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Ethnobotanical Studies of Ras Al Khaimah’s Native Flora

The emirate of Ras Al Khaimah is rich in landscapes and shows an astonishingly large diversity of native plant species despite the arid, hot, and nutrient-poor conditions. In a recent study conducted with Chloe MacLaren, I identified seven distinctive vegetation types and more than 300 native plant species. Of these, more than half have been, and in many cases still are, used in everyday life and as a traditional medicine to heal a large number of ailments. However, the ethnobotanical uses of these plants are under threat of disappearing due to climate change, habitat destruction, and lifestyle changes.



Ethnobotany is the study of people and their relationship to plants in regard to their practical and medicinal uses. Many uses are still known and implemented in the UAE, often in combination with modern technologies and treatments. In an ongoing study initiated by the Landscape Agency (Public Services Department, Government of Ras Al Khaimah), my colleagues and I are documenting all known local plant uses to preserve a national heritage that may otherwise be lost. We are using a standardized questionnaire to interview local villagers, tribal leaders, medicinal women, and herbal medicine traders. The study includes participants from all parts of the emirate to compare plant uses geographically (north, east, south, west) and by habitat (mountains, wadis, desert, and coast). Overall, participants have been very forthcoming and happy to participate in this survey, providing insights and sharing numerous tales and stories. With the younger generations showing less interest, occupied by their hectic lives and relying more on modern medicine and practices, the older generation feels their knowledge and traditions are at risk of disappearing. With the continuing trend of urbanization and young people’s decreasing connections to their villages and nature, this study has been a vital step in preserving local plants’ practical and medicinal uses for historical, societal, and scientific reasons.



Depending on the local tribes and which parts of the Emirates they inhabit, different plant species were found and utilized in many different ways. Leaves, roots, shoots, flowers or fruits, would be dried and pounded, boiled, cooked and mashed, made into pastes or tonics, and eaten, drunk, inhaled, or applied on affected body parts.

Calotropis procera (Sodom’s apple) is an excellent example of a native species distributed throughout the Emirates. It is a tall light green shrub with large leaves and covered in velvety hair. Its flowers are white with dark red markings and are visited by many pollinators. While it may be a nuisance to some, spreading vigorously and taking over desert landscapes and plains, it has numerous traditional uses. The contained latex is used to treat wounds and pain and was historically implemented in treating people with paralysis. Furthermore, Calotropis procera’s seeds’ long, silky hair-like appendages – an attribute that helps them spread before germinating – are used to fill cushions or spun into fine fabrics.

Avicennia marina (grey mangrove) is a coastal species adapted to highly saline conditions. It protects the shoreline from erosion and flooding and is a haven for many marine species, fish, turtles, and birds. While the UAE mangroves may seem plentiful, they suffer immensely due to construction, development, and the often unmet need for protection. Not only are they vital carbon sinks, but they have long been an essential source of firewood and were used to produce charcoal. Mangroves are also known worldwide for their medicinal uses, such as astringent or calming tonic, and further research is underway.

Ochradenus arabicus (no common name) is a bright yellow flowering, nearly leafless, spiny shrub that grows on mountains and rocky slopes at high elevations. The unripe fruits were traditionally collected and chewed to relieve digestive issues, and our laboratory studies point towards further active medicinal compounds.



The UAE’s native plants and their traditional knowledge are under threat from multiple sources. Climate change is leading to shifts in plant communities, and changes in habitat conditions, habitat disturbance and destruction, and decreasing population size also endanger species’ survival. These threats are reducing the availability of sufficient, high-quality plant material for collection and use. Furthermore, the uncontrolled collection of large amounts of plants can jeopardize the regeneration of plant populations and lead to extinction in the long run.


Traditionally, ethnobotanical knowledge is passed on verbally from one generation to the next. However, with ongoing modernization and urbanization, changes in lifestyles, and changes in the natural environment, the UAE’s plants and the traditional knowledge associated with them will gradually be lost. It is critical that plant names, their preparation, and uses be accurately documented to preserve this heritage and keep it alive.