Flora of Kuwait
Kuwait occupies an area on the world map which is considered as semi-desert area. In general the land of Kuwait is composed of sand and gravel desert with occasional outcroppings of rock. The conditions prevailing in Kuwait is common to that seen in all deserts, such as high temperature, water shortage and high salt content in the soil. In spite of these adverse conditions, Kuwait is blessed with a rich biodiversity of 374 plants comprising dwarf perennial bushes, annual grasses and herbs. This includes 256 annuals, 83 herbaceous perennials, 34 under shrubs and 1 tree.
The native plants have designed their own mechanisms to survive in the extreme environmental conditions. The perennials in particular have to face the harsh climate more than the annuals which appear only after the seasonal rainfall. Some biennial and perennial plants retreat below the ground until they receive rain and in the case of most annuals their seeds remain dormant in the soil until they receive adequate amount of rainwater for resurrecting themselves. The soil in Kuwait can thus be considered as a seed bank waiting for the favourable condition to reactivate them. But this natural treasure of seeds can be disturbed by human activities and urbanization, leading to destruction of habitats and as a result extinction of many native plant species. In Kuwait seven map units are recognized by the dominant plant community types: Haloxylon salicornicum, Rhanterium epapposum, Cyperus conglomeratus, Panicum turgidum, Stipagrostis plumosa Centropodia forskalii, and the seventh unit is dominated by a mixed stand of halophytic species.
January, February and March is undoubtedly the best flowering season. It is the time when the barren looking deserts turn into a floral carpet, as the annuals will be in its full bloom during this period. It is also the time when one can estimate the extent of destruction done to the habitat as it could be seen that the plant growth will be relatively less along the well-used tracks of off-road driving. The vegetation of Kuwait is under threat of extinction due to many factors including; setting up camps for pleasure, gravel quarrying, oil exploration and additionally the destructive activities during the Gulf war has also increased pressure on Kuwait’s vegetation. Absence of proper enforcement and compliance of laws for protection of ecosystem is another major cause for the destruction of biodiversity. Overgrazing is yet another problem adding much pressure on the flora of Kuwait. A study conducted in the protected and unprotected areas has shown that the plant cover in the unprotected areas is 80% less than that of the protected areas.
The vegetation of Kuwait can be divided into four ecosystems based on landform, soil characteristics and floristic composition, particularly dominant species.
- The sand dune ecosystem: It comprises a series of low coastal dunes which extends along the Gulf Coast. The soil is loose, coarse sand, usually dominated by Zygophyllum coccineum and /or Seidlitzia rosmarinus, Nitraria retusa, Lycium shawii and other species.
- The salt marsh and saline depressions ecosystem: the soil ranges from loamy sand to sandy clay. These marshes are influenced by tidal action. In general, Halocnemon strobilaceum dominates nearest the shore, followed by Nitraria retusa. Zygophyllum coccineum dominates most landward. Important species of the salt marsh include Tamarix aucheriana, Aeluropus lagopoides, Aeluropus littoralis, Seidlitzia rosmarinus, Cressa critica, Juncus arabicus. Saline depressions occur usually west of the coastal dunes. The soil is usually similar to that of salt marshes. The center of the depression may be bare or covered with Halocnemon strobilaceum, often fringed with Bienertia cycloptera while the sandy edges are frequently covered by Zygophyllum coccineum.
- Desert plain ecosystem: the desert plain occupies the greater part of the country west of the coastal region of salt marshes and saline depressions. The soils are varied and support different communities.
- Cyperus steppe: dominated by Cyperus conglomeratus. The soil is deep, moderately loose, coarse sand. Other species include Panicum turgidum, Cornulaca leucacantha.
- Rhanterium steppe: this occurs in the center and extreme northeast of the country. Soil is shallow to moderately deep. Dominant species is Rhanterium epapposum, frequently associated with Convolvulus oxyphyllus, Moltkiopsis ciliate, Asthenatherum forskalii and Stipagrostis plumosa.
- Haloxylon steppe: It is dominated by Haloxylon salicornicum. The soil is very shallow. Chrozophora verbascifolia is observed growing on low lying areas during the summer season.
- Desert plateau ecosystem: this occurs on the extreme west of the country. The soil is predominantly a gravel desert, more or less devoid of vegetation. Where sand accumulates, clumps of Haloxylon salicornicum occur. Citrullus colocynthis is a frequent associate. Cistanche tubulosa is a common parasite on Haloxylon salicornicum. Annuals such as Helianthemum sp., Arnebia sp., Astragalus sp., Schismus barbatus are found in a fairly dense carpet.
There are several natural basins or playas in the sandy and gravel plains which traps soil, humus and seeds which upon receiving additional rain water becomes a fascinating ground for the botanist. There are some species that are restricted to such basins. One of the most spectacular flowers of such drain pans is Gynandriris sisyrinchium. Some species commonly occurring in such drain pans are Pulcaria undulata, Trigonella sp., Phalaris minor, Convolvulus pilosellifolius and Angallis arvensis
There are some localities like the Zor Ridge, Umm Al-Rimam and Wadi Al-BAtin which requires special mention when considering the biodiversity of the country. Some species such as Calligonum comosum are more or less confined to Zor ridge and Umm Al-Rimam. Many species found in Wadi Al-Batin and Umm Al-Rimam does not occur anywhere else in Kuwait. Plants such as Zilla spinosa, Artemisia monosperma, Cleome ambylocarpa, Zizyphus nummularia, Diplotaxis acris, Farsetia burtonae, Helianthemum salicifolium, Salvia aegyptiaca, Salvia spinosa, Scrozophora papposa and Teucrium oliverianum is seen only in Wadi Al-Batin. Ochradenus baccatus is a species Restriced to Wadi Um-Al-Rimam. In short even though the deserts of Kuwait look barren it has far more botanical interest than it appears to have.