Satureja nabateorum and Teucrium leucocladum and its subspecies

Published: June 13th, 2010 | Updated: 17/01/15

Satureja nabateorum

When I traveled with the “Camel Riders” in the footsteps of the Nabateans, I did not expect to discover a species new to science. The Nabateans, inhabitants of Edom (SW Jordan), led camel caravans from southern Arabia, through Petra, to the Arava Valley and the Gaza Strip, transferring the highly treasured frankincense. The plants containing the juice from which frankincense is made, grow in southern Saudi Arabia. Scratching the stems causes secretion of the resin which then hardens by desiccation in the dry desert air. The hard drops were collected and transported to wealthy Europe for various purposes. The dream of Seffi HaNegbi and his friends was to cross the Saudi Desert with their camels and tourists in the footsteps of the Nabateans, with sample quantities of frankincense. For that purpose we planned to carry out excursions in Jordan with Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian tourist guides (Fig. 12.2.1).

We walked in one of the passes from Petra to the Arava Valley to investigate whether it might serve pedestrians, camels or vehicles. Naqb Sleislah turned out to be a difficult pass even for pedestrians (like me, for example). We were very happy to see the jeep (a Landrover) waiting for us at the foot of the hill. We drove along the easy path in the Arava Valley until we reached the steep and rugged road climbing back to the plateau in the Jebel Umm Masouda area. The road was not yet marked on our maps but it was clearly a naqb = an ancient pass. There were piles of stones on top of rock blocks near the path – testimony that this was a well known and used path. These stones were thrown by travelers “for good luck.” I was fortunate to learn from my Bedouin guide in Sinai, Umm Barak Mousa, that the piles of stones on top of boulders along the path are called “baraka.” The traveler throws stones onto the baraka to improve his luck. In this way, as time passes, the stones accumulate as a crown. I was happily following the barakas of “Yair Ascent” (Ma’ale Yair) in the Judean Desert.

Now, in the ascent of Jebel Umm Masouda I could assist the geographer and the archaeologist seated in the back of the car. Somewhere in the middle of the ascent we arrived at outcrops of hard white sandstone and decided to “stretch our legs.” The first plant I saw was a gray shrub that I had never seen before; it had no flowers and thus hid its identity. When I gave a fresh stem to Avner Goren he told me it had a strong smell of “za’atar” (marjoram, thyme or oregano). My sense of smell was impaired at that time, and prevented me from sensing this important property of the plant. While starting to consider the outcome of the non-blooming situation, and how to organize an excursion to collect it in bloom, the car arrived at a 10 m section of deep sand. The driver made a mistake and we became stuck with the car wheels deep in the sand. We got out of the car and I left the group, running to the south-facing slope of those rocks. It was winter time and plants developed slowly; I thus recalled observations I had made near Beersheba when specimens of Deverra tortuosa developed and bloomed earlier on the south-facing slope of a small wadi. The rule of nature that I learnt there helped me now in Jordan. I found many white flowered blooming individuals on the south-facing slope of Jebel Umm Masouda (Figs. 12.2.2, 12.2.3). I photographed and collected several blooming branches for the herbarium. Finding a species new to science, one should have several stems from a typical plant to serve as a “holotype” and have “isotype” sheets for sending to other scientific institutes. I then began to long for the termination of this excursion and my speedy arrival at the herbarium and the necessary literature.

Upon arriving at the herbarium in Jerusalem I found that the plant from Edom was closely similar to Satureja thymbrifolia (Fig. 12.2.4); my collection of the latter (Fig. 12.2.5), in Horkania Valley in the Judean Desert in 1968 enabled Ian Hedge and Naomi Feinbrun to describe it as “new to science.” Collections of that plant before 1948 carried no flowers. Hedge and Feinbrun described the plant as growing in the Judean Desert and Edom. They asked me to describe the habitats of Satureja thymbrifolia. I felt that the two sites did not have similar conditions, but I was at the beginning of my career and could not contradict what “older and more experienced people” said. When checking the plants collected in 1998 in Edom and comparing them to those of Satureja thymbrifolia, I found that in addition to the different habitats and location, the plants differed in their morphology. I summarized the differences in a manuscript and sent it, together with dried plants, to Ian Hedge, the world expert in the Labiatae of the Middle East. He agreed with me that the plant was new to science and associated with me in authorship of Satureja nabateorum.

