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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III 1 BALANITES (Desert Date, Lalob) It is hardly surprising that balanites (Balanites aegyptiaca) is exploited; what is truly surprising is that it isn’t exploited more.1 This small, deep-rooted tree tolerates such heat and drought that it thrives in the heart of the Sahara, and is common in places such as Tamanrasset, Algeria and Kordofan, Sudan. It is, moreover, exceptionally useful.2 Indeed, it has so many useable parts and products that a proverb in the Sahara runs: “A bito (balanites) tree and a milk cow are just the same.”3 Among other things, these very spiny trees bear heavy yields of fruits— as many as 10,000 annually on a mature tree in good condition. The gummy, yellow-to-red pulp of these date-sized morsels contains about 40 percent sugar. It is sometimes eaten raw, but is more commonly converted into drinks, cooked foods, and medicines. The seed extracted from within that pulp yields a tasty kernel. Rich in protein and oil, this almond-shaped nut has perhaps more potential than the date-like flesh around it. In gross composition, it is something like sesame seed or soybean—about 50 percent oil and 30 percent protein. To become edible it must be boiled for some time, but then it can be processed into various tasty snacks, including roasted nuts and a spread that looks and tastes not unlike peanut butter.4 The tree provides other useful resources, too. In times of famine, the flowers, leaves, fruits, and even bark are relied on for food…indeed, for life itself. The seeds are always popular with animals, and they underpin 1 We choose to call this fruit “balanites” (pronounced bal-an-EYE-tees or bal-an-IT-ees) only with reluctance. It is normally called “desert date” in English, but that name is confusing because the plant is not the common date, which certainly grows in deserts but comes from a palm. Lalob, the Arabic name, is used throughout the Middle East but is unknown in most of Africa. 2 Strictly speaking, this is an undomesticated plant. We include it among cultivated fruits because in most Sahelian nations it is planted by farmers or stockbreeders. Moreover, it is planted for dune stabilization and other environmental purposes. 3 This was recorded in what was once called Bornu, a region now mainly found in northeastern Nigeria and Chad. 4 In a survey 3,000 people judged this “balanites butter” to be “tasteful, with good smell and high quality.”
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Balanites produces heavy yields of date-like, bittersweet fruits whose gummy, yellow-to-red pulp contains about 40 percent sugar. Although these sweet treats are eaten raw, they are more commonly used as ingredients in cooked dishes. Some are crushed and converted into drinks. The fruit also yields a nut roughly matching sesame and soybean in composition. (András Zboray) livestock production in dry places and in drought seasons where animal husbandry reaches its outermost limits. The wood is highly prized for cooking because it burns almost without smoke. Oil from the seed is a prized ingredient in local cosmetics. Twigs plucked from the branches are used to clean the teeth. The living trees themselves provide shade, shelter, and blessed relief from the never-ending starkness of the desert all round. And the fact that the older plants have razor-sharp spines is put to good use in hedges around houses and kraals around animals. Finally, most parts of the plant are considered to possess various medicinal properties. Considered in fullest perspective, balanites produces a wealth of resources where other plant life can barely survive. Its deep taproot makes it drought resistant. Its thick bark helps it resist grass fires. It also tolerates termites, seasonal inundation, winds, sandstorms, shallow and compacted clays, salt spray, and soil salinity. If, as is generally believed, humanity began in Africa, then the bittersweet balanites fruit is likely among the oldest of all foods. Certainly, this resilient evergreen has been helping people out for thousands of years. Its fruits have been found in pharaohs’ tombs dating back to at least the 12th
