Balanites aegyptiaca

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Related Links
Detail of leaves, thorns and flowers.
Tree in Machakos, Kenya.
© Fernandes E.C.M
Detail of unripe fruits.
© Fernandes E.C.M
Tree pruned for fodder.
© Fernandes E.C.M

Local names:
Amharic (kudkuda,jemo,bedeno), Arabic (zachun,zaccone,heglig (tree),zacon,kuge,lalob (fruit)), Bemba (katikayengele,mubambwangoma), Bengali (hin), English (soap berry tree,simple-thorned torchwood,simple thorned torch tree,Jericho balsam,lalob tree,hegl

Balanites aegyptiaca is a multibranched, spiny shrub or tree up to l0 m high. Crown rounded, dense (but still seen through) with long stout branchlets. Trunk and bark grey, deeply fissured longitudinally.

Leaves compound and spirally arranged on the shoots, dark green with 2 firm coriaceous leaflets; dimensions and shapes varying widely. Petiole canaliculate, from 5 mm to 20 mm with a short rachis. Most accounts indicate a maximum length of 8 mm for Uganda. Margin of each leaflet entire; lamina generally up to 6 cm long, 4 cm broad, although apparently smaller (1-3 x 0.3-1.5 cm) in the Sahara and in Palestine.

Inflorescence a sessile or shortly pedunculate fascicle of a few flowers. Flower buds ovoid and tomentose. Individual flowers hermaphroditic, pentamerous an actinomorphic, 8-14 mm in diameter and generally greenish-yellow. Pedicels densely greyish, pubescent and rarely reaching 10 mm in length, although 15 mm is reported for Zambia and Zimbabwe. The usual length is about 8 mm. 

Fruit ellipsoid, up to 4 cm long, green. Ripe fruit brown or pale brown with a brittle coat enclosing a brown or brown-green sticky pulp and a hard stone seed.

The name Balanites (from the Greek for acorn, referring to the fruit) was given in 1813 by Alire Delile  and replaced Agialid (derived from the Arabic name for the tree, 'heglig').


B. aegyptiaca has wide ecological distribution; however, it reaches its maximum development as an individual tree on low-lying, level alluvial sites with deep sandy loam and uninterrupted access to water such as valley floors, riverbanks or the foot of rocky slopes. It is intolerant to shade after the seedling stage and therefore prefers open woodland or savannah for natural regeneration.

Native range
Algeria, Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Israel, Kenya, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, Myanmar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Republic of, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Tree management

Coppices and pollards well and can regenerate after lopping and heavy browsing. Where fruit is the principal interest, pollarding and coppicing for obtaining fodder are seldom employed.

Seed storage behaviour is orthodox; viability can be maintained for 2 years in air-dry storage at cool temperatures or for several years in hermetic storage at 3 deg. C with 6-10% mc. One kilogram of cleaned, extracted seeds, air-dried to 15% mc, contains 500-1500 seeds.

B. aegyptiaca has wide ecological distribution; however, it reaches its maximum development as an individual tree on low-lying, level alluvial sites with deep sandy loam and uninterrupted access to water such as valley floors, riverbanks or the foot of rocky slopes. It is intolerant to shade after the seedling stage and therefore prefers open woodland or savannah for natural regeneration.

Seeds may be collected from fruit that is being processed for other purposes, from dung, and directly from the trees. Soaking in water for some hours and then stirring vigorously separates the stones from the pulp. Seed germination can be improved by immersing the seeds in boiling water for 7-10 min then cooling slowly. The effect that passage through an animal’s intestinal tract has on germination is unclear. However, seeds are said to germinate readily, although with some difference associated with date of collection.

Natural regeneration is primarily through seeding. The fruit is high in demand, which gives it high economic value; therefore, little fruit and thus few seeds are left for natural regeneration of the species. The tree also can generate by coppice shoots and its abundant root suckers.

Poison:  An emulsion made from the fruit or bark is lethal to the freshwater snails that are the host of miracidia and cercaria stages of bilharzia and to a water flea that acts as a host to the guinea worm. A fish poison can be obtained from the fruit, root and the bark. The active agent of the poison is saponin. The compound is toxic to fish but does not affect mammals and rapidly becomes inert, so that fish retrieved are edible. However, in the Fada region of Cote d’Ivoire, the poison is reported to damage the sight of fishermen after they have used it for 5-6 years.

  The fleshy pulp of both unripe and ripe fruit is edible and eaten dried or fresh. The fruit is processed into a drink and sweetmeats in Ghana, an alcoholic liquor in Nigeria, a soup ingredient in Sudan. Young leaves and tender shoots are used as a vegetable, which is boiled, pounded, then fried or fat added to prepare it. The flowers are a supplementary food in West Africa and an ingredient of ‘dawa dawa’ flavouring in Nigeria. Flowers are sucked to obtain nectar.

Fodder: The fresh and dried leaves, fruit and sprouts are all eaten by livestock. As shown in an experiment in Burkina Faso, B. aegyptiaca contributed up to 38% of the dry-matter intake of goats in the dry season. Kernel meal, the residue remaining after oil extraction, is widely used in Senegal, Sudan and Uganda as a stock feed. The tree is lopped for fodder in India (Maharashta, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan).

The wood is good firewood; it produces considerable heat and very little smoke, making it particularly suitable for indoor use. It produces high-quality charcoal, and it has been suggested that the nutshell is suitable for industrial activated charcoal. The calorific value is estimated at 4600 kcal/kg.

Fibre:  A strong fibre is obtained from the bark.

Timber:  The wood is pale yellow or yellowish-brown. Heartwood and sapwood are not clearly differentiated. The wood is hard, durable, worked easily and made into yokes, wooden spoons, pestles, mortars, handles, stools and combs. It shows no serious seasoning defects and no tendency towards surface checking or splitting. The wood saws cleanly and easily, planes without difficulty to a smooth finish and is easy to chisel. It glues firmly and takes a clear varnish. The timber has traditionally been a minor product. The usually small log size and the prevalence of stem fluting makes sawmill processing difficult.

Shade or shelter:  The usually evergreen behaviour potentially makes B. aegyptiaca an attractive element to introduce into shelterbelts, although because of its slow growth, it is not suitable as a principal species.

Lipids:  The kernels produce edible oil used for cooking. The oil remains stable when heated and has a high smoking point, and therefore its free fatty acid content is low. Its scent and taste are acceptable.

Medicine:  Decoction of root is used to treat malaria. Roots boiled in soup are used against oedema and stomach pains. Roots are used as an emetic; bark infusion is used to treat heartburn. Wood gum mixed with maize meal porridge is used to treat chest pains. The bark is used to deworm cattle in Rajasthan.

Gum or resin:  A greenish-yellow to orange-red resin is produced from the stems. It is sucked and chewed when fresh. It is used as a glue for sticking feathers onto arrow shafts and spearheads and in the repair of handle cracks and arrows.

As a thorny tree, B. aegyptiaca is useful for fencing. Boundary and amenity plantings are widespread in Africa. Cut branches are used to make livestock enclosures.

Alcohol: The fruit of B. aegyptiaca may be used to brew an alcoholic drink.