Like tiny firecrackers, wildflowers, grasses and shrubs burst their heads up towards the desert's warm sun, making quite a show in the process. In the wadis (dry river beds) between the dunes, annuals sprout following the winter rains. Bright yellow, deep lavender, pale pink, striking magenta, cornflower blue and pearl white are just some of the vibrant colors that decorate the endless beige carpet of sand. Welcome to springtime in the desert. It is a surprisingly colorful time of year.
Several hundred varieties of indigenous flora thrive on the flat sandy plains of the Kingdom's deserts. In the central and western deserts, for example, acacia trees, with their bright yellow flowers and green leaves, dot the landscape. This tree's very long roots reach water from subterranean sources beyond the grasp of other plants. The ghaf tree is similar in appearance to the acacia. Its elongated pods provide fodder for animals, and its leaves were used instead of rice before this grain became available. The majority of plants, however, are small, colorful annuals or shrubs that have adapted to the harsh heat and drought of the desert by storing water in their fleshy stems or roots buried deep in the sand.
Among the earliest desert bloomers are members of the Goosefoot family, which begin to appear in February. The Yellow Broomrape, a root parasite, does particularly well in the desert. Its thick stems resemble giant asparagus, until bright yellow flowers tipped in pale pink open to reveal their beauty. The Yellow Broomrape is believed by the Bedouins to be poisonous, and they even consider it harmful to smell.
Another common variety of desert wildflower is the echinops spinosissimus, or Thorny-headed Globe Thistle. Long skinny stems support round prickly heads on these plants. Despite their thorny heads, insects and bees are not deterred and can be found visiting these flowers. They grow abundantly in the Kingdom's deserts.
Numerous varieties of wildflowers animate the desert in springtime. Acacia trees (top) provide shade, and are a food source for camels and other animals.
Also plentiful in the wadis are vibrant purple beds of wild Iris. These flowers tend to bloom early and peak at the end of February. Their delicate flowers open at mid-day if the weather is agreeable. If it is cloudy or wet, they remain closed. Another wadi bloom is the bright red or pale pink Bladder Dock, a member of the Buckwheat family. The leaves have a lemony taste and are often used in salads.
Such flowers are not only lovely to look at, they work to protect and preserve the desert. With such a significant portion of its topography taken up by deserts, Saudi Arabia has experimented with controlling shifting sands by introducing plant species that help to stabilize the soil and keep it from encroaching on oases and farms.
Traditionally, the desert ecosystem has provided both animals and humans with food. Passing camels and goats graze on the shrubs and eat the leaves of the trees. A perennial, dwarf shrub that provides natural salts that camels need is the rhanterium epapposum. Its long roots reach down into the earth in search of water. During the very hottest months, the plant dries out, but a tiny thread of live tissue survives in the root stock, ready to expand and regenerate when conditions improve. These plants tend to grow on open plains or rocky hillsides.
Flashfloods in the desert (above), give way to abundant fields of wildflowers, such as the echinops spinosissimus, a member of the Daisy family (top).
Much like the rhanterium epapposum, many of the plants that grow in the dry Saudi climate have adapted themselves to these unique surroundings. A large number of plants produce well-protected seeds that, in some cases, can remain dormant for many seasons and then, when there is enough rain or the weather cools, they germinate and sprout. Some species of desert vegetation are endemic species - those found only in a particular area and nowhere else.
Several wild plant species are edible. The neurada procumbens, a tiny annual that belongs to the Rose family, is especially popular both with camels and their Bedouin masters. While the flower is small, its rather large seed cases are the source of a sweet juice prized by man and beast alike. Reichardia tingitana, a member of the Daisy family, is used by the Bedouins as a salad green, much like we use lettuce.
Resourceful Bedouins have also derived medicines from the wide variety of shrubbery in the desert. The heliotropium ramosissimum, a member of the Forget-me-not or Borage family, is customarily boiled in water and used as a mouth wash to relieve sore gums and mouth blisters. Other roots, herbage and flowers are used to alleviate head-aches, rashes and upset stomachs.
Since ancient times, the teucrium polium, a member of the Mint family, has been known for its fever-curing properties. Growing in the wadis, this plant is entirely covered with a protective fuzz and has tiny white flowers which bloom between April and July. Other uses for it include as a purgative and in the treatment of cholera and malaria.
In February, members of the Goosefoot family begin to poke their colorful heads through the sandy floor (top). By late spring, the desert is awash in color when blooms reach their crescendo (above).
Desert flora is also used as a medicinal compound to treat sick animals. The abundant milkweed or calotropis, produces a white, latex-like juice when cut. Its toxic properties are said to cure camel mange.
In addition to providing food and medicine, desert blooms have been used as a source of dye for wool and as cosmetics. Bedouin women favor the arnebia, a plant with a reddish-colored root, for rouge. The woolly stems of the aerva javanica were at one time used by the resourceful villagers in the Hijaz to stuff pillows and camel saddles.
As certain as the sandstorms that sweep through the deserts is the knowledge that springtime will see the rebirth of the many varieties of flowers and vegetation that grow haphazardly along the flat stretches of sand and up from the wadis.