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Super Fruits

A research study finds that Boot and Hegimt could play a more important role in agriculture of Oman

Photos by Dr Eric Hopkins

Boot has been traditionally part of the attraction while visiting the mountain areas of Oman, but these fruit bearing shrubs could have more significance according to a latest study.

Sideroxylon mascatense has been the focus of PhD research by Dr Eric Hopkins, at Department of Plant Sciences, College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University. According to Dr Hopkins, it is a super fruit yet to be recognised in the global or local markets.

A wild fruit-producing plant belonging to the family Sapotaceae, Sideroxylon mascatense or Boot is found at high altitudes in Oman as in the case of western part of Al Hajar Mountains, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

“Two fruiting types of S. mascatense are found in Oman, both of which are seasonally harvested by mountain inhabitants and sold in markets as well as along the roadsides. One has purple fruits (Boot) while the other scarcer variety bears fruit yellow brown in colour and is known as Hegimt in Oman.

Health tonic

Both are considered to be of great value. The purple fruit bearing trees are also found in Pakistan and Afghanistan and yellow-brown ones are also found in North Africa. “There is a lot of research on Boot in Pakistan with the variety that is available there, but there is no research on Hegimt as far as nutritional or chemical content. I did a small mineral content analysis, which is yet to be published. These fruits, especially from Oman, have greater nutritional properties than those found in wetter climates as plants under drought stress tend to produce fruit with higher mineral contents and more potent essential oils and alkaloids. From an ethnobotanical aspect it is considered as a health tonic. It has been consumed for a long time in the mountains here and needs to get out into the broader market’’, said Dr Hopkins to the Observer.

He also expressed his gratitude to Sultan Qaboos University for the opportunity to conduct this research and to his supervisor Dr Rashid al Yahyaei for his guidance and support throughout his postgraduate work at SQU,

Commercial potential

Right now, the fruits are harvested in the mountains of Oman. Dr Hopkins is of the opinion that the trees could be cultivated commercially as they are currently underutilized. However, the trees that are located at the higher altitudes are already facing challenges. His study covered an area of 900 square metres. In order to access those areas he hiked 200 km over two summers.

“During those hikes, I found zero juvenile plants. So right now there is no recruitment of this species. In the lower and higher altitude limits of its habitat in Western Hajar Mountains, there is a marked decline. But in the middle areas of the habitat range, such as on Jabal Akhdhar for example Saiq Plateau, the plants are thriving. It is also a dominant feature in the landscapes of Jabal Shams and Jabal Sarat’’, he pointed out.

New fruit crop

According to Hopkins, who completed his Masters and PhD at Sultan Qaboos University and has been in Oman for the last eight years, climate change due to global warming has adverse effects on the agro-ecosystems of mountain regions in marginal climate zones.

As temperatures increase an alternative way to combat the effects of climate change would be to adapt various strategies. “A possible adaptation strategy that agricultural systems could embrace would be selecting new crops that could thrive in the changing ecosystems. In the Western Al Hajar Mountains this could mean a reduction in the cultivation of temperate fruit crops and an increase in cultivation of crops that can tolerate higher temperatures and consume less water. Native plants and underutilized crops could be an alternative to extensive breeding projects and genetically modified crops. Sideroxylon mascatense, a plant native to Oman is one of many such plants’’, writes Eric in his paper on Sideroxylon mascatense — A new crop for high elevation arid climates. But the most important factor would have to be water management.

“An interesting observation is that farmers in the mountains tend to adopt a plant near their farms and take care of it. Someone I spoke to said he goes to water them once a week when it is not raining in the summertime. And they would be able to harvest the yield later. So, there is a definite possibility for commercial cultivation’’, he said.

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