Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tamarisk Beauty

Unless one is partial to dry, dusty foliage and the colors brown and grey-green, one must look intently to find autumn beauty in the Middle East. And, that looking is best done in the early morning hours, before the midday day heat and city commotion dulls one's perception of beauty.

Our family practice of jogging three mornings a week affords me the opportunity to enjoy the early morning stillness and coolness in which beauty is more likely to be found. A couple of weeks ago, as we were out for a morning jog, my husband described a small tree to me which we pass at least four times every time we run. I hadn't noticed it before but it caught my husband's eye as it was covered with dew which glistened in the light of the newly risen sun. Dew in Jordan in September is notable.

Even before I saw the plant, I guessed that he had seen a tamarisk tree because of his mention of dew and because of what I remembered learning from my botany professor, Dr. Lytton Musselman, about the tamarisk tree.

I told Dear Husband that I predicted the dew would be salty. It was. Very. I remembered Dr. Mussleman describing the way the tamarisk tree, which is found along the Dead Sea, absorbs salt from the saline soil in which it thrives. Its scale-like leaves secrete this salt. The salt absorbs water at night, which evaporates soon after the sun rises, and in doing so, provides cooler air beneath its branches, making the tamarisk a desirable shade tree for desert dwellers.

It also provides some early autumn morning beauty in an otherwise arid landscape.

The tamarisk is mentioned a few times in the Old Testament; it is first mentioned Genesis 21:33:

"Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God." (English Standard Version)

Pulling Dr.Mussleman's book, Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh, Plants of the Bible and the Quran

 from my bookshelf, I found more interesting information about the tamarisk tree:

  • The hard durable trunks of the  tarmarisk were used in the fortification of Masada.
  • King Saul held court under a tamarisk (I Samuel 22:6) and was buried under a tamarisk (I Samuel 31:13). 
  • The tamarisk is mentioned in the Qu'ran in reference to a judgement which leads to desertification (Sura 34:15-16, Ali).
And here is an interesting article as to why the tamarisk, with its affinity for alkaline soils and incredibly long taproots, is an unwelcome stranger in the western United States. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Case of Mistaken Identity

This crimson flower beautifies many a Jordanian hill and field in the early weeks of spring. Often referred to as a poppy, it is, in fact, a crown anemone (pronounced "an'a mo nee" or "a ne'mo nee"--I use the first pronunciation for the flower and the second for the sea creature of the same name), a member of the Ranunculaceae family.

Family~ Ranunculaceae
Anemone coronaria

Though the blooming time of the anemone and the poppy overlap I have found that in many places, the anemone blooms first, the poppy, later. There are other ways the casual observer can distinguish between the anemone and the poppy: the leaf of the anemone is divided, giving it a more feathery appearance. Secondly, the petals of both flowers are arranged differently; if one observes the bud of of an anemone one notices that the petals are layered in an orderly fashion, however the petals of a poppy appear as crumpled red tissue, wadded inside the poppy pod. Also, poppies contain a milky juice not found in anemones. Less noticeable differences include the fact that anemones are perennials, poppies, annuals, and poppies can be found in drier habitats than anemones.

Family~ Ranunculaceae
Anemone coronaria

Two more common members of the showy Ranunculaceae family:

Adonis aestivalis


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lilies of the Field

(first posted on March 28, 2007)

"...Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Matthew 6:29-30

Asphodeline lutea

It has been a busy couple of weeks. Last week I was Camping Mom as we prepared for and went camping in Wadi Dana this week I am Baseball Mom raised to the third power with three children playing on three different teams, one son assistant coaching, and dear husband, coaching (loves it) and serving as the Baseball Commissioner. But, when it is spring in Jordan, there is no time to waste; one must get outside and drink in all the beauty of creation before it takes on its summer form: dry,brown, and hard. So, between phone calls, emails, a trip to the music conservatory, correcting Latin, and trying to prepare for a class, I called to my youngest child to take a brief walk with me; I thought I had spied a few clumps of lilies in a field at the end of our block (West Amman, near the American Community School).

As we came up over the raised, barren part of the field, the part that could be seen from the road, we were amazed to behold the lower part of the field, filled with beautiful lilies, Asphodelus aestivus and Asphodeline lutea, to be exact.

