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.
During the recent Christmas holidays, I spent a day with my family on a desert safari near Wadi Arada. This area has already been blessed by winter rains, so I was thrilled to see some of my favorite plants already sprouting – and in bloom!
This is a type of wall-rocket (Diplotaxi acris), a wild mustard in the cabbage family, called jahag or yahag by the Bedouin. It is one of the species that appears shortly after seasonal rains in desert plains.
It is an annual plant with alternate, serrated-edged leaves that grow out from the base in a rosette formation. The leaves are juicy and peppery-flavored and make a tasty addition to a fresh salad. Of course, the goats, sheep, and camels like to graze these greens as well.
The four-petaled flowers, also edible, are white to pinkish-purplish in color. There is a related species in Sinai, Diplotaxi harra, that has yellow flowers.
Have you ever seen jahag on your desert adventures? Have you ever tasted it?
This collection includes one of my absolute favorite blooms – those on a caper bush! While they start off completely white, their color changes to pink and then a dark purple. Read about capers in this previous post.
This is one of my favorite times of year to wander through the wadis of Sinai. For many reasons. Because of recent rains, the wadis are bursting with tiny green baby plants right now. I always enjoy stopping to discover what plants come up first after the rains, and what they look like when they’re so young. Fascinating! For me. 🙂 Another reason I love this time of year is that the arghel plants are in bloom – and they give off such a delightful fragrance!
Some wadis, like Wadi Kid, are lined with arghel plants (Solenostemma arghel), called harjal in Arabic. If you are lucky enough to walk through one of these wadis in November, it will be a joy for your senses! Often you will smell the flowers before you turn a corner and see the plant.
Harjal is an evergreen shrub in the dogbane family. The plants grow up to 1 meter high and 10 meters in diameter. They live in gravelly, sandy, and rocky soils usually at the edge of wadi beds. Here’s a picture of a large harjal plant growing near Wadi Connection in Dahab:
The leaves are greyish-green and their white flowers grow in bunches. The fruits are purplish-green, oval shaped, and can grow up to 5 cm in length.
When they are ripe, they turn yellow and dry to a light brown. They split open, releasing dozens of tufted seeds that are blown by the wind.
Bedouin in Sinai use this plant for medical reasons, as do many people throughout Egypt. Sadly, this plant is endangered due to over-collection for sale at herb shops dealing in medicinal herbs. Locally, the stem and leaves are used to treat a variety of ailments – infected sores and cuts, coughs and colic.
I’m not the only one attracted to these fragrant blooms! Butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are drawn to the flowers’ sweet nectar. In the picture below you can see two orange Painted Lady butterflies – the species I see most often on the harjal flowers – and a Brown-veined White butterfly.
Caper bushes (Capparis spp.) are some of the most common plants that you will come across when wandering through the wadis of South Sinai. They are also one of my favorites and one of my most photographed. So, I have a lot to say about them and too many photos. You’ve been forewarned. 😉
There are three species of capers growing in Sinai: Capparis decidua, C. sinaica, and two different subspecies of C. spinosa. C. decidua, which I have never seen, is easily distinguished from the other Capparis species. It grows as a small tree and the others are bushes. In English, we call them all capers, but the Bedouin differentiate between them. In Arabic, C. spinosa is called lasoof and C.sinaica is called lasaf.
Caper bushes are shrubs growing between 1 and 2.5 meters high. They usually grow prostrate along the ground, scrambling over rocks, or hanging in cliffs. Capers can tolerate saline soil and drought. And they love dry heat and direct sunlight! (This makes them excellent additions to desert gardens. More on that later.)
The branches are smooth and hairless and grow out from the base of the plant. The leaves are thick and fleshy and those of C. spinosa are round or oval while the leaves of C. sinaica are shaped more like an egg, getting narrower near the tip. The flowers – oh, the flowers! – are white with lots of stamen. In C. sinaica, these stamens are initially white but turn purple as they begin to wilt. In C. spinosa, they are white and pinkish-purple from the start and turn a darker purple. Both blooms are simply stunning!
Flower buds grow only on first-year branches, bloom at night, and live only for 24 hours. It is amazing to watch the blooms open, and since I have a caper bush in my own garden, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do so.
I am seriously in love with these flowers and how their color changes throughout the day!
The fruits of these caper bushes are pretty amazing as well. They are somewhat pear-shaped; the young fruit are green, turning a brilliant red when ripe, and contain hundreds of small seeds. And they’re edible! (More on that later, too.)
Caper bushes often have buds, flowers, and fruit at the same time. They start blooming in May and will continue to do so until late summer. When you come across these bushes in the wadis, you’ll often find the ants or other critters have already munched the seeds of the burst fruit.
But if you have a caper bush in your own garden, you can beat the ants to the feast!
When we bought our land in Dahab nine years ago, we built our house and had an empty desert plot in front, a blank canvas, our garden. We planned on growing only local desert plants, and, for the most part, our little garden is made up of the same bushes and herbs you find growing in the desert wadis of South Sinai. Our plan definitely included a caper bush. I wanted one right underneath the front window.
Irena Springuel recommends capers in her book The Desert Garden: A Practical Guide because of their beautiful blooms and edible parts. She does warn, however, of the thorns and recommends keeping that in mind when choosing a planting site. You wouldn’t want visitors or children getting hurt by the spines. (And they do catch you! My husband and I have both been hooked on numerous occasions and it hurts.)
The notes that Springuel gives about propagating capers (C. spinosa) made me think it would be a challenge to grow a caper bush from seed. But I collected a ripe fruit from a bush (C. sinaica) in a nearby wadi and simply planted the seeds in a clay pot at home. Several sprouts grew and they continue to thrive in my garden today. We have a beautiful large bush now, exactly where I dreamed of having one, and it is producing loads of fruit. You can also propagate capers by cuttings, which we have done successfully, too.
If you’re looking for a beautiful, low-maintenance plant for your garden, try a caper bush! Many of the bushes around Dahab are fruiting right now, so it’s the perfect time to see them and collect seeds. In my next post, I’ll tell you all about which parts of the plant you can eat, how to process and prepare them, and how the Bedouin use capers medicinally.
Springuel, Irina. (2006). The Desert Garden: A Practical Guide. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.