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III dynasty in ancient Egypt. Thus, even royalty has appreciated it 4,000 years. For all its age-old history as a resource, this is still a “lost” crop. Balanites is seldom, if ever, included in textbooks or monographs of African food production. It is practically unknown to horticultural science. And a concerted effort to develop its true potential using modern capabilities has yet to be attempted. That situation should be changed. This species produces the necessities of life in one of the world’s most difficult zones of existence. It helps stabilize life and environment in the most severely drought-challenged regions. Its native range extends through the hottest and driest parts of the continent: from the Atlantic coast at Mauritania and Senegal to the Red Sea at Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea. It also extends onwards and eastwards beyond Africa, through the Arava Valley in Israel and Jordan to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Pakistan, and India (notably the Thar Desert). This is not a rare plant. Throughout this vast, parched, and perilous region, scattered balanites can even now be found—and some occur in large concentrations. In Sudan, for example, the species makes up about one third of the total tree population in the country’s central provinces; Blue Nile Province alone is estimated to have a million lalob trees. And people like balanites. Throughout its range the fruits are eaten (especially by children, not to mention camels, goats, and wildlife). Although each fruit may look and feel something like a date, it is usually stringy, bitter, and thin-fleshed. Certainly at this stage these fruits lack the date’s general appeal. Nevertheless, they should not be written off as some sort of fake date. Far from it. This is a fruit with potential to reduce malnutrition and to underpin food security in the ultimate torrid zones where there are few other useful plant species. Balanites can also contribute to the reduction of rural poverty. Indeed, it might provide the basis for small industries otherwise inconceivable in the terrain where it grows. For one thing, the seeds could supply food-grade vegetable oil. The golden-yellow liquid is easily pressed out of the kernel and it is both stable and capable of meeting international food standards. For the world at large, a new oilseed may seem of no consequence, but in the seared savannas and desolate drifts where balanites thrives a locally produced high-energy food could be of outstanding importance. Moreover, the kernels are a raw material from which pharmaceuticals can be derived. The seedmeal (the solid remaining after the oil is removed) contains diosgenin, a raw material for the production of steroids. The world’s craving for steroidal drugs—cortisone, birth-control pills, estrogen, anti-inflammatory agents, and many others—is strong and getting stronger. In this regard, alone, balanites might provide a new export for countries that, perhaps more than any on earth, need a source of foreign exchange. The trees are so common that Sudan alone could—at least in theory—produce 1,200 tons of diosgenin, which is enough to satisfy half the world’s demand.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III All this untapped promise is what makes the fact that balanites is not better known and better developed so surprising. Of course, indigenous people appreciate it…their lives can depend on it. Scientists, though, have given it only scanty scrutiny, and national and international authorities have accorded it little organized support so far.5 As the world turns its gaze ever more intently on desert trees in a search for potential foods and sources of income, it will see in balanites ways to help address several of the most pressing humanitarian environmental problems for perhaps the most drought-afflicted area on earth. Balanites offers fruits, seeds, oil, and shade from the burning sun, but it also could help overcome desertification, avoid soil erosion, maybe thwart parasitic disease, and reduce the environmental destruction caused by livestock. Such possibilities are highlighted below. PROSPECTS A balanites tree is slow growing and its fruits are far from first class (when compared with the world’s top fruits, that is), but its combination of benefits makes it one of the most promising friends to humanity in a vast region where no truly great fruit species can grow. Within Africa Although a very adaptable species, it is so little studied that the future is largely guesswork. The following, however, seem reasonable estimates. Humid Areas Poor prospects. This thorny, irrepressible tree is a potential menace in well-watered regions, a zone that doesn’t need it anyway. Dry Areas Excellent prospects. Balanites has great untapped potential, even though it is already one of the most widely employed species in the vast droughty stretches of sand, stone, and savanna extending from Senegal to Somalia and from Sudan to southern Africa. Upland Areas Unknown. Balanites is generally considered a lowland species. However, it occurs at altitudes up to 1,500 m in East Africa and 1,800 m in Konso, a region of Ethiopia where rainfall is under 650 mm and extremely erratic. In Algeria’s Ahaggar—a region commonly described as “the navel of the Sahara”—it occurs at altitudes up to 1,800 m, with populations of around 30 trees per hectare.6 5 This is not to slight early pioneers who championed this species. These include French botanists such as A. Chevalier and A. Aubreville who worked in the Sahara during the 1930s. Also, a research team of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) made special pleas for balanites development in Sudan in the 1980s. 6 Information from Brama Traoré.