Socotra Cucumber Tree (Dendrosicyos socotrana): Isolated Isle's Weird Fantastic Vulnerable Tree

by DerdriuMarriner

Socotra's Indian Ocean remoteness auspiciously preserves unusual plants, such as its threatened cucumber trees, and promotes eco-tourism but inauspiciously lures pirates.

Socotra cucumber trees (Dendrosicyos socotrana) are among the threatened plants on the Socotra archipelago.

The archipelago's remote location in the northwestern Indian Ocean is auspicious and inauspicious.

Remoteness has encouraged preservation of unusual plants, such as the island's cucumber trees.

The island's unique and unusual biodiversity helps promote eco-tourism, which in turn necessitates awareness of possible piracy which is sometimes prevalent in the area.

As with all of Socotra's unique fauna and flora, cucumber trees captivate with their quirky look and their poignant vulnerability.

Socotra Cucumber Tree (Dendrosicyos socotranus): captivating, quirky, and vulnerable

Socotra's cucumber tree
Socotra's cucumber tree

 

The Socotra cucumber tree is the only tree member of the family Cucurbitaceae, which includes gourds, melons and squashes.

It also is the only member of the cucurbit genus Dendrosicyos.

Additionally, it is the sole member of  that genus’ lone species, socotranus.

 

Di Hamri Marine Conservation Area, northeastern Socotra

Conservation, preservation, and sustainability: all are concerns for Socotra, a remote, unique archipelago in the northwestern Indian Ocean.
Di Hamri Marine Conservation Area, northeastern Socotra
Di Hamri Marine Conservation Area, northeastern Socotra

Where is the Socotra cucumber tree found?

 

The species is endemic to the Indian Ocean island of Socotra ( سُقُطْرَى Suquṭra), where it is called qamhiyn. Socotra is not an Arabic word. Instead, it is thought to derive from the Sanskrit phrase dvipa sukhadhara (Sanskrit:  द्वीप सुखाधार). The original meaning therefore is "island of bliss."

Socotra is the largest island within the Socotra archipelago. The archipelago is made up of the two rocky islets Ka'l Fir'awn and Sābūnīyah as well as four islands, of which the three smaller are the sparsely populated Abd-al Kuri and Samhah and the uninhabited Darsah. Abd-al Kuri, Ka'l Fir'awn, Samneh, and Darsah are commonly known as The Brothers.

The island Socotra is about 150 miles (240 kilometers) east of the Horn of Africa. It is 240 miles (380 kilometers) south of the Arabian Peninsula’s Republic of Yemen, of which it is a part. Socotra is the main island in an archipelago of four islands. Abd al Kuri and Samhah are inhabited sparsely while Darsa is uninhabited. The Socotran archipelago also encompasses Ka'l Fir'awn and Sābūnīyah, tiny, rocky, uninhabited outcrops which have significance for seabirds.

The isolated island measures just over 77-1/2 miles (124.72 kilometers) long by just under 28 miles (45.06 kilometers) wide.

The area of the remote island totals 1,415 square miles (3,665 square kilometers), which represents about 95% of the archipelago’s total land  mass of 1,465.6 square miles (3,796 square kilometers). The island claims all but a few hundred of the archipelago’s estimated total population of 50,000.

 

Socotra: archipelagic remoteness of faunal and floral speciated, rugged paradise

a panorama of coastal sand dunes against backdrop of limestone plateau, etched with deep valleys (wadis) and karstic caves, and mountain fastnesses, home to fantastic and strange flora
Socotra's sand dunes
Socotra's sand dunes

 

According to the botanical field surveys of the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Socotra archipelago is host to 825 plant species, of which one is the Socotra cucumber tree. The Socotra cucumber tree also is one of a 307 member subgroup of that number to be found nowhere on Earth except on Socotra. About one-tenth of that subgroup additionally meets the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria for inclusion on the Red List of Threatened Species. The Socotra cucumber tree numbers among the threatened members of the archipelago’s flora. In fact, it has the specific conservation status of vulnerable to threats to survival and reproduction because of climate change and habitat loss/destruction.

In fact, the ratio of endemic to total plant life throughout the Socotra archipelago is high, at 37 percent. The figure reflects both the geologic history and the historic isolation in which life is carried out on these Indian Ocean islands. Geologically, the archipelago is not volcanic but continental in origin since it is considered a detached piece of the supercontinent Gondwana (510-200 Mya [million years ago]). Climatically, the archipelago’s geographic isolation is made even more inaccessible by the fierce, windy monsoon weather conditions that prevail between June and September.

Because of its unique environment, the Socotra archipelago is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site as of July 2008. Part of the uniqueness lies in the archipelago’s estimated age of 10 Myr (million years). Molecular analysis indicates that the archipelago’s cucumber tree may be more than twice that of the archipelago, at 22 Myr. The Socotra cucumber tree therefore is not only a window onto the archipelago but also onto the mainland home of the plant’s ancestors.

 

Young cucumber trees growing at Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, 1903

illustration by Henrik Gronvold (September 6, 1858-March 3, 1940)
illustration by Henrik Gronvold (September 6, 1858-March 3, 1940)

Who found the Socotra cucumber tree?

 

The Socotra cucumber tree first was described by Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour FRS FRSE (March 31, 1853 – November 30, 1922) in 1882. The Scottish botanist in fact led an expedition to Socotra in 1880 to 1882. Sir Balfour's interest in endemic plants previously had led him to investigate flora further south on the mid-Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues in 1874.

 

"a weird and fantastic look":

Impressed with the unusual tree's "weirdness" and "peculiarity," Sir Balfour's description noted:

"The tree never attains any great height, but its soft, bare, and stout stems, surmounted by a tuft of few slightly pendant branches, give it a weird and fantastic look possessed by only one or two other plants on the island, e.g., the Adenium multiflorum, Klotzsch, and the Dorstenia gigas, Schweinf." (p. 101)

 

single file parade of Dendrosicyos socotrana trees with another endemic, Euphorbia arbuscula, on ridge in background ~ Ras Ahmar, eastern Socotra
1899 photo by Franz Kossmat (August 22, 1871-December 1, 1938)
1899 photo by Franz Kossmat (August 22, 1871-December 1, 1938)

What does the Socotra cucumber tree look like?

 

Bark, branches, and trunk:

White is the color of the Socotra cucumber tree’s bark. The branching is limited and therefore responsible for the tree’s small crown. The trunk is bulbous, conical and enlarged. The swollen look of the trunk causes the tree to be called a “bottle tree” and to be described as podagric (Greek: πούς, pous, “foot” + ἄγρα, agra, “trap"), or swollen-stemmed. The trunk typically will mature to a diameter of 3-1/4 feet (1 meter) on a 6-1/2 foot (2 meter) tall tree.

 

Leaves:

The leaves are petiolate in that a stalk attaches the blade to the stem. They grow to a diameter of 1-1/2 to 3-1/4 inches (4 to 8 centimeters) in an alternate arrangement on the branch. Their cordate or heart shape divides into five palmate lobes with slightly toothed margins. Their bristly, rough surface is covered with fine, short thorns that become less prickly with age.

 

 

Flowers:

The flowers of the Socotra cucumber tree grow in clusters in the axils (Latin: axilla, diminutive of ala, "wing" and therefore "upper arm," "armpit"), which is the angle formed by the meeting of the individual leaf stem with the main leaf stalk.

The tree's flowers may be yellow or orange yellow in color. They measure no more than about 1 1/4 inches (3.175 centimeters) in length.

Cross-pollination is possible, because the Socotra cucumber tree's flowers are considered complete. Specifically, all of the parts necessary for pollination to be achieved without pollinators are found on each of the tree's flowery clusters. In fact, each floral cluster is centered on one female flower surrounded by male flowers.

 

Fruits:

The fruit looks like a cylindrically shaped berry that is pointed at both ends. Each Socotra cucumber tree fruit may measure 1-1/4 to 2 inches (3.175 to 5.08 centimeters) wide by 2 to 4 inches (5.08 to 10.16 centimeters) high. The color of the skin changes from green to brick red as the fruit ripens and begins to split open. The inside flesh is orange to reddish orange.

 

Seeds:

The seeds measure just under ¼ inch (6 millimeters).

Seeds are orange and covered with a very fine, translucent, velvety layer.

There may be as many as five to a half section.

 

Fig. 1: habit of tree; 2: twig portion with large leaves; 3: twig portion with small, much-divided leaves; 4: dried branch portion; 5: pistillate flowers on twig portion; 6: staminate flower: lateral; 7: staminate flower: oblique view from above.
illustrated by Harriet Thiselton-Dyer (1854-1946): Figs. 1 & 5 copied from G. Schweinfurth, rest from dried specimens
illustrated by Harriet Thiselton-Dyer (1854-1946): Figs. 1 & 5 copied from G. Schweinfurth, rest from dried specimens

What does the Socotra cucumber tree need to grow?

 

In its native habitat, the Socotra cucumber tree is accustomed to high heat in a context of extended drought, fierce winds and regular sunlight.

1. Temperature:  

Island temperatures reach average highs of 90+ °F (32.2+ °C) from April to June and from August and September. They fall to average lows of 62+ °F (16.66 °C) from October to March. January is the coldest month.

Away from its native habitat, the Socotra cucumber tree nevertheless can adapt to just about any climate whose temperatures do not dip below 68 °F (20 °C).

2. Precipitation:  

Rainfall reaches a yearly total of just over 10 inches (254 millimeters). It is more or less evenly distributed, in amounts of less than one inch (25.4 millimeters), throughout the year and by way of at least two rain days per month. Amounts in excess of one inch are reached only in May, September and October, which are not the months with the most rain days. Instead, the Socotra cucumber tree experiences quadruple the number of rain days in July and August, both of which average 9+ rainy days.

3. Humidity:  

The moisture content of the air hovers in the teens during more than half of the year. It averages in the twenties in January, April and September. The average is 37 to 38% only in May and October.

4. Soils:  

Calcareous soils characterize the coastal plains and low inland hills where the Socotra cucumber tree grows, from sea level up to an altitude of just under 1,641 feet (500 meters). Such soils are gritty and strong in delivering the nutrients calcium and magnesium to Socotra cucumber tree roots. Their pH is highly alkaline because the acids present in such soils are so weak that the level cannot drop down to the neutral range of 6.5-7.0 or lower into the acidic levels below.

But Socotra cucumber trees also grow on the shrub land of the island’s coastal plains. The plains offer a bit more hospitable of an environment in terms of alluvial soils and fast draining sand. There, the Socotra cucumber tree finds protection from predators and weather extremes by growing in the midst of spiny (Lycium sokotranum) and succulent (Cissus subaphylla) shrubs.

Specifically, Lycium sokotranum, which also is known as Lycium europaeum sensu auct. and Lycium socotrana, is a species of flowering plant in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. It is endemic to the Socotra archipelago. It grows throughout the coastal plains and limestone plateau of the island Socotra, from sea level to altitudes just under 2,625 feet (800 meters). It also may be found on the central plains of the island Abd al Kuri.

This spiny shrub matures to a height under 6-1/2 feet (2 meters). Its leaves are obovate, or gently egg-shaped, and measure up to ¾ inches (2 centimeters) in length. Its yellow flower is just under 2/5 inch (1.016 centimeters) long, which also is the maximum diameter of the plant’s red fruit as well as the length of each of the sharp spines which grow on the shrub’s many branches. What with its menacing spines, it may come as no surprise that the plant's conservation status is of least concern to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

 

Cissus subaphylla protects Socotra cucumber tree from predators and weather extremes

Cissus subaphylla, Airport-Hadibo Road, Socotra
Cissus subaphylla, Airport-Hadibo Road, Socotra

 

The succulent Cissus subaphylla, which also is called Vitis subaphylla, is a plant in the family Vitaceae, whose plants flower from two embryonic leaves.

On Socotra, it grows on the island’s dry plains as well as on calcareous slopes up to 984 feet (300 meters) above sea level and on the western limestone plateau up to 2,460.6 feet (750 meters) above sea level.

Sir Balfour remarked:

"Over all, and giving quite a character to the whole landscape, is the glaucous-grey colour, due either to a waxy bloom on the more leathery and fleshy forms, as . . . Vitis subaphylla . . . and others . . ." (p. xxxiv)

"This is quite a distinct species in the simple entire-leaved group of vines . . . as found in Socotra, it is nearly leafless, only the younger twigs showing leaves, and these soon fall off. It is one of the commonest plants on the limestone plain about Galonsir, forming small clumps with intertwined branches." (pp. 58-59)

It also may be found in the open shrub land of the island of Samhah at 328 feet (100 meters) above sea level.

On both islands, its conservation status also is of least concern.

