RAY PETERSEN -
A recent 2019 Oman Botanic Expedition ventured into new territory to explore the flowers and plant life of terrains in Northern Oman overlooking the Straits of Hormuz.
Team spokesman, Andrew Stokes-Rees explained that, “By splitting into 4 or 5 teams, we were able to cover an enormous amount and diversity of terrain. Each day we hiked into remote homesteads with their amazing terraced gardens. We talked with those living off the land, identifying which plant species have a place in their daily lives, how they manage and use them, and their seasonal adaptability.”
Known as an ‘ethnobotany,’ research project, Stokes-Rees enthusiastically continued saying, “the best thing was talking to the elders in each family or settlement. Through this, we gathered many generations of knowledge and understanding of this plant life from the practical perspective of cultivation, harvest, collection, processing, preserving, storage, and their end uses. There was also a significant cultural aspect in that we learnt the traditions and background history associated with the plants, such as their names, origins, medicinal or healing properties.”
Musandam, with its towering mountains, its extensive coastline, and topographic complexity provides a unique set of micro-climates, and the researchers were also keen to identify the conservation status, distribution and climatic requirements of a subset of rare and little-researched plants in the region.
Saif al Hatmi is a botanist, ethnobotanist and leads the Oman Botanic Garden’s work in the field. A Sultan Qaboos University graduate, who has since completed a Masters in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent (UK), he said, “The expedition was a great opportunity for my team and I, as it added to our experience, skills and methodologies. We have discovered new research information on plant species distribution in Mussandam —for me finding new records for Salvia and Rosularia was the most amazing outcome of expedition.” Al Hatmi’s main work involves the collection and documentation of plant materials and uses from around the Sultanate, and he found it a rewarding cultural experience working with those from other societies, backgrounds and cultures.
One of those research and expedition colleagues is Simon Phillips, and this was his fourth expedition in Oman concerned with the preservation of the ‘old’ knowledge. He explained, “We learnt a lot about the Sidr tree, or ziziphus spina Christi. It is used in the construction of the local ‘Bait Al Quofo,’ or stone houses, has a berry which is sold in Khasab marketplaces, and produces nectar used by bees to make a rare and flavourful honey. ” He is continually amazed at the diversity of the Musandam flora. These include Musandam’s unique wheat cultivars and other plants like Prunus Arabica, used by the Dhori people for axe and implement handles, the Timi, which has medicinal properties and chewy sweet flowers enjoyed by children, and an antibacterial local Lemongrass.
Working with the locals has drawn immense benefit according to first-time in Oman expedition member and research scientist Gianluca Cerullo, who remarked that, “It was terrific to learn about the traditional and floristic importance of Musandam’s high-altitude terraces and our team got a real sense that locals still care deeply about preserving these systems and Musandam’s rich floristic culture.” A few of the expedition team met with Ali A Dhori, who still practices the old ethnobotanical ways, and identified Dhafra as a plant which can be crushed to poultice fractures or relieve the symptoms of snake bites.
Assisted by the latest technologies, an enthusiastic Omani government, and a dynamic team, this research project is believed to be the most sophisticated yet of a region which has its distinctive Kumzari heritage, and its hybrid Persian/Arabic language. This adds further interest to the project as it adds another element to the unique history, language and culture of Musandam and its plant life, enabling a comprehensive lexicon of plant names and types, both in local and scientific nomenclature.
Cerullo praised the support of the Anglo-Omani Society in making the expedition possible and continued commitment of the OBG, a Diwan of the Royal Court administered institution with the objective of the ongoing research of, and continued conservation, of the Sultanate’s native flora, saying, “Our efforts to record the distributions of these, some of Oman’s rarest flora, will contribute to the conservation of these species, and to ongoing efforts by the botanic gardens to showcase the natural beauty and flora of Oman to the wider scientific community and the nation.”
Photos courtesy of the Oman Botanic Exhibition, Jerome Viard, and Marian Siedentopf.