Abu Dhabi: A two-hundred-year-old tree known as "the Shabhana tree", coming from the "Ghaf" species, is the largest and oldest in the UAE and still survives in the hearts of Sila, 370 kilometres from Abu Dhabi city.
The thorn-free tree stood alone in the middle of the desert till the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who appreciated the tree's value to the Arab culture and heritage, ordered to build a forest around. The forest, now known as "The Shabhana Forest", is 301 hectares in size.
The Shabhana tree was discovered some time back by travelling Bedouins. Its location was on the path that travellers frequently used.
In addition, a close-by water well known as "Ber Al Baaya", located 1.5km away, added to the convenience of taking shelter under the tree.
"The late Shaikh Zayed used to visit this particular tree frequently. Once, when a branch of this tree had fallen down, he ordered to add support to the branches of this tree. The tree is being supported even to this day," said Hamad Al Mansouri, project manager at Sila.
The naturally grown tree is 30 meters tall and one meter in width and is now supported on each sides by metal poles to avoid it from falling due to its old age.
"We make sure we water the tree on a daily basis and take good care of it, we take pride in this historical tree. It stands individually as one of its kind and all the surrounding trees are just built to support its exotic existence. We hope it lives another 100 more years," said Al Mansouri.
Features of a ghaf tree
The ghaf tree survives in arid desert environment. It's supported by an extensive root system, which can reach depths of up to 30 meters - as tall as the Shabhana tree - to tap groundwater, develop shoots when exposed to the air and even fertilise the soil by releasing nitrogen when it dies or gets damaged.
Additionally, with the ability to withstand prolonged drought and high salinity, ghaf tree remains evergreen throughout the year - a quality that places it extremely high in the desert ecosystem.
In the local language, there are many affectionate names given to the ghaf. As a sapling, it's known as "haddeb", "nashwa" as a young tree.
And only after it has grown to become a sturdy tree is it called "ghaf". Many have shown their love for their tree by naming their children after the tree - Ghafa, Ghafan, Ghuafa and Buhadoub.
A ghaf grove is called "Oud" meaning "sticks" or "kila". In the past, these dense groves often acted as landmarks and areas were named after them.
Some of these names are still used today, though the groves themselves have been replaced by buildings. If you tour the country even today, you can spot these names: Umm Ghafa, Oud Altoba, Aawad Al Mahba, Aawad Alshuahi in Al Ain.
In December 2006, the Emirates Wild Life Society formed a partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (EWF-WWF) in order to conserve ghaf trees in the UAE.
The "Save the ghaf tree Campaign" has drawn public support to name the ghaf national tree of UAE with a view to conserve the species.