 

Sir Balfour's wife Agnes, second daughter of Glasgow merchant Robert Gourlay Balloch, illustrated some of his specimens. Married on March 31, 1853, the couple had a son, Isaac (born October 19, 1889) killed at Gallipoli on June 28, 1915, and a daughter.
drawing by Agnes Boyd Balloch Balfour (born May 29, 1857-October 20, 1940)
drawing by Agnes Boyd Balloch Balfour (born May 29, 1857-October 20, 1940)

 

5. Drainage:  

Drainage varies, from excellent on the coastal plains to obstructed on hill slopes.

6. Nutrients:  

Generally, tree roots need 17 nutrients in order to grow and to support above ground growth as well. The Socotra cucumber tree is no exception even though it is adapted to the nutrient deficiencies that may develop in a context of an arid climate and limestone geology. Away from the archipelago, the soil regularly should be analyzed for nutrient uptake, toxicity or deficiency.

7. Propagation:  

Seeding is the only method for propagating the Socotra cucumber tree, in the wild and in cultivation. No other method works. Budding, cutting and grafting all have been tried, with dismal results.

Plant each seed about ½ inch (1.27 centimeters) down in a starter pot filled with a pumice mix to about one inch (2.54 centimeters) from the lip. Water just enough to keep the contents moist, but not waterlogged. The seeds should germinate within 14 days.

The Socotra cucumber tree most likely will need to be repotted every 3 to 4 years. At least half of the soil should be pumice. An effective mix for the other half is compost since the Socotra cucumber tree requires good drainage. Watering can be adjusted from a regular 7 to 10 day schedule any time that the soil feels and looks dry or waterlogged. Even though temperatures need to hold steady at 68 degrees F (20 °C), the Socotra cucumber tree handles occasional drops to 50 °F (10 °C) and even down to 30 degrees F (-1 °C) without injury.

 

Socotra synecology: Endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) often is seen perching atop Socotra Cucumber Tree; providing perches and shelters are important uses in the ecosystem.

endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
endangered Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

What are the Socotra cucumber tree’s uses?

 

Medicine, nutrition, ornamentation and revenue are the four main uses of the Socotra cucumber tree. In its native habitat, it is its roles as a food source and a medical treatment that traditionally prevail.

Specifically, the tree in its seedling form is a popular food source for the island’s plenteous population of grazing goats. In its mature form, the tree often is cut down, made into pulp and fed to livestock.

In terms of medicine, the Socotra cucumber tree’s leaves make an important contribution to traditional island culture. The leaves are used to treat an array of serious health conditions:  burns to constipation, cystitis, diabetes, and liver and urinary problems. Additionally, Socotra cucumber tree extract --- which contains polysaccharides, proteins and terpenoids --- is a traditional treatment for malaria.

But the revenue possible through eco-tourism is overcoming the traditional lack of attention to the historically ornamental role of the Socotra cucumber tree in its native habitat. The tree's odd appearance as a sentinel of isolated coastal plains and remote inland slopes in fact is a major draw for eco-tourist activities on Socotra. For example, the tree's locations cooperate with nature classes that are followed by celebratory forays into pristine mountain pools and sparkling sun kissed beaches as well as thrilling quests for treasure rumored to be buried in area caves by Indian Ocean pirates drawn to the remoteness of the Socotra archipelago.

 

Cucumber tree: "a favourite perch for three or four of the white vultures which swarm in the island, and the picture formed by these ungainly birds on top of this ungainly tree is an odd one." (T. Bent, p. 380)

illustration by James Theodore Bent (March 30, 1852 – May 5, 1897) of Egyptian vultures perched atop cucumber tree at Wadi Dikadik
illustration by James Theodore Bent (March 30, 1852 – May 5, 1897) of Egyptian vultures perched atop cucumber tree at Wadi Dikadik

Socotra cucumber tree: a window into the past, a fragile view of the present

 

It is indeed the ornamental role that accompanies the export of the Socotra cucumber tree outside

the archipelago. Its unusual bottle shape and the ancient botanical legacy that it preserves serve

to remind us of earlier times in Earth’s history and of fragile membership in today’s world.

 

Socotra cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotrana): in its element on its very own patch of ground

Hadibu (Hadiboh), north coast, Socotra
Hadibu (Hadiboh), north coast, Socotra

Dedication

This article is dedicated to the memory of archaeological explorer James Theodore Bent  (March 30, 1852 – May 5, 1897) and his wife Mabel Virginia Anna Hall-Dare Bent (1847-1929), with appreciation for their pioneer research via a 15-year expedition to eastern Mediterranean, Africa and Arabia and for the artistry of Theodore's sketches and Mabel's photographs.

