Help us save Thymelaea hirsuta - known in Arabic as 'mitnan'
'Mitnan' (Thymelaena hirsuta) is a perennial evergreen shrub that grows in the Mediterranean coastal plain, the Sinai and various other Saharo-Arabian deserts. It has been used for centuries for rope-making. You can help Kew safeguard this plant for our future by adopting a seed for yourself, or as a gift for £25.
In ideal conditions the roots of 'mitnan' (Thymelaea hirsuta) can descend to a depth of about 3.5 m, while the plant may grow to 2 m with an average height of 120 cm. 'Mitnan' produces clusters of yellow flowers at the ends of young twigs from March through July. Its branches are used for making rope by braiding them into a kind of cable.
Conserving 'mitnan' in Jordon
Most examples of 'mitnan' that we found during our collecting trip to Jordon were growing in the vicinity of the international heritage site of Petra.
As 'mitnan' is dioecious (male and female flowers are borne on separate plants), enough pollinators must be available to secure fruit set and seed formation. Both sexes of these plants produce clusters of yellow flowers at the end of young twigs from March to July.
One concern for the future of this species is that its habitat in Jordon is constantly disturbed by the large number of tourists visiting the site. This could hinder the growth of newly formed seedlings needed to replenish the population.
'Mitnan' is suitable for cultivation in rock gardens and alpine glasshouses. It requires full sun, well-drained soil and protection from winter rain. This species is not currently grown at Kew Gardens, but specimens of wood and string made from it are held in Kew's Economic Botany Collection, located behind-the-scenes.
Collecting 'mitnan' in Jordan
When you walk out of Wadi Moussa, the village built at the entrance to Petra, there are some signs of the local marvels lying on the other side of the rocks. Walking down a rocky canyon, or Siq as it is called locally, there is the hint of what appears to be a head in the face of the cliffs. It is only when you reach the end of the Siq that you can make out the façade of a building hewn out of the rocks. It looks like a beautiful lady wearing a chador.
From this magnificent place you can turn right and walk past more façades including a theatre and tombs on the higher rocks. An easy climb takes you up the hill to the high place of sacrifice, with open views across the region. Going down into the valley, where it is impossible to hide from the sun, a sparse collection of desert vegetation offers another impressive aspect to the site. Many plant species that are adapted to the harsh conditions of the very hot sandy desert flourish in the loessial wadi beds.
Making rope and other useful things with 'mitnan'
'Mitnan' (Thymelaea hirsuta) is primarily used for making rope, a craft that is practiced by local inhabitants, especially older people who still retain this skill. The most direct method is simply to braid branches into a kind of cable. This 'cable' may been used to anchor tents during sandstorms.
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 onto 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.
'Mitnan' serves the Bedouins in a variety of other ways as well, such as making a partridge trap. The moist roots of the plant are used for parts of the trap that must be both flexible and strong. When sowing summer crops they also affix a branch of 'mitnan' 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, often use 'mitnan' when watering their flocks, using 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 and the bark for healing wounds. It was further reported that in order to remove flies from their tents, Arabs would dip 'mitnan' (Thymelaea hirsuta) in sugared water and then hang it in the tent. The formation of the numerous, crowded small leaves and flowers on the branch provided a large landing area for flies attracted to the sweet sugar. At night, Bedouin people would cover the plant with a dress or cloak and remove both the 'mitnan' and the flies from the tent.
'Mitnan' is still used for medicinal purposes. As a method for removing rotten teeth for instance, which doesn’t seem to have been reported in much detail in the literature. To do this, the plant leaves are boiled in water and the resulting brew swished around the mouth and spat out along with the dead tooth. Other medicinal uses include an eye curative and a treatment for paralysis.
'Mitnan' is also used to prevent abortion in camels. The leaves of the plant are pounded and mixed with a little salt, made into a poultice,and then applied to the camel's cervix after impregnation in the hope that the cervix will contract, preventing the camel from aborting its foetus (Bailey and Danin 1981: 153; also cited by Schmidt and Stavisky 1983). Later, researchers managed to isolate stigmasterol from 'mitnan'. Stigmasterol is a steroid used to synthesise progesterone, a hormone used in the treatment of recurrent abortion in humans (Schmidt and Stavisky 1983: 318).
You can adopt this seed for yourself, or as a gift for £25.
When you Adopt a Seed, you'll receive a personalised certificate, featuring your plant species, as a downloadable PDF document you can print off, and regular updates over the year from the Millennium Seed Bank.
For an additional £2, you can have an Adoption Pack posted (either to you, or direct to a gift recipient) featuring a certificate and a full colour picture of your species (UK only).
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