The desert date tree, hero of the Sahel
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CTA. 1994. The desert date tree, hero of the Sahel. Spore 50. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/49344
Even in the most arid conditions, the desert date has much to offer: fruit, wood, oil, leaves and flowers. It is a species which deserves attention from researchers. After the droughts of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the Sahel : looked like...
Even in the most arid conditions, the desert date has much to offer: fruit, wood, oil, leaves and flowers. It is a species which deserves attention from researchers. After the droughts of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the Sahel : looked like a graveyard for dead trees. The shea, acacia and locust bean had all succumbed to lack of water. 'All but one, the desert date, Balanites aegyptiaca, 'points out Hubert Gillet, Assistant Director of the Paris Natural History Museum. 'It can live longer than other desert trees, more than 100 years, and it is the most resistant to drought.' Adapted to adversity Nature has given the desert date a whole armoury of weapons against the conditions it has to endure. The species, which rarely exceeds 10 metres in height, is widespread throughout the Sahel. Its leaves are thick and tough, with a glossy coating that provides protection from the dry air. Its double root system acts vertically and horizontally, finding water up to seven metres below the surface and within a radius of up to 20 metres from the trunk. This root system also helps the tree to resist the sandstorm damage that can uproot other species. Should the leaves fall, photosynthesis continues through the branches and spines and is enough to ensure the tree's survival. And, as a further example of its amazing adaptability, a coating of sand surrounds each root, maintaining an insulation layer of air which helps to even out temperature fluctuations and reduce evaporation. From the top of the tree to its roots, the desert date is well adapted to survive the extreme conditions of the desert. The tree is thought by some to be the home of spirits, and sacrifices may be offered in its shade. However there are many other reasons why the desert date has long been revered by local people. Like Acacia albida, the desert date comes into leaf before the beginning of the rainy season, turning green in March or April. The leaves provide valuable fodder and are a godsend for the livestock, which have little else to eat at the end of the dry season. The tree's spines make it essential that the herdsmen take the precaution of collecting the forage themselves before giving it to the animals. But these spines have a use as pins, for surgical sutures or as muzzles. The desert date has other useful attributes: the wood is hard enough to be used for mortars, tool handles and even roof frames, since it is also resistant to damage by termites. The desert date is also valued for its fruits. These used to be referred to as 'slave dates' because they are of poorer quality than true dates, but they now enjoy more respect, a reflection of the current hardship of life in: the region. According to Marie Jos\82 Tubiana, a research scientist at the Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques (CNRS) 'shepherds and children suck the raw fruit but it can also be cooked in order to extract the sugar which can be added to porridge or used for making sweetmeats. There are many different local recipes.' Another use has been recorded by Paul Cr\82ac'h, a pharmacist who worked for the colonial army in the 1930s. In the hungry season or during food shortages, when the store of millet had been exhausted, women mixed the date fruit pulp in a mortar with a few handfuls of millet. You can still often see this being done today. Cr\82ac'h also noted of the leaves and bark, which ` were used as a disinfectant or as a treatment for rheumatism or jaundice. Even today, sucking desert dates is strongly recommended for anyone suffering from A chill. According to Marie Jos\82 Tubiana 'it is the qualities of the kernel whichis most important.' This has an oil content of 40-60% and is a richer source of protein than groundnutes, cottonseed or sunflower. The oil, which is difficult to extract, has to compete today with groundnut or cottonseed oil, but it is highly prized by certain tribes which appreciate the value of its nutritional and medicinal qualities.