Geography and distribution
Thymelaea hirsuta growing near Petra in southern Jordan in 2008. (Photo: K. Abulaila, NCARE)
Thymelaea hirsuta grows in the Mediterranean coastal plains, the Sinai Peninsula and other Saharo-Arabian deserts.
A perennial, evergreen, shrub, growing up to 2 m tall. The stems are densely-branched and covered with small (2-6 mm long) overlapping leaves, which are pressed against the stem. The leaves are scale-like, ovate to oblong and leathery.
Mitnan is dioecious (male and female flowers are borne on separate plants) and sometimes monoecious, and both sexes of plants produce clusters of yellow flowers at the end of young twigs from March to July.
The primary use of mitnan is for making rope, a craft that is practised by local inhabitants in the eastern Mediterranean, especially older people who still retain this skill. The most direct method is simply to braid branches into a kind of cable. This 'cable' has been used to anchor tents during sandstorms. There are many other forms of rope-making, which can result in a very flexible and elegant product.
Finished mitnan rope is strong enough to haul a man out of a well, secure a tent, hobble an animal, saddle a donkey, yoke a camel, and carry water buckets or jugs on a camel’s back. The camel yoke represents an uncommon use of mitnan rope. Row upon row of twisted and braided white, inner bark is sewn on to a padded pillow. This rests on a mitnan support made of an entire young shrub whose branches have been parted and bound into a wishbone shape by strips of rag.
Twisting mitnan bark into rope (Photo: Schmidt & Stavisky 1983)
Mitnan serves Bedouins in a variety of ways, such as making a partridge trap, using the moist roots for parts of the trap that must be both flexible and strong. When sowing summer crops they would affix a branch of Thymelaea to the back of a plough, where it sweeps sand over the furrow to shield freshly-sown seeds from the sun's direct rays. Women too, when watering their flock, often utilise Thymelaea fibres to make a bucket-rope with which they can draw water from the well.
Ibn-al Bitar (12th century C.E.) attributed medicinal properties to the leaves as an antidote to pinworms as well as a 'powerful hydragogue, cathartic and expectorant'.
Dried and powdered leaves were also used to treat inflammation of the skin; the bark for healing wounds.
It was also reported that in order to remove flies from their tents, the Arabs dipped the mitnan plant in sugared water and then hung it in the tent. The formation of the numerous and crowded small leaves and flowers on the branch provided a large landing area for an enormous number of flies which were attracted to the sweet sugar. At night, Bedouin covered the plant with a dress or cloak and removed both the mitnan and flies from the tent.
Mitnan is still used for medicinal purposes, for example in the removal of rotten teeth. The leaves are boiled in water and the resulting brew swished around the mouth and spat out along with the dead tooth. It is also used as an eye curative and a treatment for paralysis.
Paper made from mitnan (Photo: Schmidt & Stavisky 1983)
For animals, it is used to prevent abortion in camels. Mitnan leaves are pounded and mixed with a little salt; this poultice is then applied to the camel's cervix after impregnation in the hope that the cervix will contract, preventing the camel from aborting its foetus. Researchers have isolated stigmasterol from Thymelaea hirsuta. Stigmasterol is a steroid used to synthesize progesterone, a hormone used in the treatment of recurrent abortion in humans.
Uses: Contemporary use for handmade paper
The technique of matting fibres together to create a sheet of paper is over 2,000 years old. Mitnan has been used for longer than that for other purposes, but only recently has its value as a fibre source for handmade paper been appreciated.
Mitnan paper is made from bast fibre, the inner bark of the plant. Upon harvesting, the bark is immediately stripped from the wood, just as the Bedouin do when making rope. If, for any reason, the stripping must be delayed, it is necessary to soak the branches in water before stripping, sometimes for as long as a week.
The dark, outer bark is scraped away with a sharp knife and discarded. Any dark specks of outer bark will contrast strongly with the light, inner fibres of the paper and are considered flaws. Unmottled, evenly formed sheets are thought to be more beautiful and of higher quality and strength - the papermaker's goal.
Thymelaea hirsuta is suitable for cultivation in the rock garden or alpine house. It requires full sun, well-drained soil and protection from winter rain.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
Mitnan at Kew
This species is not currently grown at Kew; however, specimens of wood and string made from Thymelaea hirsuta are held in the Economic Botany Collection, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew.