Badda, Othoo, Olokwai, Eroronyit, Mjunju, Kiwowa – are just some of the names that Kenya’s peoples use for this super-tree. Here, in the Maasai Mara, its lone presence on the grasslands adds a sense of drama. Perhaps the spare silhouette springs some ancestral memory. For if we believe that humankind evolved in the Great Rift, then we must have an ages-old association with this tree, and not only as a source of food, but for firewood, the making of shelters and tools and, most especially, for medicine.
All the photos here were taken in the Mara, but the range of the Desert Date (Balanites aegyptiaca) extends across much of Africa, and into parts of the Middle East and India. But wherever it grows, its multiple uses have long been valued. Much like the baobab, it is a natural pharmacy. Every part of this unassuming tree has been scientifically shown to be packed with pharmacologically active substances.
Saponins are the key compounds. They protect the immune system, decrease blood lipids, lower cancer risk and cholesterol levels. They include diosgenin, from which hormones for the contraceptive pill may be produced. In short, the tree’s parts – roots, shoots, bark, fruits and seeds – have been shown in laboratory tests to have many healing and prophylactic properties: anti-fever, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-parasitic, anti-cancer, antioxidant and liver-protecting. (For more scientific details see Bishnu P Chapagain 2006.)
And so it is that the practices of generations of traditional healers, from Africa to India, (and so often sneered at) may now be vindicated: all along they have been barking up precisely the right tree.
For example, the Pokot pastoralists of northwest Kenya make a decoction of the root to treat malaria. They also boil the root in soup to ease oedema and stomach pains. For heartburn, the Akamba of central Kenya make an infusion of bark. Throughout East Africa, the root is used to get rid of intestinal worms, and as a general purgative. The bark is used as a fish poison, and when mixed with fruit will kill freshwater snails and copepods that host the parasites that cause Bilharzia and Guinea Worm respectively, both scourges in many parts of Africa. In Sudan herbalists use Desert Date to treat jaundice, and in West Africa the fruit is mixed into porridge and eaten by nursing mothers. The seeds, when boiled, produce an excellent oil that is used in food preparation and to soothe headaches. Over 4,ooo years ago in Ancient Egypt this oil was a prized cosmetic. So much so, that the seeds were placed in tombs beside the dead as if to suggest that, in the afterlife, this was a tree that no one could be without.
In fact Balanites thus once grew in profusion along the Nile Valley, and were possibly cultivated. But they are also well adapted to arid and semi-arid conditions, tolerating both sand and heavy clay. Their vertical roots reach down 7 metres, while the horizontal roots may extend 20 metres from the trunk. It can also cope with stock and wildlife grazing (the characteristic canopy is shaped by browsing giraffes), flood, and grassfire. Their boughs and long, thin spines photosynthesize even when the leaves drop off. This makes them a valuable famine food. No matter how dry, each year they can produce up to 10,000 date-like fruits. The flesh is bitter-sweet, but eaten by humans, their stock and most wild game. In fact elephants are one of the main propagators of this species, at least in Africa. While most other creatures spit out the stones, elephants swallow them, depositing them in due course in dollops of ready-made compost.
In Kenya the Pokot and Turkana also eat the tree’s young leaves and shoots, boiled, pounded and fried with fat. The Maasai eat the gum, and the Marakwet boil the seeds and eat them like beans. In other parts of Africa the small flowers are stirred into porridge, and the fruit is fermented to make alcoholic drinks.
And then there is the wood. This is an excellent cooking fuel since it burns with little smoke. The wood is durable and used for house-building. It is also easily worked to make yokes, wooden spoons, pestles, mortars, handles, stools, combs. Resin from the tree stems is used to stick feathers on to arrow shafts and spear heads to shafts. The Turkana use it to repair cracks in tool handles. And the tree itself may be grown in farmsteads as a living fence that can be cropped for both human needs and livestock fodder. While it is protecting domestic animals and crops it is also fixing nitrogen in the soil.
And now you know why I called it a tree of life. It is ripe for development too, the kind of development that can only enhance existence on the planet. In fact one gasps at how much potential can subsist within a single tree species. AND THIS IS JUST ONE TREE. But doesn’t it show, and with glaring clarity, that instead of destroying the world’s wild places (and for mostly very pointless reasons), we need to protect and learn from them, and learn, too, from those indigenous peoples who still know them intimately and understand where the real treasure lies.
Copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
For my earlier post on the baobab:
Anthology Baobab: African Story Tree
Jungle2Jungle and Bishnu P Chapagain 2006 for more about the Desert Date
Flickr Comments for more ‘D’ words
19 thoughts on “Desert Date ~ a real-life tree of life”
your desert seems not to be a desert because you can find there these wonderful trees! next week will have E = did you ever met an elephant?
Lovely photos Tish.
I remember as children, we would it the fruits of this plant, there were many of it growing where we lived
Tell me more, Noel. For starters, where was your home exactly? Nyanza?
Nyanza yes. Bondo specifically
Excellent post! How long does one of desert date trees live?
Now you’ve got me stumped, Bumba. Of all the zillion of facts I came across about desert dates, life span did not feature. I can tell you they grow to 30 feet high though. I must find out.
You mentioned how early man must have eaten the dates. The area was wetter back then.
They grow, and grew in some profusion too, in wetter areas – ie in the Nile Valley which floods. Also the Rift would have perhaps been savannah similar to the Mara back when hominids were evolving.
This post is so lovely! Lovely pictures,
Thank you, Ritva.
a doubly delicious dessert for the D theme – divine images and lots of info to digest – thanks Tish
Delighted you liked it. 🙂
Your Desert Date is beautiful, Tish! All the images are so gorgeous that I can’t pick a favorite! Well done! =)
Thank you, Fats. Glad you enjoyed it.
I love this post! I have seen this tree, but didn’t know any of this. And I totally agree with you conclusion…so much value lies in indigenous knowledge, we should protect it along with the wild places, and learn from it.
Actually, Tiny, when I was doing some more reading about this tree, I was astonished at the reams of academic studies that have been done. Sadly, though, it has become a neglected species for agroforestry purposes, which seems odd when it looks ideal for somewhere like the Sahel where desertification is taking a real hold.
And so it is with most other trees and plants – they can provide us with many essentials: food, medicine, heat, shelter. I heard something really interesting recently from a medical herbalist about the inherent intelligence of plants. A plant’s chemical properties connect to receptor cells in our bodies (often many different ones which would explain why one plant can have different medicinal effects on different people based on their physical needs); when the exchange is complete and our body doesn’t need anymore action from the plant, the plant’s chemicals will disengage from the receptor sites. Synthetic medicines, however, usually only fit one receptor site and then latch on – for good. They do not “know” when enough is enough. This is one of the reasons why so many synthetic medicines have such strong side effects
Well researched essay, Tish. Thanks for all that wonderful information.
At first, though, the title made me think of something other than a tree 🙂
You mean sultry sheiks on camels? 🙂
And thank you too Annette for all those interesting details about herbal medicine. It makes sense to me. We did evolve alongside plants after all. And yes, the wilderness is full of useful therapeutic herbs. It’s a shame we have become so locked into synthetic drugs that isolate and replicate what is presumed to be THE only active ingredient in any beneficial plant. Aspirin is also an interesting example. It upsets many people to take it, whereas a decoction of bark from the original willow source, is much more gentle.
What an awesome tree! Thank you for your mountain of information. I was amazed. Thank goodness for the elephants. 🙂