Wadi Rajib


Or, a Ferner Looking for Allies in the Middle East

Though small, Jordan is geologically and ecologically diverse with elements of Sudanian, Mediterranean, and Irano-Turian flora. But most of Jordan is desert--slim pickings for fern forays.

How many ferns and fern allies can there be in an arid country the size of New Jersey? I reckon there are nine: Adiantum capillus-veneris, Anogramma leptophylla, Asplenium adiantum-nigrum, Ceterach officinarum, Cheilanthes catensis, C. fragrans, Equisetum ramosissimum, Osmunda regalis and Ophioglossum polyphyllum for a total of eight genera and nine species. In contrast, the 318 acre Blackwater Ecologic Preserve of Old Dominion University located in Southeastern Virginia has ten genera and 11 species of ferns, four genera and four species of fern allies.

I have not seen royal fern in Jordan nor is there a specimen in the University of Jordan herbarium, the largest collection in the country. According to the curator, Professor Dawud Al Eisawi who includes Osmunda regalis in his "List of Jordan Vascular Plants", royal fern's occurrence is based on a reference in the older regional flora by Post. The sole Asplenium species is known from a single collection in the Jordan Valley. And I have not been able to locate Anogramma. Most of the other taxa are more widely distributed.

The Hashemite Kingdom is depauperate in pteridophytes compared to its relatively wetter neighbors to the west and to the north. In Flora Palaestina by Zohary et al. a total of 13 genera and 15 species are noted while in Lebanon and Syria 21 genera and 32 species are recorded in Nouvelle Flore du Liban et de la Syrie by Mouterde.

I have been living in Jordan for the past year as a Fulbright Professor at the University of Jordan in Amman. This has enabled me to travel extensively throughout the country teaching plant taxonomy as well as conducting research on Bible plants and parasitic angiosperms. As a field botanist, it is a treat to find pteridophytes, quite a contrast to my usual haunts in the swamps and forests of southeastern Virginia! A Fulbright professor with pteridophyte ptendencies worked here before. Professor Richard Hauke, noted Equisetum authority and American Fern Society officer, was a Fulbright Professor at the University of Jordan in 1972.

Appropriately, Jordan's only fern ally is a horsetail, Equisetum ramosissimum. There are many sites in the Rift Valley where this horsetail occurs. Like some other species in the genus, it can be weedy and has spread along irrigation canals. Open irrigation ditches are being replaced with a pressurized system which conserves more water. As a result, there are fewer places for the horsetail.

My favorite site for horsetail is a deep valley (wadi in Arabic) near the Dead Sea in the Wadi Mujib Preserve. Here a perennial fresh, albeit warm and sulfurous, stream supports a guild of wetland and aquatic plants. The horsetail is most common just above the water line (at least in summer) where the rhizomes take refuge under boulders, apparently to avoid movement during the rainy season when flash floods of frightening intensity take place. Associated with the horsetail are Typha domingensis, Juncus arabicus, Scirpus holoschoenus, Fimbristylis ferruginea and Inula crithmoides. Immature strobili were present the third week of July.

Flora Palaestina says this horsetail is used in folk medicine. I am unaware of this use in Jordan. A recent compendium of medicinal plants for Jordan omits reference to any pteridophyte species. Nor have I found it in the shops of the atar or dispensers of herbal medicines in Amman. In the large bazaar (soq) in Damascus, however, dried horsetail was sold by several atar. This is Equisetum telematia, not E. ramosissimum. Colleagues told me it is sold for use as an herbal tea, probably as a diuretic. I purchased 100g for 70 Syrian Lira ($1.40). Its taste and effect were unremarkable.

In the field, E. telematia can be recognized by its annual stems. For soq botany, it can be distinguished from E. ramosissimum by having four rather than 7 (6-8) teeth on the sheaths of the secondary branches.

Having some interest in quillworts, I was excited to find reference to Isoetes occurring in Jebel Druze, a small range of ancient volcanoes just north of the Syria-Jordan border. I looked for suitable sites on the Jordanian side but to no avail. No quillworts yet in the Jordan flora! Perhaps if more botanists from the Southern United States were to come, quillworts and their ubiquitous hybrids might be found.