Asphodeline lutea and Asphodelus aestivus

Though the Asphodels are lilies which are commonly found in fields and in the countryside, I had never seen such a mass of them in the suburbs. Alas, these too will likely eventually be uprooted as new buildings are going up all the time in our neighborhood. Youngest daughter suggested that we dig up some lilies to replant in our garden in an effort to preserve their beauty. Not a bad idea--though never uproot wildflowers in the countryside!

Though it was only about 20 minutes, our time in the field, marveling and enjoying the beauty of God's creation was the highlight of our day. We even met a nearly meter long gray grass snake on our visit to the field and just missed stepping on it, which gave youngest daughter an exciting story to tell her brother upon our return home.

Update 2012: The Asphodels will soon be blooming in the Kingdom so watch for them in the vacant lots and fields of Amman.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tulipa agenensis

(first posted March 21, 2007)

Though the Dutch have brought fame to this flower of stately and enigmatic beauty, the tulip is native to the Middle East, not Holland, and takes its name from the Turkish word for turban, an allusion to the tulip’s turban shaped bloom.

Wildflower spotting: Gilead (Jil'ad)

Tulipa agenensis, the most common of Jordan’s three species of indigenous tulips (though not too common—I’ve only seen a handful) blooms in early spring and hails from Jordan’s northern mountains and forests.

Family~ Liliaceae
Tulipa agenensis

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Most Graceful Flower

(first posted March 18, 2007)

My favorite early spring flower is the wild cyclamen, known in Arabic as “horns of the gazelle” for the petals of the flower which bend back to give the impression of horns. Additionally, the flower of the cyclamen is born on a long, gracefully bent stem, another resemblance to the indigenous gazelle, known for its graceful appearance and movements. (It is also known as “soap of the shepherd”. Not nearly as poetic and I’m not sure why it is so named. )

At home in the shady mountains and forests of northern Jordan, cyclamen is often found growing near rocks, the corms from which they grow being secured between the crevices, protecting them from the ever present danger of grazing by sheep and goats. The leaves of this beautiful plant are edible and in days past they were harvested to make “mahshi”, a traditional Arabic dish of vegetables or leaves stuffed with rice and meat.

All the cyclamen I have seen in Jordan, until our trip to Gilead last Sunday, had pink-mauve flowers as in the specimen pictured below:

Cyclamen persicum

However, in the same field I also found a more vibrant pink cyclamen and a near white cyclamen, tipped in bright pink. These were the freshest cyclamen with the most profuse blooms I have ever seen and almost made me suspect they are some sort of hybrid introduced to the area, though I can’t imagine who would have done that.

Wildflower spotting, February 2012
Though these cyclamen were spotted in early March, this species has already begun blooming around the kingdom--I spotted some in Ajloun and Um Qais in late December.

Flowering Jordan

(first posted March 13, 2007)

When one lives in a land where the rains diminish in March and cease sometime in April, a land in which the late spring landscape is browned by hot dusty winds which blow in from east, one must celebrate the advent of spring with at least a couple trips to the countryside. Must! And thus we did this weekend, driving 40 minutes west to the oak covered hills of Gilead.

My springtime joy is getting out to visit the wildflowers. Yes, visit. They all have names, you know. One serendipitous spring, eight years ago, I had the privilege of taking a plant taxonomy class from Fulbright Professor Lytton Musselman , an enthusiastic botanist who studies and writes on ethnobotany and plants of the Holy Land, while he was teaching at Jordan University. Coinciding with my class was a spring of copious rainfall. The wildflowers bloomed profusely and I was able to create an herbarium of over 100 specimens. For a couple of months I had just about every large book in our flat pressing specimens on the dining room table.

I was surprised to learn that because Jordan is at the crossroads of three continents, it enjoys great biodiversity and, in fact, has some of the most diverse flora of any place in the world. Although nearly 80 percent of the nation is desert, there are more than 2,500 plant species and several distinct ecosystems.

This year I won't be collecting specimens but I will enjoy searching out my wildflower friends--not only do they all have names, they are all members of families-and I will attempt to capture some of their beauty with my camera. Our trip to the hills of Gilead provided an opportunity to visit many old friends, and I even made one new one, a lone orchid plant growing under a wild oak tree. This was the first time I had seen this species:

Wildflower spotting: Orchis collinis, Gilead (Jil'ad)

Stay tuned for more flora pictures...