Friday, 27 June 2014

The Fruits of Doum

Marianne North's Doum and Date palms on the Nile above Phillae
I’m very excited about the SBA’s exhibition, “Medicinal and Poisonous Plants”, in Frankfurt this October. The theme is one that really appeals to me, and has given me the perfect excuse to paint and research some medicinal plants that I have been wanting to paint for ages.

Egypt has long been famous for it’s herbs and spices, and in every Souk (market), you can find a spice shop- a wonderful Aladdin’s cave of spices, medicinal herbs, aromatic incenses, fragrant essential oils, all stored in large colourful baskets. Buying your wares involves a fair amount of haggling and friendly banter, along with the obligatory cup or two of fresh mint tea. I left with a bag full of exotic treasures.

First onto the drawing board is the very peculiar fruit of the Doum palm, Hyphaene thebaica, also known as the gingerbread tree. The tree is not as common as it once was, in fact, I have only seen in growing in the south of Egypt, but in ancient Egypt, every Egyptian of standing would have had these trees growing in his garden. 

Doum tree painting on the tomb walls of Sennedjem

The Doum Palm was considered a sacred tree, and symbolised of male strength and virility.   In fact, the fruit of this tree was of such importance that eight baskets full of dried doum fruit were discovered in Tutankhamum’s tomb, left to provide him with sustenance in the afterlife.

I am also painting the dried fruit. It’s rock hard with a shiny sienna-coloured appearance, and even though it’s dry, it smells delicious. Pliny describes it in his Natural History Book-

“... the wood of the cucus is held in very high esteem. It is similar in nature to the palm, as its leaves are similarly used for the purposes of texture: it differs from it, however, in spreading out its arms in large branches. The fruit, which is of a size large enough to fill the hand, is of a tawny colour, and recommends itself by its juice, which is a mixture of sweet and rough. The seed in the inside is large and of remarkable hardness, and turners use it for making curtain rings. The kernel is sweet, while fresh; but when dried it becomes hard to a most remarkable degree, so much so, that it can only be eaten after being soaked in water for several days. The wood is beautifully mottled with circling veins, for which reason it is particularly esteemed among the Persians.”

I never knew that the ancient Egyptians used curtain rings!

I paint little squares of all the possible pigments first, to help me select the right colours

Despite being dry and hard, you can eat it. The only way that I can describe it is like biting into MDF to find it dissolving in your mouth and tasting a bit like the honeycomb centre of Maltesers. I haven’t tried soaking it. It’s usually made into a very sweet drink. The ancient Egyptians were correct to appreciate it’s health-giving properties- studies conducted by Egypt's Mansoura University found that it significantly lowered high blood pressure and great reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, it’s an all-round “super-fruit” packed with many nutritious and medicinal properties.

It is extremely hard and took me a long time to scrape the doum nut clean for the dissection. The “nut” is also rock hard, and has been described as “vegetable ivory”. Apparently there once was a factory set up over here to make buttons from it, in the days before plastic took over the world.

Building up the layers of colour slowly (not finished)
Painting here has proved a bit of a challenge, mainly because it’s so dry and hot. This year I brought a small bottle of ox gall with me, and although it doesn’t extend the drying time of the paint, it certainly helps improve the spreading of the washes. In between layers of paint, I’m having to pull a damp brush over the whole surface just to soften the edges of the paint. My new Rosemary flats are perfect for this.

I painted a few practice doum fruit, and then tried out a Carob seed pod, Ceratonia siliqua. I’ve often seen these pods but was put off by the rather pungent smell. However having read about all the amazing health benefits, and the fact that it’s being used more and more as an alternative to chocolate, I decided to try some. It’s delicious. The pods are quite edible dry and nicely chewy, but it’s more usually made into a really refreshing drink. Again, it’s one of those "super-foods", having analgesic, anti-allergic, antibacterial, antioxidant, antiviral and antiseptic properties. The seeds are interesting too. A resinous gum can be extracted from them which, in ancient Egyptian times was used to bind mummies. Nowadays this extract is used as a thickening agent, emulsifier and stabilizer in beverages, candy, desserts, ice cream, salad dressings, cheeses, jelly, baked goods and other products. The seeds were also used as a measurement of gold during Roman times … twenty four seeds being equal to the weight of one gold coin, which eventually gave us the phrase “24 carat”.

I added a few more practice pieces to my study page- karkade (the dried calyces of hibiscus flowers Hibiscus sabdariffa ) which are used to make a refreshing drink)

Carob seeds, Cardamom pods (Elettaria cardamomum) and  Star Anise (Illicium verum

Senna pods (Senna alexandrina) and dried Desert-gourd (Citrullus colocynthis

I’m going to enjoy painting this piece- the colours, the textures and the smells. My practice page is almost done, now it's time to start on the real thing.

"Each morning sees some task begun, each evening sees it close 
Something attempted, something done, has earned a night's repose."


  1. I love your study paintings Shevaun, so full of life and energy. I have not heard of the doum fruit before, so that's been well worth the read. Thank you for posting your work, you are so inspiring!

    1. I'm glad to have surprised you with a new plant, Jess! Thanks for the nice words about the study page... I probably enjoy doing these pages a little too much! I'm onto the real painting now, fingers crossed!

    2. Learn how to spell its, Siobhan. The words aren't nescient; you are.

    3. Thanks for your comment, alysdexia. I respect everyone's opinions, even when the author misspells my name. That's quite ironic actually given your comment. My name is clearly written several times on this webpage.

  2. I learn something new every time I read your blog, thank you for the lovely paintings and especially the fascinating information about these exotic plants. Can' t wait to see what you will do next!

    1. Thanks Valerie. I'll be doing the Spice painting for a few weeks and then onto the dates! I'm so pleased that you enjoy reading about what I'm up to.

  3. Shevaun, I just love reading your blog! Not only are the paintings and studies gorgeous (and a feast for the eyes), I always learn so much! Wonderful. You pick the best quotes to go along, too. :)

    1. Thank you Carol! I'm really happy that you're enjoying the journey with me!

  4. I am always amazed by your study pages--so beautiful! It would take me weeks, and by then the fruit would be out of season. But your method is working well for you, and we get to enjoy the feast for the eyes. The information about the plants and your description of the markets made a fascinating read. I could almost smell the exotic aromas!

    1. Hey, if the doum can last 3000 years in a tomb, it can wait a few weeks whilst it's portrait is painted! I think that one of the reasons I enjoy it here so much is because I get the opportunity to paint without interruptions. Bliss! Thank you for your kind comments and encouragement, Janene!


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