Methuselah’s breakfast: An all flower bearing parasite plant of the desert

Text and picture: Dr. SS Suresh

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Desert hyacinth
Desert hyacinth

I was in one of my routine birding expedition, one fine evening in February, the coldest month and the best season to explore the deserts, especially Al Qabil, which is at the edge of the vast Wahiba Desert, located on the North-West of Oman. I started off this routine with a specific target for the Thick-knee bird (Karwan in Arabic), a bird with long legs and bulging eyes, as recommended by one of my Omani Colleagues who had spotted it a week ago. My long hours of search in the vast sandy planes and dunes were disappointing, as there was no trace of the bird. Nevertheless, I was engrossed in the extremely alluring and overwhelming beauty of the vast golden sands and dunes around me and the clear bluish sky with flying silver clouds above my head. Suddenly, a golden yellow flower protruding out of the sands grabbed my attention. I knelt down to have a closer look at the stunning bright yellow desert flora. The sight of it was startling and it mesmerized me.

Desert hyacinth (Cistanche tubulosa) also known as fox radish or Ginseng of the desert (Thanoon in Arabic) is a parasitic desert shrub. This plant lacks chlorophyll, as it has no green coloration. It gets its nutrients from host plants, through a tiny root that extends for several meters from the underground tuber. Only the inflorescence of the plant grows above the ground from December to March, with a colorful dense pyramid of funnel shaped bright yellow flowers. Its fruits have lots of fine seeds, but they remain dormant for years until the favorable conditions to germinate occur. This exemplifies the inter-dependence of nature, where organisms interact with each other for all to survive. This plant requires severe environmental conditions to grow with large temperature differences, intense sunshine and receiving as little as 20 cm of rainfall in a year.

The Chinese knew the medicinal properties of this plant and they had used it in many of their indigenous treatment methods for over 2000 years. As reported, its cultivation in China has increased recently. Due to its great medicinal properties, floral extracts of this flower are used as medical remedy for chronic renal disease, female infertility and erectile dysfunction. The traditional Chinese medicine system describes this plant as the Ginseng of the Desert. The products made from this plant are indexed in Chinese Pharmacopeia as they have medical properties and the presence of multiple chemical constituents. Empirical evidences support that the extract of the plant significantly improves human cognitive ability, particularly to store and recall memory. They also have a positive effect on male hormone production and thereby enhances male fertility. Furthermore, an article in the Frontiers of Pharmacology substantiates the antioxidant, neuroprotective and anti-aging properties of this plant. The active ingredient of this plant has three main biological functions and they help to improve the brain functions, increase immune boosting and have aphrodisiac effect. In certain parts of Africa the tuber is often dried into a powder and taken along with camel’s milk.

It is reported that regular consumption of this plant products in certain regions of China and Japan has been the reason for longevity, and hence they are also called Methuselah’s breakfast for its use in increasing longevity amongst traditional medicine practitioners. Methuselah is the (grandfather of Noah), the longest-lived human on planet earth, that is, 969 years as per the Holy Bible. Hence, anything that increase longevity is synonymized with this biblical character. Desert hyacinth is facing existential threats due to over exploitation for its medicinal properties causing its extinction in near future. Concerted efforts of environmentalists and concerned authorities are the need of the hour to protect and preserve this astounding beauty of the desert, for generations to come.

(The author is the Senior Consultant & Head of Orthopedics, Ibri Regional Referral Hospital)

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