Foraging with Friends

A memory popped up on my Facebook page today and it’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d share it here. This post was originally published on May 6, 2014 on Bedouin History Desert Safari’s blog.


It’s spring – my favorite time of year in Sinai! Especially after a particularly wet winter since that means our desert plants are thriving and the goats and sheep have plenty to graze. Recently, we met Freyj, one of Bedouin History’s drivers and guides, at his daughter’s springtime camp in the desert. We were welcomed with smiles and a light lunch of fresh bread and goat milk. It didn’t take long for the children to wander over to see their grandfather and his foreign friends. Freyj knows well my passion for plants and photography and knew I would be eager to explore the surrounding desert. Recalling our failed attempts last year to locate one of the edible plants, Zeinab, one of Freyj’s young granddaughters, eagerly offered to get her digging tools and lead our exploration. So we set off with Zeinab, Farah, Mohamed, and Omar to forage for tummayr (تِمِّير), the Bedouin name for Erodium crassifolium.

Zeinab with her digging tool.
Zeinab with her digging tool.

Known in English as Desert Storks-bill or Hoary-leaved Heron’s-bill, this plant has an edible tuber that grows deep in the ground. But there are eight different Erodium species growing in Sinai so finding the right one involves a knowledge of what tummayr leaves look like and where they grow. All Erodiums have fruit that look like long bird beaks, hence their common English name, but each species has distinct leaves. 

Erodium fruit
Erodium fruit

Zeinab and the other children are a wealth of information about the local plants, especially the edible ones, as foraging for these are a favorite past time of the Bedouin children who live in the desert for a few months of the year.

Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)
Erodium crassifolium, (tummayr)

I followed Zeinab through the wadi, trying to keep up with her quick steps and even quicker digging abilities. I try to figure out which Storks-bills are the ones we are looking for and was cheered on by Zeinab when I correctly point out a large tummayr plant. 

Zeinab digging for tubers.
Zeinab digging for tubers.

Zeinab dug quickly, scanning the area to check on the progress of the boys, who are leading their own expedition with my husband. It seems that this had turned into a contest to see which “team” could find the most. But we are all successful and end up with handfuls of edible tubers! The children remove the skins with their fingernails and hand them to us to eat. The small potato-like tubers are sweet and crunchy. 

Foraging with friends
Foraging with friends

Along the way, the children have also spotted sweet desert onions. They are so quick to dig these up that I never see what the plant looks like when it is still rooted in the earth. The onions, possibly an Allium species, are sweeter and juicier than the tummayr. And easier to reach as they are not buried so deep in the rocky ground.

Handful of collected onions and tubers.
Handful of collected onions and tubers.

We returned to camp to share our foraged goodies with the other adults at camp, but they showed little interest in eating our treats. It seems foraging with friends is a childhood habit, something to entertain them during the long days in the desert. How lucky I am to have such amazing young friends!

Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.
Flowers of Erodium crassifolium.

Hyena’s Fart ~ Desert Mushroom

Podaxis pistillaris

The Bedouin of Sinai call this desert mushroom (Podaxis pistillaris) “hyena’s fart” in Arabic because they seem to appear out of nowhere, just like the hyenas (used to) do. And they do indeed pop up suddenly! But their spores, which can live for many years without water, have been there all along, under the desert sands, waiting for rain.

It was the Spring of 2014, after a very wet winter, that we spotted scores of these mushrooms dotting the sandy desert plains. A relative of the puffballs, this mushroom, sometimes called a Black Powderpuff, can grow up to 15 – 20 cm high. It has a large white cap that protects the inner blackish tissue. This tissue contains the spores, and when the mushroom reaches maturity, the cap will split open and fall away, allowing the spores to be dispersed by the wind.

Other common names in English for this mushroom include Desert Shaggy Mane and False Shaggy Mane.

Desert Thumb

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Cynomorioum – Wikipedia

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

Striped Hawkmoth

I promised – to those of you follow on Facebook – that my next post would be about this magnificent critter that I found on a basil plant in my garden –

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– as he was indeed the inspiration for getting back to work on this blog, and so today is all about…hawkmoths!

Unfortunately, I do not know – yet! – exactly who this bright green caterpillar is, but I do know that he (or she) is in the Sphingidae family of moths. Moths in this family are commonly called hawkmoths, sphinx moths, or hornworms.

There are over 1,450 species of Sphingidae moths. The larvae, or caterpillars, of hawkmoths are hairless and have a “horn” on the posterior end.

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Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

And while I do not know which caterpillar was munching on my basil plant, I do know who was bending over backwards to eat the tips of desert lavender. That is a larva of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica.

It was early spring 2013 and we had had a wet winter in Dahab. There had even been a hail storm in November. So the desert plants were flourishing in the wadis!

On one early morning wander, we came across an area lush with fresh green asphodel, lavender, and sorrel. And crawling across the sandy wadi were the most amazing caterpillars I had seen in Sinai! Dozens of them. Some of the largest were as long and thick as my index finger. They were happily munching on all the nearby herbs.

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Like all caterpillars, these Striped Hawkmoth larvae go through several stages of development, or instars, and their colors and patterns can change quite dramatically at each stage.

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Hawkmoth caterpillars will burrow into the soil or gravel or hide among the rocks to pupate and I have never seen that stage of development. But about a month after we saw the caterpillars, we discovered the adult Striped Hawkmoths. They were busy feeding on the dhafrah (Iphiona scabra) flowers.

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Sphingidae moths are known for their rapid flight and ability to hover in midair while they feed. They use their long proboscis (mouth parts) to reach the nectar in the flowers. Male moths are typically smaller than females. Both are beige with white stripes. Their hindwings, not seen when the wings are at rest, are pink and edged with black and white.

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a Striped Hawkmoth, attracted to the light in the tent during a spring safari

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Dahab was blessed recently with several good rainstorms and young desert plants are already poking their heads through the sand. Let’s hope the plants start to thrive again and that we have beautiful green wadis to wander through this coming spring. The butterflies and moths would be happy with that, too!

References:

Striped hawkmoth ~ ARKive

Hyles livornica ~ Moth and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa

Hyles livornica ~ Wikipedia