The Plants Issue


Rima Alsammarae


Order a copy of the November/December 2015 issue here.

‘Plants are the basis of nature and life,’ notes Salma Talhouk, a professor at the American University of Beirut’s department of landscape design. ‘Their importance is appreciated, but the difficulty in conserving them is underestimated.’

From Morocco to Iran, Egypt to the UAE, the plants featured in the current issue of Brownbook provide an in depth reminder of the agricultural fabric of the Middle East. More than just palm trees (though we include those too), the region’s cultural and historical interaction with the plant world is rich and rooted in its ancient civilisations.

And while there are a number of us who might have forgotten the emotional warmth provided by an evergreen, many across the region, from gardeners to botanists, continue to work on preserving the natural world. Talhouk is just one of thousands who dedicate their lives to restoring the beauty of the region’s extensive, green landscape. From prickly cacti that sprout into dozens of round limbs to the sweetly scented jasmine flower, countries across the Middle East and North Africa illustrate great agricultural variation.

In Turkey, for starters, we learn that the tulip was the favoured flower throughout the Ottoman Empire, and even led to ‘tulip mania’ during the early 18th century. According to Selim Karahasanoğlu, assistant professor of Ottoman history at Istanbul Medeniyet University, the tulip was often planted in palace gardens. Its cultural appreciation also seeped into the different corners of the empire, from its prevailing fashion to its growing Sufi community – decorating the gravestones of many.

The tulip isn’t the only regional plant revered for its beauty – the lotus, jasmine and Damask rose are also greatly appreciated for their appearance and scent. And while all three can be used in recipes, others like the grape vine and the pomegranate are more sought after to complete many Middle Eastern dishes.

From Mediterranean countries like Lebanon to more mountainous regions like Kurdistan, the grape vine is a welcomed tree among the region’s alpines. Beloved for its grapes and leaves, the grape vine has long provided sustenance for cultural growth – lending to various stuffed-leaves recipes across the Arab world.

This issue also takes a slightly unexpected turn and delves into the weirder side of things, with plants like the voodoo lily and the dragon’s blood tree – named for the crimson red sap that oozes from its broken branches. Native to the Yemeni island of Socotra, the dragon’s blood tree is a sort of botanical phenomenon that grows nowhere else in the world.

‘Among Socotrans and Yemenis, the tree is also known as dam al-akhawain, which translates to “the blood of two brothers”,’ says Sadeq Al-Hamdani, a Yemeni herbalist. ‘According to one legend, once upon a time, a man killed his brother and this tree grew from the latter’s grave.’

The story of the brothers is just one example of how intertwined mythology is with the study of plants. Other legends, like those relating to the lotus, have also given way to various tales regarding the birth of existence. It seems fitting to come across such fables that note a plant’s centuries-long presence – they serve as confirmation of Talhouk’s words – grounding plants with the start of life.

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