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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

BABUL TREE - ONE SOURCE OF GUM ARABIC: HISTORY, HEALTH BENEFITS AND USES OF BABUL


BABUL, GUM ARABIC TREE, EGYPTIAN THORN, ACACIA NILOTICA 
The babul tree is a close relative of kikar (Acacia nilotica subspecies indica) and quite prolific in the Punjab region of Pakistan. It is a native of the Indian subcontinent and Egypt going through the African continent to South Africa where it is called lekkerruikpeul or the scented thorn, into the Arabian Peninsula through to Myanmar. It has a fairly slender trunk about 20 – 30 centimetres in diameter and is a slow-growing but reasonable long-lived tree. It is a pioneer species which can regenerate waste land as the seeds with their hard outer husks can germinate within two weeks.
  It is a source of gum Arabic, used as an emulsifier and in the cloth manufacturing industry and in the manufacturing of paper. It is also used in the production of matches, ink and candles. True gum Arabic comes from Acacia Senegal, but the red gum from the babul is of good quality. The gum will exude spontaneously from the trunk for about five weeks, but the process of harvesting it is helped by making incisions into it. The gum from this tree is red while gum Arabic is white. The gum hardens into ‘tears’ the size of a pigeon’s egg.  
  It is thought that this was the burning bush of Moses mentioned in Exodus chapter 3 of the Bible, with the fire supplied by the parasites which feed off it, Loranthus acaciae.
  This tree has many uses; it is a nitrogen fixer and helps make the soil in which it grows fertile, and the twigs and bark are used in Pakistan as tooth brushes. This can also be chewed to prevent vitamin C deficiency and to strengthen teeth and help fix them if they are loose. The inner bark contains tannin and is used for tanning and dyeing in the leather industry. (It dyes leather black.)
  Shamans use the bark to drive away evil spirits and a more mundane use is fodder for livestock which appreciate the leaves and pods. Goats will climb to reach the lower leaves and brave the thorns to get at them. (I have witnessed this.) Because of the thorns it makes a useful live hedge to prevent wild animals getting into fields.
  The flowers contain various flavonoids, among them catechin and quercetin (also found in apples and many other plants) which are currently being investigated as they have potent antioxidant properties so can help prevent healthy cells being damaged by scavenging free-radicals which can cause cancer.
  The wood is used as firewood and charcoal, as well as for boat-building, water pipes and so on, as its sapwood is water resistant. It is also used to make carts and wheel spokes as well as other agricultural implements, and has uses in the construction industry as it is sturdy and durable.
  The various parts of the tree have been used in traditional medicine wherever it is a native, and Dioscorides (c.40-90AD) wrote about it in his “Materia Medica” calling it akakia meaning spiny, which is where the genus Acacia gets its name from.  The ancient Egyptians carved statues and made furniture from it.
  It has astringent properties making it useful for the treatment of diarrhoea and dysentery and is a standard medication for diarrhoea in Nigeria. In Lebanon the gum mixed with orange-flower water is given to people recovering from typhoid fever. In Pakistan the bark and the bark of the mango tree is used in a decoction for tonsillitis.
  In South Africa the Masai have used Babul for courage and they believe it cures impotence. It is also regarded as an aphrodisiac especially preparations of the pods and flowers, in the Indian subcontinent.
  The leaves can be used in poultices and put on ulcers and wounds to help them heal faster. On the island of Tonga the tree is believed to help diabetics eat anything including sugars and starch, in large quantities.
 The bark has been used to treat gonorrhea and leprosy as well as being made into an infusion as an expectorant to stop coughing. The leaves are used for eye problems while the bark is used for asthma and skin diseases either in a decoction or infusion and sometimes made into an ointment with ghee. The pods are used for urogenital problems, and given in infusions for upset stomachs. The leaves, young shoots and pods are given to animals to increase milk production, so the tree has benefits for us in a variety of ways.
  Studies into the babul tree and its properties indicate that it has antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory properties and can help lower high blood pressure as well as constricting veins. It also has anti-platelet aggregating actions in vitro.
  It would seem that many of the uses of this tree in folk medicine may be proved scientifically in the future.

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