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Characteristics of Egyptian Balsam Tree (Balanites aegyptiaca) in the Wild

Egyptian Balsam Tree (Balanites aegyptiaca)

Egyptian Balsam (Balanites aegyptiaca) is a species of tree in the family Zygophyllaceae, native to parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Balanites aegyptiaca is found in northeastern African countries (Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, and others) and the Arabian Peninsula (Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen).

This tree has many names such as Desert date, Soapberry tree, Thorn tree, Egyptian myrobalan, Zachum oil tree, and Egyptian balsam.

This tree was first described in 1592 by a Venetian doctor and botanist, Prospero Alpini who gave it the name ‘agihalid’. Carolus Linnaeus considered it a species of Ximenia, but Michel Adanson proposed a new genus Agialid. The genus name Balanites was later established in 1813 by the French botanist, Alire Raffeneau Delile.

Egyptian Balsam can be found in a wide variety of habitats, tolerating a wide range of soil types, from sand to heavy clay, and climate humidity levels, from arid to subhumid. This tree is relatively tolerant of floods and forest fires.

Balanites aegyptiaca has been cultivated in Egypt for over 4000 years, and stones placed in graves as votive offerings have been found as early as the Twelfth Egyptian Dynasty (Dynasty XII).

Characteristics of Egyptian Balsam Leaf

Balanites aegyptiaca Leaf
Source: izzystuart

The leaves are compound, dark green, and grow from the base of the spines and consist of two leaves that vary in size and shape.

Characteristics of Egyptian Balsam Flower

Balanites aegyptiaca Flower
Source: Martina Ticháčková

The inflorescence consists of clusters of several flowers that are sessile or rest on short stalks. The flower buds are ovate and covered with short tomentose pubescence. Individual flowers are greenish-yellow and hermaphroditic with five radially symmetrical petals and 8-14 mm in diameter. The flower stalks are greyish, downy, and usually less than 10 mm long, although 15 mm has been recorded in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Camponotus sericeus ants feed on the nectar released by flowers. Bunaea alcinoe moth larvae cause the defoliation of trees.

Characteristics of Egyptian Balsam Fruit

Balanites aegyptiaca Fruit
Source: Michael 2020

The fruit is ellipsoid, usually less than 4 cm long, and green when not yet ripe, when ripe the fruit is brown or pale brown with a crunchy skin that encloses sticky brown or greenish-brown flesh around the hard seeds.

The fruit can be eaten fresh when ripe, but is bitter, and needs to be processed before eating. Many parts of the plant were used as famine food in Africa.

Characteristics of Egyptian Balsam Tree

Balanites aegyptiaca Tree
Source: Ori Fragman-Sapir

Balanites aegyptiaca can grow into a medium-sized tree up to 10 meters high. The branches have long, straight green spines arranged in a spiral. The fluted trunk has rough, greyish-brown bark with greenish-yellow spots.

This tree is considered valuable in dry areas because it produces fruit even in the dry season.

Various Sahel tribes use the tree’s thorns to make incisions that produce tattoos.

Benefits of Egyptian Balsam Trees

This tree fixes nitrogen.

Balanites aegyptiaca is managed through agroforestry. The pale yellow to brownish wood is used to make furniture and durable items such as tools and is a low-smoke firewood that makes good charcoal.

The seeds contain 30-48% fixed oil (not volatile), such as leaves, fruit flesh, bark, and roots, and contain the sapogenins diosgenin and yamogenin. Saponins are also found in roots, bark, and fruit.

The fruit can be fermented to make an alcoholic drink.

The fruit is mixed into gruel and eaten by nursing mothers, and the oil is consumed for headaches and to increase lactation.

A decoction of the bark is also used as an abortion medicine and antidote for arrow poison in traditional West African medicine. The fruit extract has been studied and is known to have antigiardial activity (against the Giardia parasite), antiamoebic, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and cytotoxicity.

Small trees are used as living fences or garden fences because they are tough and thorny.

The bark produces fibers and natural sap from the branches that can be used as glue. The seeds are used to make jewelry and beads.

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