Arfaj (Rhanterium epapposum)

GenusRhanterium (1)
SizeHeight: 50 - 100 cm (2)

This species has yet to be classified by the IUCN.

A dwarf shrub with spherical foliage and beautiful, large, yellow-brown inflorescences, the arfaj, the national flower of Kuwait, grows in arid regions of the Middle East (2) (3) (4). The leaves are small and narrow, and the slender, hairless branches, which appear reflective during the dry season, arise from the base of the shrub. This attractive plant is a member of the daisy family, which is probably the largest flowering plant family, with more than 25,000 species worldwide (5). As is typical of plants in this family, the arfaj fruit, which contains six to eight seeds, is hard and dry and dispersed by the wind (6). 

This plant is found in desert regions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and north-eastern parts of the United Arab Emirates (2) (3) (7).

The arfaj grows on shallow, well-drained, sandy soils, where it is often the dominant shrub (7) (8).

Adapted to arid environments that experience periodic drought and rainfall events, the arfaj has a highly specialised mode of reproduction that is heavily influenced by the local climate. Flowering takes place in spring, approximately April to May, shortly before leaf development is complete. The large, brightly coloured inflorescences serve to attract pollinating insects and birds to the plant, and at the end of spring the fruit is produced. The fruit may be dispersed short distances by wind or longer distances by herbivorous mammals, and it remains dormant underground for the duration of summer (2). Those seeds that survived predation germinate at the onset of the rainy season (4). This, however, requires the fruit to be positioned in the ground with the basal part facing downwards, and those fruits not positioned in such a manner may not germinate and instead remain dormant, yet viable, in the ground for as long as four years or more (2). Germination also only takes place in years with individual rain events exceeding 30 millimetres (9).

The dwarf shrub communities in which the arfaj occurs are of huge conservation importance as they represent a unique, transitional ecosystem between desert and semi-desert vegetation that is highly sensitive to human-alteration of the landscape (2). Yet, despite their importance, many floral communities in the region are seriously threatened by desertification caused by livestock overgrazing, construction work, and habitat degradation from off-road driving and camping activities (8). The arfaj has been particularly severely affected by livestock overgrazing as it is a highly palatable plant and, as a result, it is now often only possible to find flowering plants in protected areas (4). It was also eradicated in many areas that were inundated with oil during wartimes (2).

As an important forage species for livestock, the conservation of the arfaj is crucial for the sustainability of local communities and their livelihoods, as well as for the survival of a unique floral ecosystem. Fortunately, it has been observed that in favourable habitat, if grazing is controlled, the arfaj can quickly regenerate (2). Where it has been afforded protection from such pressures, populations have increased. After several years of protection from grazing, the vegetation at the Sabriya Oilfield in Kuwait quickly recovered from previous declines (8), while at an experimental area in eastern Saudi Arabia, 14 years of protection resulted in increases in plant cover and diversity (10). As such, protecting the arfaj from grazing pressures is paramount in ensuring its preservation for the future (2).   

For more information on the conservation of plants, see:

To find out more about conservation in the United Arab Emirates, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. King Saud University (October, 2010)
  2. Omar, S.A.S. and Bhat, N.R. (2008) Alteration of the Rhanterium epapposum plant community in Kuwait and restoration measures. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 65: 139-155.
  3. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, London.
  4. Alsharhan, A. et al. (2008) Terrestrial Environment of Abu Dhabi Emirate. Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
  5. PlantZ Africa (October, 2010)
  6. University of Hawaii at Manoa: Botany (October, 2010)
  7. Vincent, P. (2008) Saudi Arabia: An Environmental Overview. Taylor and Francis, London.
  8. Brown, G. and Al-Mazrooei, A. (2003) Rapid vegetation regeneration in a seriously degraded Rhanterium epapposum community in northern Kuwait after 4 years of protection. Journal of Environmental Management, 68: 387-395.
  9. Kassim, T.A. and Barceló, D. (2009) Environmental Consequences of War and Aftermath. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  10. Shaltout, K.H., El-Halawany, E.F. and El-Kady, E.F. (1996) Consequences of protection from grazing on diversity and abundance of the coastal lowland vegetation in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Biodiversity and Conservation, 5: 27-36.