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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Xerophytes

Chinnar Forest Kerala
This photo has been made available via Wikimedia Commons
There are plants that are adapted to extremely dry conditions. Most people think of desert-rooted cacti or aloe, but there are other forms of Xerophytes out in our world. The photo above is of the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Forest in Kerala, India, home to Giant Grizzled Squirrels, Mugger Crocodiles, Hanuman Langurs, and over 156 types of butterflies, amongst other interesting creatures and nearly a thousand different kinds of plants. It's a World Heritage Site. It's an incredible place, filled with bio-diversity and even some old dolmens from way, way back in time.

It is in Chinnar Forest that you can find a Xerophytic plant that doesn't play by the same rules as most of its brethren. Mixed-in with the thorny scrub forest are specimens of  Acacia arabica, the gum arabic tree of India. Acacia is also known as Wattle, Yellow Fever Acacia, Umbrella Acacia, Thorntrees, and Whistling Thorns.


Acacia grows along rivers and flourishes within the Sahel and Maghreb deserts, along the Nile, through the Middle East to India, Burma and Australia. Unlike cacti or sage or aloe, Acacia trees thrive in places where they tend to get periodically flooded, not just baked, they prefer both riverine and riparian terrain and generally tend to get spread farther and farther from their original native range by livestock more than anything.  Cattle and chicken devour the leaves and seed-pods. In fact the acacia pods are a fairly important staple feed-source for farmers raising poultry and cattle, wherever the tree can be found.


People eat the seed-pods, and some other parts of the Acacia as well. In Mexico you can get Guajes--acacia seed-pods--that are used in a number of dishes. You can find the pods on the menu in various Asian dishes, and if you look closely you'll find acacia listed as an ingredient in various sodas as well.


The very first (mostly) vegetarian spider (bagheera kiplingi) was discovered dining on the fleshy-tips of an Acacia. Weird, huh?


The bark contains astringents and tannins that are useful in ayurveda and herbal medicine.  Dioscorides found the Acacia a medically useful plant and recorded it in his PharmacopeiaMateria Medica books that have remained in use for over a thousand years -- indeed Dioscorides' works survived the Medieval period and continued to be referred to well into the 16th century. You can download a copy of Dioscorides, or a number of other, related Renaissance Medical Texts over at The Renaissance Man. You can also find a bunch of historic surgery texts and stuff on falconry there, so it's definitely worth a visit.

Xerophytes are interesting plants. They're not just crappy thorn-bushes or prickly cacti. They have a ton of uses and in the case of Acacia, they've been part of the human diet and pharmacopeia for thousands of years. Gum Arabic, perhaps the number one product derived from Acacia, has been traded and transported across the world for centuries. It's one of those natural resources that people never give a thought to, even though it is ubiquitous and in all sorts of things. Like in your favorite softdrink or sport beverage. Or anything else that requires a cheap emulsifier.

Just think what a bunch of unscrupulous terrorists or politicians might be able to accomplish if they really did monopolize the world supply of Gum Arabic...and then tried to with-hold it from the Coca Cola folks. We'd see some real-life Cola Wars then, wouldn't we? Who knew Billy Joel was a prophet?

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