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Volume 11, Number 3March 1960

In This Issue

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Trees in the Desert

Lot's of folks said it couldn't be done, that it was foolish even to try.......

It's probably safe to say that most people like to have some trees around the yard, and around the town. Aramco's pioneers felt that way. The trouble was they didn't have any.

Oh, there were many trees in the large oases, not far away. But, if you could have seen the acres of sand now occupied by the oil communities of Abqaiq, Dhahran and Ras Tanura, you'd have felt certain that these were the last places a tree would ever grow.

Well . . . they were not.

Of course, as one quickly learns from Dhahran's supervisor of landscaping, T. J. Davenport:

"It took a little doing."

Nevertheless, there they are: a dozen and a half varieties of trees, more than a dozen kinds of flowering shrubs and bushes, and an abundance of flowering vines.

Most surprising to the newcomer, perhaps, is discovering how many of the trees are native to Saudi Arabia: the shade-giving acacias—you see them all over the place; the antalocas, almonds and native cherries.

Numerous and local, also, are the tall tamarisks (much like a pine) that seem always to look dust-powdered—as, in fact, they often are, for they are frequently planted closely in rows as a screen against blowing sand.

There's nothing unusual, of course, about finding palms, especially the stately date-producing variety; and even some banana palms and Washingtonias. But it's a little amazing to come across paloverde, the flame of the forest, and a eucalyptus type, known locally as a "gum tree," which are also local.

But, there are other surprises: you begin to get acquainted with exotic species from the Orient.

From India, for example: umbrella-like shade trees such as the banyan, with its thick, rather long leaves and" its small, inedible figs . . . the smaller-leaved pepultree . . . the raintree, with its full-bodied foliage . . . and, sure enough, the umbrella tree, itself.

Also from India (and Ceylon) are the long-leaved, beautifully white-flowered frangipanni, and the coconut palm.

The delicate-looking shisham came from Egypt; the ornamental palms from Eritrea; the casuarinas and flamboy ant trees from seed.

There are a number of other trees that grow elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, including the oases; others are imported by individuals: lemon trees, mulberries, pomegranates—to name a few.

Flowering shrubs and bushes are really something to 24 see. Native varieties include single and double oleanders, yellow oleanders (they're called bushes, but become fair-sized trees), hennas, and three types of lantanas—aculeata, camara and alba.

As for imports, there are the yellow elder and bird-of-paradise from India, the rose of Sharon (a hibiscus) and a lavender arborea from Lebanon, and the leadwort and peacock flower from seed. The China rose was brought from Lebanon, Bahrain Island and India.

Last, and not least, but most, comes the false jasmine, which looks very similar to the privet hedge, common in the northern parts of the Linked States. There are miles of it in the Aramco communities, lining the residential streets. It's sturdy, grows rapidly, and is relatively easy to trim.

Flowering vines are everywhere and especially the bougainvilleas: the purple (glabra) from Italy, and the red, wine, pink, salmon or orange (spectabilis) from India.

Quite a variety of greenery, wouldn't you agree? But, as Davenport mentioned, it "took a little doing." .'

It was quite a process of trial and error, finding out what trees were drought-resistant, would withstand summer heat and year-around wind, and could grow in sterile soils and alkali salts. Many species withered; others thrived. The ones that could stand the "gaff" are the ones used today.

For a number of years, reproduction was carried out by Aramco, using seed, seedlings and cuttings. Now, much of the supply is grown by local contractors. They sell a bush for six Saudi riyals (about $1.33); a tree for eight riyals (about $1.78).

The big problem is soil. There isn't any—only sand and marl. So, for every planting, they have to "prepare a hole." This means digging out what was there, and substituting a mixture of clean sand and fertilizer.

This runs into an unusual procedure: They take a one-gallon tin can, perforate it all around, and then burn off the protective finish so it will rust and disintegrate more readily. They fill this with the sand-fertilizer mixture and plant the seed or cutting in it. After the tree or shrub has grown, it is planted—can and all—in the hole that has been prepared for it. This system is used so the sand-fertilizer mix won't fall away when the plant is being moved.

Most pruning and trimming is done by a local contractor. The acacias require attention twice a year; the others, once. Naturally, more watering is required than in most parts of the United States, because of the sparse rainfall—four inches or so a year. There's a little scale, but it's controlled by spraying.

The main thing is that trees are growing and living healthy lives on those same acres of sand where people said it was foolish to try.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the March 1960 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March 1960 images.