Wild plants of the Sinai
The Sinai might be a desert, but its high mountains support rich scatterings of plants. About 800 different species are found here – near half Egypt’s total – with many originating in faraway places like Iran and Afghanistan. Some are endemic; found only in the Sinai. Every bit of life in the desert was precious for the Bedouin and they experimented and re-experimented with the plants, getting to know their uses and dangers. Today, each one has one use or other for the Bedouin. Below is a short list of the most common, useful plants. But – a word to the wise – some are dangerous and some look similar to dangerous ones. Always double check with the Bedouin and don’t pick yourself.
ZAHROOR – a hardy mountain hawthorn tree, common in rocky gullies and basins. Its small red berries are edible and, although they’re quite mild, a handful still gives a good boost of energy on the move. The Bedouin use some parts of the tree as medicine for chest and heart problems.
MIRR – a small, light green shrub with leaves that look like little combs. In flower, it has small yellow buds. It’s rare outside the Sinai, but it grows plentifully in high mountain basins here. It has a beautiful scent and the Bedouin boil it in water as a solution for itchy, irritated skin.
ZILLA – a ubiquitous thornbush that flowers purple in spring. If you’re travelling with a camel, this makes great food. And if you want a real Sinai souvenir, do what the Bedouin do and use it to make a small, prison-type tattoo, heating its thorns in the fire and pricking the skin.
HOMATH – my favourite mountain plant, this grows in wadis and mountain basins, coming into red-pink flower in spring. It’s green leaves are edible and make a refreshing, sharp, lemony snack in the hot sun. You can chop them up for salads too but don’t eat too many as they’re quite acidic.
SAKRAAN – this grows widely as a small bush, with purpely-white flowers. They have powerful hallucinogenic effects – and not in a good way. This plant’s poisonous and can kill. DO NOT EAT! The name means ‘drunk’ in Arabic and the Bedouin sometimes use it as a tranquilizer for troublesome camels.
HABAG – a type of wild mint (‘horsemint’), common in high wadis, basins and gullies. You’ll often smell it before you see it and it usually grows in damp places. If you need water, it’s sometimes a good sign it’s close. It’s edible and the Bedouin use it to flavour sweet tea in the mountains.
RABIL – a shrub that blooms with small, yellow flowers in spring. It’s common in lower mountain wadis and has a beautiful scent. Many Bedouin collect clumps just to hang in cars, or above the doors of their homes. Apparently, an infusion can also be made to reduce high blood pressure.
NABUG – nabug is a tree that grows in mountains wadis. It has a red, cherry-sized fruit that’s edible, and which you can pick off the branches in early spring; actually though, the hard, dry fruit that’s fallen to the ground is tastier, so go for this. As far as trail food goes, dry nabug is a delicacy.
SAMWA – samwa is a small shrub that’s common in lowland wadis. It has sticky leaves, with a menthol scent. The Bedouin often put it in hot water to use as mouthwash on the trail. It’s said to have antiseptic properties too and can be used to treat stings, cuts, grazes and other minor injuries.
SAYAL – the classic desert thorn tree, found in lowland wadis. It’s known as the acacia in English. Camels love eating this and you can use its thorns as toothpicks, needles and other sharp tools. Acacia charcoal is some of the finest in the world for smoking shisha and it’s sold in the markets of Cairo.
HAMAAT – a wild fig tree, common in the mountains. This is the tastiest wild fruit available on the trail; you’re welcome to pick it but you’ll be lucky to find any. Virtually everyone else has the same idea and, being so popular, it’s usually picked and eaten well before it’s fully ripe.
ZANZABIL – known as rosemary in English, this isn’t actually a wild plant; the Bedouin grow it in their high mountain gardens. It’s used mostly as a flavouring for tea; sometimes it’s added with habag – wild mint – for a tasty herbal cocktail. It can be a seasoning for foods too.
BAYTHERAN – a small bush that grows in both the mountains and deserts. It has crumbly, beaded leaves and a strong menthol scent. It’s an important plant for the Bedouin and a common remedy for stomach upsets and diarrhea. You put about a teaspoon of the leaves in hot water and let it brew.
BARDAGOOSH – better known as ‘sage’ in English, this plant is endangered in the Sinai today. The Bedouin used it more in the past than they do today; it was usually boiled in hot water with a little sugar to give a herbal infusion in the mountains; it could also be used as a flavouring for normal black tea.