Save UAE's national tree

'Give a Ghaf' project founder gives us the lowdown

Area Guides
Area Guides

Surprises have been in plentiful supply of late at Time Out Towers. Not only have we discovered it’s far harder to find a place to live in Dubai than all the empty apartments would suggest, and that there is such a thing as fish gelatine (we bought marshmallows from Spinneys at the weekend), but we’ve also discovered that the UAE has a national tree – the ghaf. But it’s bad news for this far-flung relative of the pea family: over-chopping by humans and over-grazing by goats and camels mean the native ghaf is now something of an endangered species.

‘This tree is a great survivor. Fierce temperatures, searing winds, high rates of water loss – the ghaf tolerates them all. It’s even considered a solution to “desertification”, or degradation of the land,’ explains 35-year-old Italian Tatiana Antonelli Abella. She co-founded Gulf-based enviromental group Goumbook with business partner Randala Jishi Anabtawi in 2010, and the pair soon decided something needed to be done to help save the ghaf trees. Despite its incredible survival skills, the ghaf is no match for the woodsman’s axe, which is why Goumbook launched its Give a Ghaf tree-planting campaign on June 5 2010 to mark the UAE’s Environment Day. Since then, more than 2,000 seeds have been planted at the scheme’s nursery.

‘Our first nursery was set up at the Al Awadi Centre in Sharjah, near Al Dhaid. We chose to plant seeds instead of existing trees, as we’re making a point of creating new trees,’ Abella explains. While the number so far is impressive, they’ll need even more help from the public and corporate donors if they are to reach the target they recently set themselves for this time next year.

‘It’s an ongoing campaign, and we’re hoping to see steady growth in the number of people involved and seeds planted, but one of our targets is too reach 10,000 trees by February 2013,’ says Abella. Another aim of the project is to raise awareness on the volume of water consumed daily in the region. ‘Local trees survive in the desert with very little water, so we should try to plant indigenous species as a way of reducing our water usage, especially in a country where a lot of energy is used to desalinate sea water.’

The scheme has even more goals for the next few years; in the long-term, it aims to expand to other Gulf and Middle Eastern countries to extend the Give a Ghaf campaign across the region. First, however, they will need enough support to take the project into all seven emirates. ‘We welcome individual and group planting,’ says Abella, noting that people can either donate online and have their seeds planted for them, or make a donation and plant their seeds themselves (with friends and family, if they want to bring an entourage) at the centre’s nursery. Either way, the campaign is relying on word of mouth to spread its message. Once a seed has been planted, the campaign looks after the tree for five years, before it reaches a safe height, at which point it is donated free to the community.

Discovering the ghaf has without doubt been our favourite surprise of the week so far. (But we never want to eat marshmallows again.)
Donations cost Dhs18 per tree, and can be made through the website. For more info, see

Alternative planting ideas

If the ghaf has inspired you to get planting, try these suggestions

A time capsule
We’d recommend including a short description of your life, a current newspaper, one of this month’s best-selling books and a photograph of the Palm Jumeirah (just in case it disappears before the year 4,000).

An aloe-vera plant
Once you’ve installed this in your garden, just snap off a piece of this desert plant and use it to treat sunburn and eczema. You could save yourself a fortune on aftersun lotion.

A chilli plant
These survive well in the heat and, unlike tomato plants, they are usually left well alone by the region’s birds. It seems the UAE’s avian community isn’t partial to spicy food.

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