Despite war, the desert will blossom


February 16, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

To most Americans, the desert that links Kuwait and Saudi Arabia seems a dreadful place indeed. Television shows us a desolate landscape, seemingly bereft of vegetation. The region appears to be an endless swath of sand, punctuated only by trenches and tank tracks.

Surely flora cannot exist in such a wasteland.

Oh, but it can.

Spring is nigh in the Persian Gulf. Despite all the bombs and missiles, much of the desert is coming to life.

The changes may be startling.

Imagine allied troops marching through colorful pockets of wildflowers, grasses and flowering bulbs. Or a jeep whose wheels are nearly camouflaged by robust-growing asters and "desert daisies."

Botanists familiar with the Saudi-Kuwaiti border area say such plant growth is possible, given the heavy rains that pounded the region last month.

"In years when winter rains are scarce, nothing grows in the spring. But when it rains a lot, the Saudi desert looks like a colorful carpet of yellow, white and purple flowers," said one Arab-American botanist, who asked to remain anonymous.

Under optimal conditions, the flowers will bloom from late-February until April.

"With rich amounts of rain, a number of wildflower plants will reach one foot in height," said the botanist. "In Kuwait, there are areas where you can lay down on the ground in the spring and nobody can see you. In other places, you can hardly see the tires of a jeep."

Plants common to the war zone include wild mustard and various members of the chamomile and sunflower families. The area is also home to several types of borage, primarily yellow and purple-hued flowers.

In addition, a few varieties of irises and lilies are common to the region. (Many flowering bulbs, including tulips, are in fact native to the Middle East. The Dutch only began peddling tulips in the 16th century.)

There are also a number of interesting desert grasses, as well as some spiny vetches, kin to the pea, which are best consumed only by camels.

Altogether, the botanist said, there are nearly 350 species of wildflowers growing along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.

The appearance of such colorful vegetation would certainly boost the morale of allied troops fighting in such a bleak terrain.

"Some of these flowers will really attract the soldiers' attention," said the botanist. "You'll see cameramen showing them on the news.

"Some of the soldiers will probably bring the seeds home, especially the asters and desert daisies."

The botanist predicts the desert flora will survive the war.

"Vehicles and tanks won't eradicate everything," he said. "Many of the species are widespread. We can only pray it's going to be a short war."

The plethora of desert plants does not surprise Dr. Dan Nicolson, botanical curator of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Much of the flora there is a stubborn reminder of a kinder, gentler era in the tumultuous history of the Middle East.

"The desert is much more severe today than it was thousands of years ago," said Mr. Nicolson. "You might say the desert has 'shouldered out.'

"The damask rose, the forefather of many modern roses, came from Syria in an area that today is on the edge of the desert," he said. "And there are some spectacular irises growing in Iraq."

Iran boasts 5,000 species of flowering plants, including the crocus, hyacinth and fritillaria.

"The greatest thing we ever got from the Middle East was bulbs," said Mr. Nicolson.

He never mentioned oil.

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