Vachellia nilotica: Gum arabic tree

Family: Fabaceae
Common name: Gum arabic tree, Prickly acacia, Thorn mimosa, Babul, Thorny acacia, Egyptian acacia

A small but severe-looking tree with long, grey, prickly thorns, Gum arabic trees are very commonin India. They are seen on roadsides, hillsides, near lakes, open areas, empty plots and almost anywhere. Gum arabic trees can grow to a height of 7-18 meters with a rounded crown and many small twig-like branches.

Young tree stems are covered with long grey spines that are about 5-7 cms long. In older trees, the trunk is fissured and reddish-brown in color. Small-tuft like leaves are pinnate, with 3-6 pairs of secondary leaves, an 10-30 pairs of tiny leaflets which are dark green on the upper surface and light green on the lower surface.

Gum arabic tree flowers are very beautiful, yellow and rounded, about 1.5 cms in diameter. They are borne in large clusters, have inconspicuous petals but numerous hair-like stamens that give the flower a fluffy appearance. The tree then produces elongated fruits that are very unique in appearance.

They are about 10-20 cms long, bulged around each seed, and constricted between the seeds, so that they look like a string of pearls. These fruits are initially greenish-yellow, later turning yellow and then brown on maturity. They contain 8-10 seeds, and do not split open to release the seeds.

Once the fruit falls to the ground, they decay to release the seeds, or are eaten by grazing animals, who help in seed dispersal. Gum arabic trees are very sturdy and are capable to spreading over large areas in the short period of time. They are therefore considered a highly invasive weeds in some countries. The seeds can remain dormant in the soil for long period of time, till the right conditions arise for germination.

Young seedpods, leaves, flowers and sprouted seeds are eaten as vegetables. Flowers can be batter-fried; and roasted seeds used as condiments. Ground seeds are used as adulterants in coffee powder. Seeds and bark are used to make alcoholic beverages.

Tannins are obtained from the seeds and bark. Reddish gum obtained from the bark is used in cooking, and also in making candles, inks and paints. Fiber obtained from the bark is used in making paper and ropes. Twigs of this tree is crushed on the ends, and used as toothbrushes. Leaves are used as animal fodder; and wood used as fuel. Wood is strong enough to make agricultural implements, handles, tent pegs etc.

Gum arabic trees also have medicinal uses as well, in treatment of cough, cold, chest congestion, fever, tuberculosis, leprosy, ulcers, smallpox an a variety of other ailments.

Propagation is through seeds.

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