 

1910 Watercolor by Dr. Georg August Schweinfurth (December 29, 1836-September 19, 1925)
1910 Watercolor by Dr. Georg August Schweinfurth (December 29, 1836-September 19, 1925)

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Socotra synecology: Fringillaria insularid nest was discovered "beneath a granite boulder on a rather bare and open hillside dotted with Cucumber-tree" (W.R. Ogilvie-Grant, "Fringillaria insularis," in H.O. Forbes, p. 30)
Fringillaria insularis (now Emberiza tahapisi insularis): Cinnamon-breasted bunting (Socotra) ~ illustration by P.J. Smit
Fringillaria insularis (now Emberiza tahapisi insularis): Cinnamon-breasted bunting (Socotra) ~ illustration by P.J. Smit

Sources Consulted

 

Alshawsh, Mohammed A., Ramzi A. Mothana, Hassan A. Al-shamahy, Salah F. Alsllami and Ulrike Lindequist. “Assessment of antimalarial activity against Plasmodium falciparum and phytochemical screening of some Yemeni medicinal plants." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol. 6 No. 4 (December 2009): 453-456.

Balfour, Isaac Bayley. “Botany of Socotra.” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences. Volume XXXI (31). Edinburgh: Robert Grant & Son; London: Williams & Norgate, MDCCCLXXXVIII (1888).

Balfour, Isaac Bayley. Botany of Socotra. Forming Vol. XXXI of The Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Robert Grant & Son; London: Williams & Norgate, MDCCCLXXXVIII (1888).

  • Available via Biodiversity Heritage Library at: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/42457
  • Available via Internet Archive at: http://archive.org/details/botanyofsocotra00balf

Bent, J. Theodore. "The Island of Socotra." The Nineteenth Century, A Monthly Review, Vol. CCLIV (June 1897): 975-992.

  • Available via HathiTrust at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/njp.32101065273441

Bent, Theodore, and Mrs. Theodore Bent. Southern Arabia Soudan and Socotra. With a Portrait, Maps, and Illustrations. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1900.

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Available at:  http://www.al-bab.com/bys/articles/brisch10.htm

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Engler, Adolf, and Oscar Drude. Die Vegetation der Erde. Volume IX: Die Pflanzenwelt Afrikas insbesondere seiner tropischen Gebiete. Band I. Halfte I. Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1910.

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Evans, Mike. “Islands east of the Horn of Africa and south of Yemen.” Deserts and Xeric Shrublands > World Wildlife Fund Scientific Report.

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Forbes, Henry O., ed. The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri: Being the Report upon the Results of the Conjoint Expedition to these Islands in 1898-9, by Mr. W.R. Ogilvie-Grant, of the British Museum, and Dr. H.O. Forbes, of the Liverpool Museums, together with information from other available sources Forming A Monograph of the Islands. Liverpool-London: The Free Public Museums, 1903.

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Miller, Anthony G. (2004). “Dendrosicyos socotrana.” In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1.  www.iucnredlist.org.

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Schaefer, Hanno, Christoph Heibl, and Susanne S. Renner. “Gourds afloat: a dated phylogeny reveals an Asian origin of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) and numerous oversea dispersal events.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, Vol. 276 No. 1658 (March 7, 2009): 843-851.

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Wettstein, Richard von. "Sokótra 1905." Pictorial work of Plates 25-30, Issue of Georg Karsten and Heinrich Schenck, eds., Vegetationsbilder, Vol. 3, No. 5. Munich: Collotype by A-G Bruckmann; Jena: Gustav Fischer.

  • Available via Internet Archive at: http://archive.org/details/Soktra1905

 

Socotra synecology: Fringillaria insularis nest in area of cucumber trees ~ male (left) and female (right),
Fringillaria insularis (now Emberiza tahapisi insularis):  illustration by Henrik Grönvold (September 6, 1858 – March 23, 1940)
Fringillaria insularis (now Emberiza tahapisi insularis): illustration by Henrik Grönvold (September 6, 1858 – March 23, 1940)
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Socotra: A Natural History of the Islands and Their People by Catherine Cheung, Lyndon DeVantier, and Kay Van Damme

This richly illustrated book provides the first comprehensive review of the natural history of these islands.
Socotra-themed books

Cucumber Tree: phot by Diccon Alexander

Cucumber Tree

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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