In this epithet I wanted to symbolize my discovery of the plant near an ancient Nabatean path (Fig. 12.2.7). Searching for the plant in a similar habitat of rock crevices in hard sandstone brought positive results at the foot of Ras en Naqb and in many rock outcrops in the Wadi Ram area. A special place was Jebel Umm Adami, the highest peak in Jordan, with half of it in Saudi Arabia. Above the altitude of 1400 m, Satureja nabateorum is the dominant plant, growing in crevices of hard and smooth sandstone. D. Benyamini, the expert for butterflies in the Middle East, brought me a few stems of Satureja nabateorum. He discovered a butterfly new to science in that mountain, in association with our plant. Due to the geographic and edaphic similarities of the south-western part of Jordan and the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia, I assume that Satureja nabateorum could also be found in the latter.

Fig. 12.2.1: The logo of the course in desert travel initiated by the “Camel Riders” for Israeli-, Palestinian-, and Jordanian tourist guides, in the hope of establishing peace in the area.

Fig. 12.2.2: An inflorescence of Satureja nabateorum photographed at Naqb Abu Masouda, SW Jordan.

Fig. 12.2.3: A blooming shrub of Satureja nabateorum.

Fig. 12.2.4: A shrub of Satureja thymbrifolia with twisted trunk. At the margins of Horkania Valley in the Judean Desert.

Fig. 12.2.5: An inflorescence of Satureja thymbrifolia in the Judean Desert.


Fig. 12.2.6: An inflorescence of Satureja thymbrifolia in the Judean Desert.

Fig. 12.2.7: An illustration of Satureja nabateorum from the scientific publication of the species. Drawn by Dr. Michal Boaz-Yuval.

Teucrium leucocladum

Teucrium leucocladum is a small semi shrub, pungent, and similar to its relative Teucrium capitatum in stem color, leaves and flowers. However, the leaves of Teucrium leucocladum are triangular at base (Fig. 12.2.8). Their hairs are simple (Fig. 12.2.9a) or glandular (Fig. 12.2.9b, c, d) whereas those of Teucrium capitatum are branched (Fig. 12.2.9e). The typical taxon, Teucrium leucocladum subsp. leucocladum, grows in wadis near Elat and at a low altitude of SE Sinai. During our botanical investigations in S Sinai I found it difficult to name the Teucrium specimens collected. Their leaves are similar to those of T. leucocladum. The different kinds of indumentum affected the plant color and I regarded them, temporarily, as hybrids of Teucrium leucocladum and T. capitatum. A doctoral thesis of the Teucrium capitatum complex in S Europe, conducted in Montpellier during my visit there, showed that the common denominator of the T. capitatum aggregate is their branched hairs. T. capitatum has similar branched hairs in Israel, Sinai, and Jordan (Fig. 12.2.9e). The types of hairs guided me in my study of the group in this area. After observing a new taxon in Jordan I returned, to deal with the whole group. There was a brown-green taxon of the Teucrium group in the rock vegetation of Dana, Petra and their vicinity. The erect stems of Teucrium leucocladum subsp. jordanicum differ from the intricate stems of T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum and the different set of simple and glandular hairs (Fig. 12.2.9d). The typical subspecies of T. leucocladum has simple hairs, slightly curved in their tips. The Jordanian subspecies has simple, erect hairs, glandular hairs as long as the simple ones and short glandular hairs. The Sinai subspecies has short glandular hairs and simple, straight or slightly curved hairs. The Jordanian subspecies (Figs. 12.2.11, 12.2.12) is restricted in its distribution to Jordan, and the Sinai subspecies is endemic to Sinai. T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum was seen in the Eilat-Shaharut area, SE Sinai, and in the vicinity of Aqaba in Jordan (Fig. 12.2.13). The distribution of the taxa in SW Jordan should be investigated further.

Fig. 12.2.8: Teucrium leucocladum subsp. jordanicum with stem leaves almost triangular at base.

Fig. 12.2.9: Stem indumentum (hair cover) in Teucrium leucocladum (a-d) and Teucrium capitatum (e). a. T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum var. leucocladum, b. T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum var. glandulosum, c. T. leucocladum subsp. sinaicum, d. T. leucocladum subsp. jordanicum. Drawn by Dr. Michal Boaz-Yuval.

Fig. 12.2.10: Teucrium capitatum.

Fig. 12.2.11: T. leucocladum subsp. jordanicum; after blooming, the inflorescence stems dry out and remain thorny for a long time.

Fig. 12.2.12: T. leucocladum subsp. jordanicum.

Fig. 12.2.13: Distribution of the T. leucocladum complex. triangle – T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum var. leucocladum; rotated triangle – T. leucocladum subsp. jordanicum; circle – T. leucocladum subsp. leucocladum var. glandulosum; square – T. leucocladum subsp. sinaicum.