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Kanem, Burkina Faso. The small, deep-rooted, very spiny balanites tree tolerates heat, drought and blazing sunlight so well it thrives in the heart of the Sahel. The living trees provide shade from the burning sun, shelter from the hot winds, and blessed eye relief from the starkness of the desert. In times of famine, the flowers, leaves, and even bark provide sustenance. It would thus seem to make an ideal security shield for the food supply in an area where such hazards all too often decimate other food resources. Moreover, the seeds are so popular with animals that they underpin livestock production in dry places and in droughty seasons when animal husbandry operates on its outermost limits. (Laure Guerrini) Beyond Africa This plant is already widespread in the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and much of South Asia. Here its prospects are as good as in the Sahara and Sahel. Beyond these Middle East and South Asian regions, however, this potentially invasive tree should not at present be introduced. USES As mentioned, balanites is a plant of many parts and many products. They include the following. Fruits The ripe fruits are eaten raw or sun-dried and can be safely stored like dates. Some provenances are sweet, others bitter. People (and not only little ones) chew them as snacks. Commonly the sweet pulp is macerated in water to create a tonic, which is also fermented into forms that are more potent. The juice is also often mixed into porridges to liven up the flavor and add a touch of sweetness. Seeds Today most of the seeds go unused, but in certain areas they are gathered in quantity. After soaking and sun drying, they can be safely stored for months. Subsequently, the kernels are extracted. Roasted, these balanites nuts have an enticing aroma and are typically added to soups and to the various cereal products that are enjoyed in Senegal, Nigeria, Chad, Uganda, and Sudan. The Shuwa in northeastern Nigeria, for example, commonly eat them this way. And to some Shari and Chad peoples these seeds are so important they are the foundation of everyday life.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Seed oil The seed’s kernel can contain up to 60 percent of an almost tasteless oil. Sometimes called zachon or betu oil, it is highly prized especially in Sudan. The culinary properties are comparable to those of a quality vegetable oil. In a recent market survey, for instance, consumers rated it with cottonseed oil for flavor and cooking qualities.7 Resin When the bark is damaged, balls of resin form around the wound. The gummy exudate is soft, sweet, and pleasantly chewable—not unlike chewing gum. People deliberately slash the bark in a process reminiscent of inducing rubber from a rubber tree or gum Arabic from Acacia senegal. Collected from fresh wounds, the globs are full of fluid and pleasant to suck like sweets. Some are made into drinks; others used as glue. Flowers This is one of the African plants whose flowers are widely eaten. In parts of West Africa boiled balanites flowers (called dobagara) are added to couscous, often at ceremonial meals. They are also eaten with dawadawa, a fermented cheeselike food prepared from locust beans (see companion volume on vegetables). The flowers provide important forage for honeybees. Children suck the nectar, too. Leaves Young leaves are eaten, but only after thorough cooking (like spinach).8 Commonly, they are boiled and added to crushed peanut balls or to sauces or relishes. They are widely used in sauces in Burkina Faso, where the balanites is considered a dependable famine food. Forage The leaves are also valued for feed, especially as they remain available deep into the dry season, when grasses and annuals have withered. All types of stock relish them, but cattle and sheep, repelled by balanites’ spines, restrict themselves to the young shoots or suckers, which have tender spines, much protein, and relatively little fiber. The plant becomes especially important in times of drought, when animals have difficulty finding anything to eat. Indeed, seen in profile, the trees are usually jagged and lopsided from people hacking at them for feed. Locals are skilled at gathering the maximum foliage while stopping just short of killing the tree.9 Wildlife 7 A contributor from Sudan wrote to us, saying “I prefer it over cottonseed oil and consider it equal to [peanut] oil.” 8 How widely this occurs is uncertain, but it has been reported at least from Niger, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. 