Fortunately, I found a population within Syria near the top of the mountain at an elevation of ca. 1400 meters. This is the only population of Isoetes, to my knowledge, in the entire Middle East. Like so many sites with water, the Jebel Druze quillwort population is threatened with immediate destruction.

The most abundant and perhaps the most beautiful of Jordan ferns is Adiantum capillus-veneris. As a graduate student at the University of North Carolina long ago, I made a special visit to a marl outcrop along Lake Waccamaw in the southeastern part of the state to see Adiantum capillus-veneris where a small population clung tenuously to the gnarled marl. Quite a contrast to Jordan where this fern is common, especially on moist limestone.

One of the most interesting places for maidenhair is in deep wadis along the Dead Sea. Many places in this desert have perennial sources of water. Conspicuous plants in these habitats include wild date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), giant cane (Arundo donax), and common reed (Phragmites australis). Growing among the reeds in some places are magnificent stands of the orchid Epipactis veratifolia which flowers in March and is the only orchid found in these oases. The ferns cover the rock wall with their fronds parallel to the stone face and their wiry rhizomes penetrating the crevices. At a typical site 24 km north of the Wadi Mujib bridge, the steep wall of the canyon is covered with maidenhair fern as well as scattered individuals of Samolus valerandi, Limonium meyeri, and Juncus arabicus. These all grow in the dripping water.

In the mountains of the northern part of the country is a narrow valley, Wadi Rajib. Ein Sakhara is a large spring in the wadi that gushes out of the summer parched hillside and cascades down to form a stream. A series of smaller springs also enter the brook which is shaded by venerable plane trees (Platanus orientalis) and lined with dense thickets of oleander (Nerium oleander) tressed with fragrant flowers in July. The ubiquitous giant cane (Arundo donax) forms a forest of bamboo. Adiantum covers the boulders in the stream. A visit here on a July day reminded me of being in the southern Appalachians, not in a semi-desert region!

Occasionally, Adiantum can be found on the face of dry limestone. More common is Ceterach officinarum which appears to be restricted in its distribution to calcareous rocks. This fern is mentioned in the recent issue of Fiddlehead Forum 25(3). In the summer the fronds curl up to form a ball making it difficult to see the ferns in the depressions in the limestone where they grow. However, if you remove the dried fronds and place them in a bowl with some moisture, the leaves uncurl. Plants I collected near Zubia in the mountains north of Ajlon and placed in water resuscitated in 48 hours. Zubia is a densely forested area dominated by Quercus calliprinos/Q. itharubensis with Arbutus andrachne and Cercis siliquastrum. On the rock faces little grows except lichens, mosses, Ceterach and two species of Cheilanthes, lip fern.

Cheilanthes catensis and C. fragrans would be easily recognized as lip ferns by readers of Fiddlehead Forum because of their habitat and growth form. The leaves are more delicate than those of Ceterach and also curl during the dry season. To my knowledge, no one has studied the peculiar "fuzz" or "fleece" on C. catensis nor its mechanism of water conservation. Both lip ferns are frequent throughout the rocky hills in the northern part of the country occurring as far south as Wadi Mujib.

Because so much of the country is rugged and difficult to traverse, many areas of Jordan have been insufficiently studied. Among several individuals and groups surveying the country is the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). Recently, field botanists from RSCN found a small population of Ophioglossum polyphyllum in Wadi Mujib (the Arnon Gorge of the Bible). Two species of this genus are known from Syria and one is recorded in Flora Palaestina. Moonworts can be evanescent so it is possible that further surveys will turn up additional populations.

Ferns and the single fern ally are interesting components of the rich and diverse flora of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With the tremendous population growth, one of the highest in the world, as well as floods of refugees, little of the natural vegetation of Jordan remains. At least one pteridophyte, royal fern, may be extinct. Preservation of habitat is a critical issue in the kingdom which, fortunately, is receiving attention.