Desert plants hold medical remedies

Nick's Garden Some of the UAE's most common trees have been used for centuries to treat a host of ailments.

Meswak toothpaste uses an herb from the miswak shrub, the stems of which can be used as a toothbrush.
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Perhaps I'd led a sheltered life but I had never seen a tube of miswak-flavoured toothpaste before I came to the UAE.

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When I first saw a tube in the supermarket, a closer look revealed that miswak was actually Salvadora persica, a shaggy, rather untidy shrub that I'd seen growing along the desert roads between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. The idea of using toothpaste made from the landscape was too intriguing to resist, and I immediately popped a tube into my shopping trolley to take home and try.

Although I didn't realise it at the time, this was my introduction to the important role that plants play not only in traditional Arab medicine but also in Islam. Using chewed and softened roots and stems as toothbrushes, or siwak as they are known in Arabic, actually predates Islam, but in using siwak, Muslims are able to follow the example of the Prophet Mohammed, who was, according to the hadith, a firm supporter of its use.

The extent to which the use of siwak became associated with the Prophet Mohammed can be seen in the traditional Algerian name siwak al Nabi, or siwak of the Prophet, for the tree from which it was harvested. The efficacy of Salvadora persica in traditional medicine has been supported by recent research, which showed that the plant has significant analgesic, anti-inflammatory and blood clotting properties.

Traditional Arab and Islamic medicine has long been recognised alongside Chinese, Ayurvedic and western herbalism as one of the world's four great medical traditions.

A recent rise in the popularity of herbal remedies, coupled with increased environmental awareness, has resulted in renewed efforts to protect and research plants whose potential therapeutic value is yet to be fully understood.

An official announcement is expected at the Liwa Date Festival establishing an Emirate-wide seed bank to help protect Abu Dhabi's flora from habitat destruction and climate change. One of the key functions of the seed bank will be to provide material that will allow researchers to establish the medicinal properties of native species.

Meanwhile, the Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine has been working with the World Health Organization for several years and has recently published scientific research detailing the therapeutic potential of species including Neurada procumbens, Calligonum comosum, Portulaca oleraceae and even the commercial date palm, Phoenix dactylifera.

There is a traditional Arabic saying that there are as many uses for the date palm as there are days in the year. The palm has been cultivated for millennia, and its fruit has long been understood as a rich source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Date seeds are also an excellent sources of dietary fibre. They contain considerable amounts of minerals, beneficial fats and protein.

Traditional herbal medicine has used both dates and date seeds, as well as the palm's gummy sap, in the treatment of everything from coughs and colds to asthma, diarrhoea and even cancer. Dates have also been regarded as an aphrodisiac, contraceptive, laxative and diuretic.

While this might all seem too good to be true, recent studies have shown that the fruit possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, gastric and liver-protective properties. Its potential as an antiviral agent has also meant that Phoenix dactylifera extract is being investigated as a possible component in experimental vaccines for HIV.

Though not as ubiquitous or recognisable as the date palm, the sidr, or Zizyphus spina-christi, is one of the most commonly planted trees in the UAE. It is renowned for its toughness and its ability to resist heat and drought. A tropical evergreen of Sudanese origin, Zizyphus spina-christi has been used for wood and as a source of food and medicine since at least Egypt's pharaonic period.

The tree is also highly respected by Muslims, being mentioned twice in the Quran. It is identified as the tree of the seventh heaven and the last tree, named Sidrat al Muntaha, reached by the Prophet Mohammed when he ascended to paradise. For this reason, some Muslims believe it is lucky to sit under the tree. In certain parts of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq there was a tradition of washing dead bodies with water in which Zizyphus leaves had been soaked because the water was believed to have preservative qualities.

With such an illustrious pedigree, it is perhaps not surprising that various parts of the tree have been used to treat a host of ailments throughout the Arab world. These range from the use of root powder as a general pain killer and treatment for toothache, arthritis and bruises, to the use of the fruit, seeds and leaves in hot drinks as a means of soothing labour pains, burns, diarrhoea and stomach ache. The fruits of a closely related species, Zizyphus jujube, are also widely used in traditional Chinese and Korean medicine, where they are believed to alleviate stress.

That three of the most common trees in the UAE should have effective medicinal properties may come as a surprise, but it bodes well for Abu Dhabi's new seed bank. It is estimated that there are anywhere between 400 and 600 indigenous plant species in the UAE, and if even a fraction of these were found to have therapeutic potential, it might just provide the commercial imperative needed to kick-start serious native species growing programmes. Not only would this benefit traditional medicine in the UAE, but it also might provide a truly local, sustainable and distinctive palette with which to plant Abu Dhabi's parks, gardens and public spaces, a much needed tonic for the nation.

Ask Nick: A neighbour's cat is using my garden and potted plants as a litter tray. Will this harm them and is there anything I can do to deter it?

Cat urine leaves an unpleasant smell in the garden, and plants and turf that are repeatedly exposed to it may die because of the high levels of nitrogen it contains. Cat faeces can also pose health risks, particularly to the unborn human foetus, so wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up.

Ask your neighbour to place an extra litter tray in their garden to see if this helps and try deterring the cats from your own by covering your pots and beds with a horizontal layer of chicken wire with holes cut for your plants to poke through. This can then be dressed with a layer of pebbles or mulch.

Garden buy: Hand-painted bird houses

Give visiting birds a stylish - and ethical - place to shelter. These colourful bird houses are supplied by Fairwind, one of the first fair trade gift retailers and campaigners in the UK. Made from metal and available in red, green and light blue, the bird houses are hand-painted in Kashmir, providing local artisans with much-needed employment. The bird houses measure 13cm x 12cm x 16cm. Dh94,