Ghaf: A look at the importance of UAE's national tree

Ghaf: A look at the importance of UAEs national tree

On World Environment Day we look at the importance of the desert ghaf, the national tree of the UAE.

By Nivriti Butalla

Published: Sat 6 Jun 2015, 12:38 AM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:09 PM

A tree of all seasons and climes...the ghaf tree. — Photo by Shihab

Dubai — Everyone is planting ghaf trees. Last week an appliance manufacturer pledged to plant 5,000 ghaf trees in one year and partnered with a local organisation that plants ghaf trees. A retail distributor brand joined the appliance manufacturer brand and they planted the first 100 seeds in May at a nursery close to the Arabian Ranches.

On a Saturday morning in May 2013, at the same nursery, some 2,939 ghaf trees were planted by employees and families of a company that makes cameras and camera lenses.

In May this year, reforestation in the UAE got a shot in the arm with the UAE committed to plant a further 1,000 ghaf trees at sites chosen by Dubai Municipality.

In accordance with this plan, in February at Al Warsan Landfill, 100 ghaf seeds were sown. The second lot of planting took place in Jebel Ali Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility; this time 200 ghaf trees. The plantation drive had the support of the Dubai Municipality.

One reason for the very much in vogue plantation drive is that in 2008 the ghaf was declared the national tree of the UAE. A drought-tolerant, evergreen tree native to the desert, the ghaf is a resilient plant and good for the soil and requires little water. Difficult to harvest though as only one in 5,000 seeds take root — insects get at them.

Illegal to cut a ghaf

Since groves of ghaf trees in recent years were mowed down due to urbanisation and rapid infrastructure development, it is now illegal to cut down a ghaf. You need permission from the authorities. If a ghaf is in the way of more buildings coming up, the tree is uprooted and transplanted elsewhere where it will survive.

CSR bandwagon

The template is familiar. A company as part of its CSR policy rounds up its employees and sounds off the media that they’re doing something good and grand so come and witness the sowing of the seed. Over the last couple of years, planting ghaf has become a CSR trend. Every planting season, more than a dozen companies have a few of their employees —  sometimes with families kneel into the soil and plant a few seeds into the ground. Often school children join the drive.

In 2011, Goumbook, the local online green portal, launched the “Give a Ghaf” Tree Planting Programme — their planting season is October through May — to raise awareness about the ghaf and water scarcity, and how little water the ghaf needs to survive.

But despite active PR machinery that makes ghaf planting about the planter rather than the need to plant, and despite the lack of self-effacement on the part of these companies, fact remains we need more ghaf.

Ghaf cakes

“I have the honour of working for Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and we too are planting thousands of ghaf trees in our projects, along with other specific desert plants, to save water and ensure continuity by protecting the existing environment”, says Dr Mari Rossi, landscape architecture manager at the office of  the Crown Prince of Dubai, also a doctor in Agronomy, Forestry, Tropical Agriculture. Dr Rossi said: “Old Emiratis I have spoken with have told me their elders would use the bark for rheumatism. Although recommended for scorpion sting and snakebite, the plant has not proved itself on that count”.

Their pods though, he explains, are used as vegetables in the dried and green form “in many parts of the Middle East all the way to India. In the past during food shortages lives were spared, using the sweetish bark as a food. It was ground into flour and made into cakes”. He says, while a palm tree that everyone hails as iconic needs 180 litres of water a day, the ghaf needs only 10 litres. And roots of other trees go down to two metres on average, the ghaf can go deeper than even 30 metres.

Uses of ghaf

> Fodder: The leafy portion is available for 4-5 months (June-October), during which it is used as dry fodder for animals and is sometimes mixed with animal feed.

> Fuel: The scanty, purplish brown heartwood is preferred to other kinds for firewood. It is an excellent fuel, also giving high-quality charcoal (5,000 kcal/kg), hence the species name.

> Timber: Wood used for boat frames, houses, posts and tool handles; often the poor form of unimproved trees limits use as timber.

> Gum or resin: The tree yields a pale to amber-coloured gum with properties similar of gum acacias.

> Tannin or dyestuff: Bark and leaf galls used for tanning.

> Medicine: Reported to be astringent, demulcent, and pectoral, it is a folk remedy for various ailments. In India, the flowers are mixed with sugar and administered to prevent miscarriage.

The ashes are sometime rubbed over the skin to remove hair. The bark, considered anthelmintic, refrigerant, and tonic, is used for asthma, bronchitis, dysentery, leucoderma, leprosy, muscle tremors, piles, and wandering of the mind. Smoke from the leaves is suggested for eye troubles, but the fruit is said to be indigestible, inducing biliousness, and destroying nails and hair.

Not recommended. The pods are astringent.

> Reclamation: The trees are planted for sand dune stabilisation and reclamation. Soil improvement through ashes and nitrogen fixing, favouring the growth of other species. It is a fact that the soil fertility increases under its canopy.

>  Intercropping: Owing to the deep root system, a mono-layered canopy and the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, P.cineraria is compatible with agri-horticultural crops.

The tree boosts the growth and productivity of the companion plants. Besides, it does not compete for moisture with crop plants, which may be grown close to its trunk.

Tips for planting:

> Plant the trees away from walls — three metres is acceptable.

> Check for the right depth you can reach when digging.

> Check for utilities nearby, (and ask if not sure).

> Prepare an adequate site well proportioned, the size of the root ball.

> Provide some fertiliser in the specific area, before and after planting the ghaf; water once per week, distribute water also away from the trunk to favour the explorative nature of the trees roots (a circle 50cm and 1 metre away); best if done at night or in the early hours of the morning.

> Dont prune it until completely established, remember that trees are self-equilibrating dynamic structures, they will lose what they don’t need”.

Goumbook also offers tailored corporate tree planting packages with the following add-on options (prices upon request):

> Transportation to and from the venue

> Breakfast/lunch/snack options all freshly prepared on the premises

> Private villa for corporate retreat/function


More news from