9 Balanites leaves reportedly have high protein content. Goats and camels, unfazed by the thorns, browse young branches. Shepherds climb trees and pollard branches for their herds to feed upon, particularly during summer months. One contributor wrote: “In Konso (Ethiopia), balanites is one of the prominent fodder trees planted ‘at random’ in the fields for fodder, for soil erosion protection and for shade, as well as for the fruits.” The combination of camels and this tasty, nutritious desert tree is particularly powerful.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III devours the young leaves, fruits, and even the thorns. In particular, giraffes crop the top close. Kernel Cake The seedcake left after the oil has been extracted from the kernels is nutritious enough to replace cottonseed cake in animal rations. This residue is promising as a locally produced “concentrate” for what are perhaps Africa’s driest and least accessible regions. It is high in protein (37 percent) and low in fiber (6 percent).10 It could prove economically important for much of Sahelian Africa. Wood Even the unlopped tree is hardly shapely. It is short, and the often-crooked bole is seldom longer than 2.5 m. Despite this, heartwood is useful. It is attractive, easily worked, fine grained, durable, and resistant to insects, including termites.11 It is made it into bowls, troughs, tool handles, walking sticks, gunstocks, cabinetry, plows, other farm implements, furniture, and mortars and pestles.12 It is particularly sought for specific parts of camel and donkey saddles. And it is especially valued for fuel because it not only burns with little smoke but also yields charcoal of high energy content. Shells Every ton of whole fruit yields half a ton of woody shells. These shells are hard, dense, and highly combustible. They make good fuel as well as good charcoal and particleboard. Spines In West and East Africa people often pile the branches together to form thorny brushwood barriers. They also grow living fences by planting balanites root cuttings in a row. After a few years—if initially protected from camels, goats, and fire—this process forms a hedge strong enough and spiny enough to keep out most two-legged intruders, all cattle, and most goats (except the famous “climbing goats,” which are too clever by far). It is especially suitable for cattle kraals. Extracts Extracts of fruit and bark, while harmless to mammals, kill the snails that schistosomes require as intermediary hosts. They also kill this much-feared parasite’s free-swimming life forms as well as the water flea that harbors guinea worm (dracunculiasis), a serious disease in West Africa. 10 O.A. El Khidir, A.Y. Gumaa, O.A.I. Fangali, and N.A. Badir. 1983. The use of Balanites kernel cake in a ration for fattening sheep. Animal Feed Science & Technology 9:301-306. 11 Careful selection is important here because the sapwood is difficult to distinguish from the heartwood; many logs are mainly sapwood, which is very susceptible to damage by wood boring insects and fungi. 12 In much of Africa mortars and pestles are still used for grinding seeds, dried flowers, and leaves—both for daily foods and for medicines.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Other Young branches, stripped of their spines, are used as toothpicks. The hard round seeds are used for rosary beads, necklaces, and playing-pieces for board games (such as darra and warri). Whole seed is sometimes burnt in a special partial-combustion container to produce a gooey black tar (ghotran), employed in treating mange, a skin disease notably affecting camels. In Ahaggar, Algeria, Touareg women have used the oily kernels to lighten their face and suppress black spots on their skin. Balanites is also a common hedgeplant, widely grown, for example, in the town of Tamanrasset, where many inhabitants plant it around their food plots. NUTRITION The fruit is bitter when green, but palatable when ripe. It perhaps should not be eaten in excess, as the saponins it contains in various proportions are laxative. Nonetheless, schoolchildren in parts of West Africa reportedly suck 15-20 balanites fruits a day seemingly without ill effect. Given such experiences down through centuries, the presence of toxicity seems unlikely, but uncertainty nevertheless remains. Nutritional details are variable, but the pulp seems quite nourishing. Its carbohydrate (notably sugars) content ranges from 40 percent (fresh-picked) to 70 percent (fully dry). The dried pulp also contains