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ICBA saves UAE’s rare plant from likely extinction

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A team of scientists from the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has saved Halfa grass, a rare plant species in the UAE, from possible extinction. Scientifically known as Desmostachya bipinnata, the plant is a rhizomatous perennial grass which is important for stabilizing soils. It can be used as fodder and for medicinal purposes.

The grass was previously recorded at Kalba in the emirate of Sharjah and in the coastal zone of Ras al-Khaimah. However, a recent study by the scientists, published in Tribulus, a journal of the Emirates Natural History Group, found that the plant no longer exists in these areas, believed to be the only places in the country where it used to grow.

Luckily, the scientists had collected one plant of the grass from Ras al-Khaimah during one of their earlier scientific expeditions under ICBA’s program on conservation of plant genetic resources. It was planted at the center’s research facilities in Dubai for propagation where it performed very well. Thanks to their efforts, the plant species is now well-preserved at ICBA and can be used for reintroduction to the wild.

Between 2007-13, Dr. Mohammad Shahid, a geneticist, and Dr. Kameswara Rao Nanduri, a senior fellow, undertook a series of botanical explorations throughout the UAE to document the local wild flora, with a focus on plant species considered to be rare.

In 2007-2009, the scientists conducted many visits to the Kalba area to search for the species without success. However, during their expedition to the coastal areas of Ras al-Khaimah in 2007, they were able to locate about 50 plants of the Halfa grass growing in association with other plants in sandy soil.

Seeds of five plants were collected from the site and tested for germination at ICBA’s seed laboratory. The results indicated that the seeds were not viable and subsequently in 2008, one plant with its roots was carefully removed from the site and all of its tillers with roots were separated meticulously and planted separately at ICBA’s research facilities, where it started growing.

The species is used in many traditional medicines in countries like India to cure leucorrhea, urinary tract infections, dysentery, menorrhagia and several other diseases. It can also be used for making ropes, brooms and thatch.

Since its establishment in 1999, ICBA has been collecting and preserving at its genebank germplasm of plants with proven or potential salinity tolerance. The genebank stores currently over 14,000 accessions of around 250 species from some 150 countries and territories.

Under the program on plant genetic resources, the center’s scientists conduct regular expeditions to collect and conserve some of the economically important species native to the UAE which may be under threat due to overgrazing and expansion of human settlements.

During several botanical explorations across the UAE in 2013-15, Dr. Shahid uncovered and documented eight plant species previously unknown to exist in the country.