What an amazing country Oman is! The same size as Victoria with a population equal to that of Brisbane it is relatively easy to explore this Muslim country and become familiar with its rich centuries-old cultural heritage and natural diversity.
I have recently returned from a three-week holiday in Oman. My objective was to experience firsthand its major ecological habitats and to reconnect with friends and colleagues at the Oman Botanic Garden (OBG) to see how work is progressing there to establish the first botanic garden in the country.
Oman’s plant diversity and physical geography are on show everywhere and have not yet been totally obscured by urbanisation and industrialisation. That said, Oman is on the cusp of becoming a modern global society thanks to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said who came to power in 1970.
Revered by all, Oman is beholden to this visionary leader for putting in place the planning, infrastructure and services needed to establish a healthy proud population and a resilient economy. Oman’s economy is almost entirely reliant on oil revenue and is therefore susceptible to international trends.
What makes Oman so special is that with only 50 years of modernisation, traditional family values and culture are still deeply rooted and widely practiced in contemporary society. From the outset of its renaissance, Oman has maintained an intense focus on education and is taking the best of the rest of the world and adding this to its own rich Islamic and pre-Islamic heritage.
One of His Majesty’s personal priorities is to establish a national botanic garden. The site of the OBG (approximately 430 hectares close to Muscat) was designated as a national protected area by Royal Decree in 2006. With a mission and vision to establish a facility to conserve the unique botanical and ethnobotanical heritage of the country it is intended to display Oman’s plant species in exhibits that represent the different habitats of the country.
While it is not yet open to the public, the OBG is well on the way to realising something very special. To date:
The staff (around 80 and predominantly Omani) have obtained qualifications, undertaken on-the-job training and travelled abroad to study and improve their skills in a variety of disciplines including botany, horticulture, ethnobotany, education and landscape architecture.
Oman has a strong agricultural background yet the study of botany and horticulture and the concept of a botanic garden are relatively new. Staff have benefitted greatly from working in environments different to Oman. The OBG then provides them with the ideal workplace to consolidate this academic knowledge with relevant practical experience.
Abdulrahman Al Hinai is one of three ethnobotanists at the OBG. He is hugely passionate about his work and spends much of his time on field trips gathering and documenting local knowledge related to traditional plant uses.
As with many ancient cultures, much of the traditional knowledge relating to plant uses in Oman is passed orally from one generation to the next.
Abdulrahman espoused to OBG educator Mohammed Al Saidi and me the many virtues of this Moringa peregrina and the uses of Euphorbia larica beneath it.
He also explained the falaj system of water allocation and staggered usage that has sustained village communities for centuries.
Abdulrahman says it is still not too late to learn age-old practices from traditional farmers like this man we met at picturesque Bilad Sayt, a village located in the northern Al Hajar Mountains and only accessible by 4WD vehicle. Thanks to research like this, traditional varieties of wheat (for bread making) and crocuses (for saffron) have been rediscovered and will be conserved as part of OBG’s living collections.
Throughout human history, plants and people have been intricately linked. Wheat (Triticum species), barley (Hordeum species), Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) and the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) are just a few of the plants that have been fundamental to Oman’s way of life and prosperity.
Traditional Omanis always lived near natural water sources in typical wadi (valley with at least intermittent water) oasis settlements. Complex falaj irrigation enabled them to grow all they needed in protected valleys or on terraced hillsides.
I was in Oman at the wrong time of the year to see the temperate fruits (pomegranates, almonds, apricots etc) and fragrant Damask roses cultivated on the plateau in the Jabal Akhdar range. However I did manage to witness the first rose of the season appear on these rose bushes.
At lower altitudes, in villages like picturesque Misfat Al Abriyeen, deep within the Hajar Mountains, date palms dominate the landscape. Oman has over 100 varieties of date palms and every part of them has its uses. When completed, OBG will showcase the long and intimate association between Omani people and their wild and cultivated plants.
Ismail Al-Rashdi, Senior Horticulture Specialist at OBG, is a font of knowledge and experience when it comes to maintaining and propagating wild plants of Oman. I was surprised to learn that ‘the big stuff’ – the baobabs, acacias, frankincense and other trees are relatively easy to grow in cultivation.
Ismail showed me a desert rose that has been rescued from a road construction site as well as the propagation and flowering of Eulophia petersii, one of only a handful of Oman’s native orchids.
The plants (about 80% of Oman’s native species) have already been databased and represented in OBG’s living collections, herbarium or seedbank. According to Scientific Director Dr Annette Patzelt, OBG is well on its way to establishing the largest collection of Arabian plant species anywhere in the world.
Oman has been identified as one of the world’s key 35 biodiversity hotspots that contain at least 1,500 endemic species of vascular plants (> 0.5% of the world’s total) and where at least 70% of the natural vegetation has been lost. OBG has recently published Oman Plant Red Data Book in which Annette identifies four categories of threat responsible for species decline in Oman.
Annette has authored several books on Omani plants that make ideal field guides for the botanically-minded traveller like me … and maybe you.
The site of the OBG still looks like the surrounding gravel desert habitat with Acacia tortilis dominating the landscape but with an added concentration of specimen plants. The nursery area has doubled in size over the last three years and 1,400 big trees have recently been planted out in large boxes in advance of their final destination in garden habitats and amenity areas.
It’s hard to photograph the extensive living plant collection already acquired!
Two satellite nurseries have also been established in climate-appropriate locations at Jebel Akhdar (in the Northern Hajar Mountains) and Salalah (in the Southern Dhofar mountains) to propagate the wide range and huge numbers of plants that will be needed for public display in the years to come.
Nursery staff were keen to explain their growing techniques and proudly pointed out the use of Australian-invented bottom heating propagation mats.
The Master Plan for a 70-hectare public display area is well underway and construction should start soon … Insh’allah! as the locals say. However, anyone who has been involved in developing a botanic garden from scratch understands that the gestation period can take up to 20 years.
One thing is certain, the OBG is set to become a world class cultural attraction and an integral part of Oman’s contemporary renaissance. It will give international and local tourists insights into Oman’s natural and cultural wonders and provide an incentive to venture further afield in this relatively small country.
In the meantime DIY botanical touring is the way to go! With relatively few species in an open desert environment it’s easy to become familiar with Oman’s biodiversity.
And on the journey, you’ll marvel at the ingenuity and resilience of nature – like this goat and hardy Acacia gerrardii in a village close to Jebel Shams in the Western Hajar Mountains.
Look out for my second article on Oman’s botanical heritage coming soon… as we armchair travel 3,500 kms on the highways and byways of this fascinating desert country.
[Note: This is a revised version of an article I wrote for BGANZ’s THE BOTANIC GARDENer, the magazine for botanic garden professionals.]