about 5 percent protein and 0.1 percent fat. Vitamin and mineral contents have yet to be detailed but—as in most dense fruit pulps—are likely to be substantial. As has been noted, the seed kernels are rich in oil. Amounts from 30 to 60 percent are recorded. This lipid consists largely of linoleic and oleic acids (about 30 percent and 25 percent respectively), and would be classified as unsaturated, the type most desirable in foods. Kernels and seedmeal are also rich in protein (above 25 percent). Apparently, it is only slightly inferior in amino-acid quality to peanut. The seed kernels of most plants generally provide good mineral content, and their oils often contain fat-soluble vitamins. In particular, the golden kernels of balanites probably contain notable levels of carotenoids; groups such as the Dinka who consume them regularly are reported to have low incidents of vitamin-A deficiency.13 Although the above analyses indicate a high nutritive value, just how good a food the kernels are remains in doubt. Sometimes they are steeped 3 to 4 days before being eaten, and whether this is necessary, precautionary, or reflective of just certain types is currently unknown. Seedmeal tested on rats showed no gross toxicity. HORTICULTURE Whereas the species is basically uncultivated, individual trees have been planted for centuries and in recent times tiny plantations have been 13 Information from C. Gullick.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Southern Sudan. During all of the years humans have been in Africa, they have been eating balanites’ date-sized fruits. Kernels are for supplementary food, famine food, or even the staple food. They are also useful for producing industrial products. (Caroline Gullick) established in Niger, Chad, and northern Nigeria. From this it is known that balanites is easily established by direct seeding. Seeds are readily available, although they are prone to insect borers which greatly reduce the viability. Those seeds that have passed through goats or camels germinate and sprout readily, and are easily found in places where animals are kept overnight. In a perhaps better way to ensure germination fresh seeds can be placed in water, boiled a few minutes, cooled, and left to soak overnight. An alternative is manual scarification followed by 24 hours of soaking.14 In addition, wild seedlings can be dug up and transplanted into a plantation setting. Vegetative propagation is straightforward. As mentioned, root cuttings are used to form hedges. The roots readily form suckers, which are cut off, rooted, and planted. They strike readily. Vegetative reproduction can also be performed using stem cuttings. This ease of cloning makes the species ideal for propagating elite specimens. The tree grows slowly at first, leaving it vulnerable to grass fires, grazing animals, and weed competition (in fertile soils) for at least 3 years. Once past the establishment phase, however, plants need no protection. They show 14 A contributor reports successful direct seeding without supplementary irrigation in a severe region of the northern Sahel, where total rainfall was 172 mm. Seeds were removed from their shells, soaked for 12 hours in 30°C water, and sown at 3 cm depth (twice the diameter) after the rains had properly started. There were 500 to 2,500 seeds per kilogram. Information from Eden Foundation.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III excellent persistence and appear immune to almost all natural injuries. Some hedges in the Sahara are believed to have survived at least a century. Management is not an imperative, but in dry areas pruning helps the trees survive drought. The trees coppice readily, and bounce back without lasting damage even after heavy pruning. Seedlings mature relatively slowly. The first fruit yields can be expected in 5-8 years, depending on plant and on location. Once fruiting begins, however, the tree can go on producing annually for at least 75 of its 100-year lifespan. And for all those decades it can be extremely productive (an average yield is said to be 125 kg of ripe fruit per tree). HARVESTING AND HANDLING The fruits are usually harvested from the ground. Like true dates, they store well in dried form, and are often put aside for use during the hungry season. However, they do not keep as well as dates and those destined for longtime storage must be gathered before they ripen. Compared to the fruits, the seeds store much better—up to a year if they are clean, dry, and protected from insects. The kernels are subsequently extracted by cracking the seeds open by hand or by boiling them in water until the shell bursts apart. Next, a bitter principle in the kernel must be eliminated. This is usually done by cooking the kernels twice and then either