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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
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.
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.
This was recorded in what was once called Bornu, a region now mainly found in northeastern Nigeria and Chad.
In a survey 3,000 people judged this “balanites butter” to be “tasteful, with good smell and high quality.”