Like other members of the Borage family, Libbeid produces enormous quantities of nectar which encourages intense foraging by bees and effective cross pollination. Children are also attracted and like to pluck the flowers and suck out the nectar.
To deter grazing by animals, all parts of the plant are covered with sticky glandular hairs which produce nasty defensive phenolic substances, extremely irritating if they get into the eyes. In areas subjected to overgrazing, Libbeid tends to survive better than other species and comes to dominate.
Despite the plant’s chemical defence system, there is a moth whose larvae have adapted to hiding out in the hollowed stems during the day and emerging in the night to attack the flower-heads (1).
Since ancient times, however, the most celebrated property of this family of plants is the red dye (a naphthaquinone (2)) found in the roots. Bedouin women still use it to redden their lips.
Partial isolation of the plant populations in different wadis along with localised foraging behaviour by bees has meant that cross pollination is constrained. This has resulted in limited sharing of genes between the different sub-populations and consequential genetic differentiation. More detailed DNA studies, however, have revealed that the differentiation is not as great as would be expected, leading to the hypothesis that the spreading of seeds by flash floods diminishes the effect of localized bee behaviour and isolated plant population (3).
In Egypt, this plant only occurs in the high mountains of southern Sinai, fading out at relatively high elevations. It can be found at higher elevations in Greece and Turkey, and elsewhere in the mountains of the Middle East, with an additional isolated outpost in Algeria. Flowering occurs in spring and early summer.
1. Zamy Salat, Francis Gilbert A walk in Sinai: St Katherine to Al Galt Al Azraq, El Haramen Press 1998
2. Wafaa A. Tawfik, *Khaled A. Shams et al., Naphthaquinones of Alkanna orientalis, African Journal of Traditional, Complimentary and Alternative Medicines,, Vol.4, No. 1, 2007, pg. 55-58
3. K Wolff, S El-Akkad, R. J Abbott (1997) Population substructure in Alkanna orientalis (Boraginaceae) in the Sinai Desert, in relation to its pollinator behaviour Molecular Ecology 6 (4), 365–372.