steeping them 3-4 days or leaching them with hot water (60°C) for 2 days. As noted earlier, the debittered kernels are tasty and can be roasted like peanuts, used in sweets, or ground into the paste like peanut butter. LIMITATIONS Uncertainties and qualifying factors are to be expected with what is basically an undomesticated species. As to the plant itself, there are problems of slow and erratic growth, irregular fruiting, sharp thorns, frost sensitivity, susceptibility to browsing, and damage by certain insects. As to the seed and fruit, there can be difficulties with insects and rodents unless care is taken. In farm fields the trees may compete with nearby crops for moisture in the root-zone. However, this depends on the local conditions, and on pastureland balanites reportedly makes a good companion crop. A principal obstacle to the fruit’s commercial exploitation has been the difficulty of obtaining adequate and regular supplies. There are technical difficulties too. One is removing the sticky skin on a large commercial scale. Another is the woody shell that limits industrial utilization of the seed. Although machines for separating this hard covering from the kernel have been described, they all tend to crush the seed. As of yet, no one has invented a machine to extract the kernels whole and undamaged via mechanical means—a major constraint to developing food products from this nut in quantity.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Balanites is not recommended for planting outside its native habitat. After reaching Curaçao in 1885, for example, it infested that dry Caribbean island. Goats favor the fruits and are the major disperser of its seeds. NEXT STEPS With a plant of such diversity, dispersion, and usefulness the task of presenting a comprehensive picture of its developmental needs is daunting. Below are a few possibilities. Making Use of the Existing Resource A 1979 survey found trees in the Sudan yield more than 400,000 tons of fruits per year. The one million trees in Blue Nile Province produce at least an estimated 100,000 tons. Of those, only about 2 percent reached any marketplace in that barren and sparsely populated area where transport and communications are difficult. The rest go to wildlife or rot. In such places more needs to be done to help local people, most of whom live in poverty, take better advantage of the potential in their midst. This is true in countries from Mauritania to India. Food-Security Activities This reliable, resilient, and beneficial species could be a powerful weapon in projects to make life more secure in locations that too often need food relief due to drought. Tests, trials, and support for balanites plantings and development in places such as the starvation-plagued Ogaden and Konso regions are encouraged. When drought arrives, these may save much hunger, if not many lives. Stopping Desert Creep Contrary to popular impressions of a few years back, the Sahara is not marching relentlessly on its way to the ocean, but the movement of sand dunes and degradation of land are nonetheless serious problems. Indeed, desertification threatens to demolish roads, tracks, railways, waterways, town, farms, villages, and dams—all of which are being denuded of vegetation, due to drought and overuse, and are being left vulnerable to the irrepressible Sahara sands. To combat the advance of the sand, officials and laypersons alike have initiated many measures—mechanical, chemical, and biological. Tree planting, however, remains the most popular and practical. Over the entire Sahelian region small farmers are planting trees to keep their land from turning to desert. Eucalyptus and neem are perhaps most popular, but of all the trees tried so far, balanites is among the most effective. It is one of the very few that can survive on dunes in locations where annual rainfall is as low as 100 mm. Moreover, the locals particularly favor it for its wood, fruit, fuel, forage, and its medicinal value. This tree thus could have a civil benefit of great importance even if its products never become widely exploited. It could end up protecting the vital infrastructures of a dozen countries.