Written by Robert W. Lebling Jr.
The people of the desert have been harvesting tarthuth like this for thousands of years. It has pleased the palates of passing Bedouins and their camels, filled grocers’ baskets in local markets and served as survival food in times of dire famine. It is traditionally known for a wide range of medicinal properties as well—properties now being studied seriously by researchers in the Middle East.
Tarthuth today is barely known outside the region, though it was once harvested around the Mediterranean and was bestowed as a special gift on European royalty in the 16th century. In those days it was known to Arabs and Europeans alike as a wonder drug—a heritage largely forgotten in the rush of modern medicine. But things may be changing. Now, as pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers take a closer look at traditional remedies derived from plants and herbs, tarthuth may once again have an opportunity to rise to prominence.
Tarthuth (pronounced tar-thooth) is the popular Arabic name for the parasitic plant Cyno-morium coccineum. Medieval Europeans called it fungus melitensis—”Maltese mushroom” or “Malta fungus,” names by which it is still known today. Sometimes it’s called “desert thumb” or “red thumb.” The plant is found growing—usually ignored nowadays—in a wide swath that extends from southern Portugal and Spain across the Mediterranean region, including North Africa. Tarthuth even pokes above the remote sands of the Sahara: Botanists have identified it as far south as the central Hoggar range of Southern Algeria. It latches onto salt-loving bushes on Mediterranean islands like Ibiza, Sicily and, of course, Malta. Its range passes through the Levant to the northern and eastern regions of the Arabian Peninsula and vaults across the Gulf into Iran—and perhaps beyond.
Well known in Saudi Arabia—its burgundy spikes emerged this year in late January near the colossal Ghawar oil field and at Lake Lanhardt in Dhahran—tarthuth also makes its home in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. In February 1999, Canadian explorer Jamie Clarke spotted the bright red flowering stems growing on a rocky shelf nearly five meters (16′) up a cliff wall in Wadi Ghadun, in Oman’s southern province of Dhofar. “Traditionally the Bedu…ate it during long camel caravans across the Empty Quarter,” Clarke reports in his book Everest to Arabia. “The entire plant is only ten inches [25 cm] high and has an awkward appeal, much like a mushroom’s…. Camels love to eat it and I gather this particular plant has been spared that fate by its lofty perch. In a tropical forest it would go unnoticed. Here, its vivid colour and unique character make it stand out against the starkly barren wadi cliff.”
Tarthuth is a highly specialized parasite with some fungus-like properties. It grows underground for most of the year, feeding on the roots of saltbushes and other salt-tolerant plants. When the winter rains come, its extensive root system shoots fleshy red stems up through the sand and into the open air. The plant has no green color because it’s a parasite and thus needs no chlorophyll to feed itself.
The leafless red stems or spikes, fully grown, range in height from about 15 to 30 centimeters (6-12″). The spikes have tiny scarlet flowers so small that they can hardly be seen individually. Tightly packed and scale-like, they look somewhat like coarse fur. Pollinated by flies attracted by the plant’s sweetish, somewhat cabbage-like aroma, the flowers eventually wither and the spike turns black.
When the January and February rains are good, the young fleshy stems of tarthuth can be “sweet tasting and edible raw, with a pleasant crisp, succulent texture,” reports a botanist in his Flora of Eastern Saudi Arabia. The flesh is apple-like, with an astringent quality that freshens the mouth. Just picked, tarthuth can be very sweet; left to sit for a few days, it can be somewhat bitter on first taste, but stays tartly refreshing. The Bedouins clean the just-picked spikes, peel off the outer skin and eat the flavorful white interior. The mature, blackened spikes are sometimes ground and made into a sweetened infusion used hot or cold to treat colic and stomach ulcers.
Botanist James Duke cites tarthuth’s traditional use as a medicinal tea in Qatar. Botanist Loutfi Boulos says North African medical tradition regards the entire plant as an “aphrodisiac, spermatopoietic, tonic, [and] astringent.” In traditional medicine, it is mixed with butter and consumed to treat obstructions of the bile duct. Maltese mushroom has a close relative in the East Asia, C. songaricum or suo yang, whose brownish spikes have long been regarded as an effective medicinal agent in Chinese medicine, used to treat kidney problems, intestinal ailments and impotence. Recent studies in China show that Cynomorium, like green tea, has “very strong antioxidant effects.”
As recently as the 1920’s, villagers from the Saudi coastal oasis of Qatif would head into the desert in early spring and return with their donkeys loaded with sacks of tarthuth for sale in the local suqs, or markets, Mandaville notes. The plants are still a popular treat for Bedouins and other desert travelers, according to wellsite inspector and desert expert Geraiyan M. Al-Hajri. He says tarthuth can be found in springtime in the suqs of al-Hasa in the kingdom’s Eastern Province. In the Maghrib, Arab North Africa, the dried and pulverized plant is used as a spice or condiment with meat dishes.
The red pigment in the plants provides another benefit: It has been used as an effective fabric dye by the women of at least one Arabian tribe, the Manasir, many of whom now live in the United Arab Emirates. The dye produces a rich, colorfast crimson hue known as dami or “blood-red.”
Maltese mushroom’s use as both foodstuff and medicine goes back thousands of years. Arab physicians of the Middle Ages considered tarthuth “the treasure of drugs” because it had a wealth of traditional therapeutic uses, particularly as a remedy for blood disorders, digestive ailments and reproductive problems, including impotence and infertility.
An early philosopher of the Arabs compiled a medical formulary, or aqrabadhin, that mentions tarthuth as the main ingredient of a salve used to relieve acute itching caused by foreign matter under the skin. An influential Islamic physician prescribed tarthuth as a remedy for hemorrhoids as well as for nasal and uterine bleeding.