I had already published the third edition of Wandering through Wadis when, last April, we came across several plants in Wadi Kid that we’d never seen before in the wild. Ashwagandha was one of them.
Ashwagandha is a well-known plant and is one of many names given to Withania somnifera, which grows here in Sinai. There is a related species that is also native to the area – Withania obtusifolia. To complicate matters a bit, there seems to be have been some debate recently as to whether W. obtusifolia should be classified as a subspecies of W. somnifera. Which exact species I have photographed here is a mystery to me, but let’s learn about ashwagandha.
Withania is a genus of plants in the nightshade family. Of the 23 species, two – including W. somnifera – are considered economically important and are cultivated in various regions around the world for medicinal uses. In Ayurveda medicine, ashwagandha is used as a medicinal herb and dietary supplement. Other names for W. somnifera include Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, and winter cherry…but I’ll stick to using ashwagandha (until I can confirm the Arabic name).
Ashwagandha is a drought-tolerant evergreen shrub that grows in dry, stony soil and can grow to be between 35 and 75 cm tall. The branches are hairy and grow out radially from the central stem. The leaves are dull green, generally egg-shaped, and 10 – 12 cm long. The flowers are small, green, bell-shaped and grow in clusters; the ripe fruit is orange-red.
Sadly, a 2020 article in the Egyptian Journal of Botany reports that of the 8 threats the authors categorized plants as facing, Withania somnifera is subject to seven: over-collecting; habitat loss; clearance for agriculture, mining and quarrying; disturbance by cars and trampling; urbanization; tourism; and climatic change and environmental conditions. Even though ashwagandha is apparently a common plant in Egypt, after reading that list of threats, I feel lucky to have come across these plants in the wild. I had seen them before as my husband had them growing in his permaculture garden. He tells me that ashwagandha seems popular with Egyptian gardeners and farmers these days. Have you come across ashwagandha in your wadi wanderings? Or have it growing in your garden?
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.
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.
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. 🙂
In Part I in my series on caper bushes, we learned what these plants look like, where to find them, how they grow, and why they make good additions to desert gardens. Today, I’ll share how to prepare the plant so you can savor their unique flavor.
You may already be familiar with capers, as they are a common ingredient used in Mediterranean cuisine and are available commercially in many places around the world. These are the flower buds of caper bushes, specifically Capparis spinosa. (Although C. sinaica, which also grows here in Sinai can be used, as well.)
The buds are picked when small and then salted and/or pickled. They are used in salads, pastas, meat dishes, sauces, and are popular in salmon and other fish dishes.
Before the caper bush in my garden was big enough to supply enough flower buds for pickling – and even now as I prefer to leave our buds to grow into flowers and fruit – we would forage for the buds as we wandered through wadis. At the right time and place, it doesn’t take long to collect a handful of flower buds. We pick a variety of sizes, but try to keep them on the smaller side.
Once you’ve collected the flower buds, put them in a jar, fill with water, and cover with a cloth. Let the buds soak for 3 – 7 days, changing the water every day (or every other day). The buds will turn from a bright green color to a more olive color. They will also start to give off a strong smell and white crystals or film may appear. This is all normal. The buds are releasing their mustard oil and their not-so-nice flavor.
At the end of the week, the capers should be giving off less of an odor and are ready to be pickled. You can use a vinegar brine or, even simpler, a lacto-fermentation method which just involves salt water. That’s what I do. I mix 220 mL of water with 1 tablespoon of salt. (Or multiples of that when I need more water.) Put the caper buds in a clean, sterile jar and pour the salt water over them, making sure they are all covered. Leave them for 3-4 days and then put them in your fridge; they will last a long time.
Pickled flower buds are not part of the Bedouin culinary tradition, but pickled fruits are! Forage for fruit on the bushes in the wadi or collect them from your garden. You want to pick them when they are still green, not yet ripe. I generally pick them when they are between 5 – 8 cm long.
You can follow the same method for pickling as described above for the flower buds. The fruits definitely need 7 days in water before they are pickled and give off a much stronger odor than the buds. The pickled fruit are called caper berries in English.
This is my first year to do so, but you can also pickle the leaves of the caper bush following the same procedure.
Bedouin friends have recommended cutting shallow slashes into the fruit before they are pickled. This allows more of their flavor to be released into the water. Bedouin will then use a few spoons of this zesty liquid to spice up their lentil and rice meals.
We like to eat the pickled caper fruits smashed up in white cheese, which we then scoop up with local flat bread. Delicious! I am looking forward to experimenting with the pickled caper leaves – as a side salad, with deviled eggs, with cheese, with fish. And the flower buds we use in typical Mediterranean fashion, usually on pastas and pizzas.
The caper fruit can also be eaten fresh, when it is red and fully ripe. As I mentioned in my first post about capers, you have to beat the ants to it! Pick the red fruit just as it’s ready to split. If you catch them before they split, open the fruit and use your teeth to scrape the flesh and seeds off of the hard skin. Whether or not to chew the mustard-flavored seeds is up to you. The Bedouin children, who have eaten plenty of fruit from my garden, warn me never to chew the seeds, as they will give you diarrhea. But I’ve heard from other people who chew the seeds and do not suffer from any intestinal upset. I’ve tried the fruit fresh but did not chew the seeds. They taste okay, but I prefer them pickled!
Besides being beautiful and delicious, caper plants are also used medicinally by the Bedouin. (Amazing plant, right?) A poultice made from the crushed leaves is used to treat rheumatism, joint aches, headaches, and toothaches. Inhaling the vapor made when boiling ground dried leaves is said to treat head colds. I have used a poultice to treat joint aches and I can testify that the crushed leaves really do heat up, much better than creams from the pharmacy.
Have I convinced you to grow a caper bush in your garden yet? 😉
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, Caper Bush ~ Part II, 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.