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III International Cooperation As this crop is as at home in Arabia and India as it is in Africa, there are possibilities for joint and parallel research activities in developing balanites. The value to the Empty Quarter of Yemen and Saudi Arabia and the Thar Desert of India are perhaps as great as to the Sahara sands. Indeed, in India (where the species has long been called Balanites roxburghii) the fruits are often much larger than in Africa. Through grafting or cross-pollination the Indian plants offer a possible key to rapidly improving the production of balanites fruits in Africa and the Middle East. Cooperative research, testing, DNA analyses, and much more are well worth fostering. New Plantings Although existing natural stands are extensive and may be useful for industrial purposes, the greatest commercial hope lies in organized plantings of select, superior material. Indeed, balanites shows such promise as a resource that immediate plantation trials are highly recommended. In areas where it is already known, efforts need not be delayed by extensive quests for the ideal plant to clone. It should be noted that in the wild the species grows as scattered trees and perhaps may not be amenable to plantation-style production, especially in extremely arid locations. However, there is every expectation that it will adapt well. Horticultural Development There are no detailed studies regarding optimum cultivation methods, hence there is much scope for improving yields. For example, studies into seed viability, optimum planting times, spacing distances, soil fertility and watering could all lead to improvements. There is also little understanding of pollination and fruit set, or knowledge of pests and diseases and their effects on yield. Thus it would be prudent to investigate issues such as vegetative propagation, pruning regimes for maximum fruit set, spacing, water use, and micro-site enrichment. In these and other research activities, local insights could well prove invaluable. Genetic Selection A species as variable as this holds much scope for improvement by selection. The tree is so widely distributed across Africa and Asia it seems likely that many different ecotypes, if not subspecies, already exist. It is likely that some with large and sweet fruits, fast growth, high yields, small thorns, or perhaps no thorns are just waiting to be discovered by the observant traveler. Toxicological Testing Despite the fact that it has been eaten for years, more toxicological testing is necessary before balanites can be wholeheartedly recommended as a major food source. It seems likely that the traditional methods for preparing it rely on leaching out the soapy ingredients. While unpleasant to eat, these saponins are not toxic.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Thou Market, southern Sudan. Across the Sahel, women generate income from balanites seeds, which are about half oil and a third protein. After processing at home, they can be turned into many tasty items, including roasted snacks and a spread not unlike peanut butter. They also supply a vegetable oil that is a prized ingredient in foods as well as in local cosmetics. (Caroline Gullick) Industrial Development The plant’s several products with industrial potential need and deserve further development. These include diosgenin, oil, and various fermentation products. The same can be said for its byproducts (such as protein-rich feeds), which may end up becoming vital resources for many of the world’s most needy nations. Cracking the Nuts As noted, the principle obstacle to extensive commercial exploitation has been the lack of suitable machines for removing the sticky pericarp and for decorticating the nuts. A research breakthrough could transform the potential of this species.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Non-food Uses Just how good the various balanites products are as medicinals, pest-control agents, skin treatments, animal feeds, and chewsticks for teeth cleaning have yet to be solidly determined. Tests should be run. These would make interesting research projects because the tree grows where few or no other sources for such products exist. Public Health In areas beset by schistosomiasis or guinea worm, planting balanites along the edges of irrigation canals, around water holes, and along the banks of rivers could be tested. Fruits are lethal to the infective stages of these serious disease organisms. However, there is uncertainty over the practicality of such uses because a strong emulsion of the fruits can be toxic to fish. Even if this proves unworkable in natural waterways, it may work in wells and troughs and other constructed water supplies. The fruit’s ingredients are not toxic to humans or domestic animals. SPECIES INFORMATION Botanical Name Balanites aegyptiaca (L.) Del. Family Zygophyllaceae (Balanitaceae) Synonyms Balanites roxburghii Planch. Agialida barteri, Agialida larteri van Tiegh., Agialida senegalensis van Tiegh., Agialida tombuctensis van Tiegh., Balanites ziziphoides Mildbr. et Schlechter, Ximenia aegyptiaca L. Common Names Arabic: heglig laloab, lalob (fruit) Bambara: seguene, zegene, ségé né, English: desert date (ripe), Egyptian myrobalan (unripe), torchwood, Jericho balsam Ethiopia: ghossa, dyemo, shifaraoul (Amharic), bedena (G), hangalta (K), maghe, mogha (T) French: dattier du désert, myrobalan d’Egypte, savonnier Gourmanché: bangbaalu Nigeria: aduwa (Hausa) India: ingudi-vraksha (Sanskrit), hingol (Hindi, Bengali) Kenya: mnyra, njienjia, mjunju (Swahili), eroronyit (Turkana), olongosw/u, ol-ngoswa (Maasai), mulului (Ka), otho, sadhto (Luo), baddan (Bor), segene (Bama), tunywo (Pok) Moré: kielege, kielega Nepal: cheure (Nepalese) Senegal: sump (Wolof) Somalia: ader, goot, kiti, kulan, kullen (Somali)
