rain forecast for tomorrow comes through!

You can find Stagshorn Lavender – and over 140 other plants – in my book, Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai. Purchase a PDF copy online here.

Dead Sea Apple Tree

The Dead Sea Apple Tree (Calotropis procera) is one you are more likely to see growing in the coastal plains of South Sinai rather than the mountain wadis. They are easy to spot along the main roads and even in the main cities of Dahab and Nuweiba.

Called ‘ushaar ( العشار ) in Arabic, this is a small tree in the dogbane family. It can grow up to four meters in height and the bark is light brown and cracked.

The leaves are large and grayish-green in color and are a popular meal for the larvae, or caterpillars, of the African Monarch Butterfly (Danaus chrysippus).

The small flowers, which grow in clusters, are some of my favorite – small and white with purple tips. They bloom from May to November and are pollinated by Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa sp).

The fruits are large, bright green and inflated like a balloon.

The fruits were traditionally used by the Bedouin of South Sinai as floats for fishing nets and the fibers used to make skull caps as well as stuffing for cushions.

When they are fully ripe, the fruit bursts open, releasing hundreds of seeds with fine, long, white hairs. It is common to see the seeds floating through the air in springtime.

So common in fact, they starred in one my children’s books, The Flying Seed, which you can read and download for free at my Books by Habiba blog where you can find a few other nature-related titles.

Although beautiful, this plant leaks a milky acrid sap when broken that can cause possible irritation to the skin and, I’ve heard, vision impairment.

Calotropis procera is also known as Sodom Apple, Sodom’s Milkweed, Rooster Tree, and Rubber Bush and is one of many plants mentioned in the Bible and Quran.

You can find this plant, and over a hundred others, in my guide book, Wandering through Wadis: A nature-lover’s guide to the flora of South Sinai.

Samwa

Samwa (Cleome droserifolia) is one of the most popular medicinal herbs in Egypt and a common one to come across in the wadis of South Sinai, including around Dahab. It also has one of the most beautiful blooms.

Samwa is an aromatic shrub covered in glandular hairs that give off a distinct scent, one that can sometimes greet you several meters from the plant. I find its sharp fragrance quite pleasant, but not everyone agrees with me.

Samwa grows in rocky, gravelly, and sandy desert wadis and plains. Older bushes are round and can grow quite large, up to 60 cm high.

Bedouin of South Sinai use samwa medicinally to treat a variety of ailments in both people and animals, including bee stings, internal and external infections, and diabetes.

When you stop to have a closer look at samwa bushes, you’re likely to encounter Green Lynx Spiders.

Green Lynx Spider with egg sac on a samwa bush

You can learn about samwa and more than one hundred other plants growing in South Sinai in my book Wandering through Wadis. Check it out.