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III South Africa: umHulu, umgobandlovu (Zulu) Sri Lanka: ingudi Sudan: heglig, heglieg (Arabic), laloub (lalobe), korak, tira, kuri (Nuba) Uganda: ekorete, ecomai (Ts), too, to (Ach), lugba (Bar), thoo (A), logba, lugba (Md), lubwoti (Rl) Zambia: kasalusalu, mfwankomo, mklete, mkumudwe, msalu, pulupulu (Ny) Zimbabwe: nyachoko, muvambangoma (C), muongo (To), nulu (H) Algeria: teboraq, teboragh, tborag (Tamahâq) Senoufo: sancere logolo Mauritania: taïchot (Arabic), murtoki (Poular) Description Balanites is a shrub or, more usually, a small tree 3 to 6 m, rarely 10 m tall, with a furrowed stem up to 45 cm in diameter. It is long-lived, and may exceed 100 years. Bark is scaly, deeply fissured, and gray or dark brown. The fissures, which run vertically, reveal the yellowish younger bark beneath. Its stems are intricately branched and the canopy more or less spherical. The slender drooping branchlets bear long green spines and gray-green leaves made up of two leaflets. The trees are either evergreen or wholly or partially deciduous. There is also a narrowly branched taproot, which may penetrate several meters to reach the watertable. On inland dunes in Senegal, lateral roots were dug up and found to extend out nearly 30 m. The flowers are hermaphroditic and self-compatible, though pollination is usually by other flowers on the tree or out-crossing with other plants. Pollinators are primarily bees, ants, and flies, as well as beetles and the wind. The fruit is a plum-like drupe. Green at first, it turns yellow-red as it ripens. The skin is thin, loose, sometimes wrinkled and leathery, becoming parched when ripe. It is easily removed. The inside parts are composed of a soft, edible pulp surrounding a woody stone. The stone constitutes about half the weight of the whole fruit—the skin and sugary pulp together make up a third, and the seed at the center 15 percent. Distribution The species is indigenous to woodlands along the Sahara’s southern border from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. It is often commonplace on the savannas across that area. Individual trees have been planted extensively in villages far to the south of its natural range. In eastern Africa, it is found as far south as Natal. It is also found in Southwest and South Asia. As noted, it was introduced to the Caribbean more than a century ago, and on Curaçao has overrun part of the dry eastern end of the island. It is also growing in Puerto Rico and probably other Caribbean islands.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III Horticultural Varieties None reported. Environmental Requirements Balanites is typically found in ecosystems from deciduous bushlands to savanna woodland thickets to open desert, where it occurs mostly in and alongside wadis. The trees themselves occur scattered or as pure stands, the latter possibly being due to human intervention. Owing to their value, balanites are often left to live when all else is felled. Rainfall The species’ precipitation range is 100 to 1,400 mm, but the most trees occur where rainfall is between 250 and 800 mm. In the driest areas, they occur only where the roots can reach groundwater. Altitude The tree is found from 380 m below sea level (in the Jordan Valley) to 1,800 m above sea level in Ethiopia and Algeria. Low Temperature It is frost sensitive. High Temperature Easily withstands temperatures that soar into the upper 40s day after day. Soil Balanites trees can be found on a great variety of soils: sands, clay, cracking clay, alluvial soils, and gravel, for instance. However, it clearly prefers clay, and when it is found on pure sand there is usually an underlying layer of clay. Although the plant readily survives periodic inundation, it does not tolerate prolonged waterlogging. Related Species Africa contains several other Balanites species. Although none seems to offer promise as a fruit crop each is an interesting plant in its own right and is worth some horticultural attention. They typically provide fodder for goats, cattle and sheep, and occasionally camels. But along with the balanites, they could perhaps prove useful in food-security interventions.
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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III