Balanites Aegyptiaca: A Multi-purpose Tree

Balanites aegyptiaca is commonly known as desert date or Egyptian balsam. It is a small to medium-sized dry-land shrub or tree belonging to the Zygophyllaceae plant family. In traditional medicine, it is used to treat and manage wide ranges of diseases.

This is plant is multi-branched, growing up to l0m in height with a spherical crown, in one or several distinct masses. The trunk is short and often branching from near the base and the bark is dark brown to grey. The branches have long, straight green or yellow thorns/spines arranged in spirals. The dark green compound-leaves grow out of the base of the spines and are made up of two leaflets which are variable in size and shape, obovate, asymmetric, bright green, leathery, with fine hairs when young.

Flowers in fascicles in the leaf axils are inconspicuous and hermaphroditic. The fruit is a drupe and rather long, green and tormentose when young, turning yellow and glabrous when mature with a stone-like seed.

Balanites aegyptiaca is native to most African countries, stretching from arid and semi-arid regions to sub-humid savanna. It is intolerant to shady areas and prefers open woodland or savannah instead for natural regeneration. It is a lowland species, growing up to 1,000m altitude in areas with mean annual temperature of 200C to 300C and mean annual rainfall of 250mm to 400 mm.

As a multi-purpose tree, Balanites aegyptiaca provides food, medicines, cosmetics, fodder, fuelwood and pesticides to the populace. The tree is highly valued for subsistence living in the arid and semi-arid areas where other options are few. There is a long history of use of this plant in traditional medicine to treat and manage wide ranges of diseases. All parts of the plant – stem bark, roots, fruits, seeds, seed oil, and leaves – are widely used in folk medicine.

The stem bark of Balanites aegyptiaca decoction or infusion is used to relieve spasms of smooth muscle and to treat diabetic conditions. The bark latex is administered through intranasal route to treat epilepsy and orally to treat chest pain, joint pain, sore throat, and toothache. In addition, the mixture of bark latex and bark decoction is used in treatment of yellow fever as well as malaria. The freshly cut stem branch is used as a toothbrush to cure bleeding gum and manage toothache. Furthermore, the bark infusion is used in the treatment of syphilis, round worm infections, sterility, and mental disease. In some circumstances, the bark decoction is used as an abortifacient and as an antidote for arrow-poison in West Africa.

The leaf infusion is used as an antiseptic to clean wounds and quicken their healing. A mixture of dried leaves powder of Balanites aegyptiaca and Ricinus communis in water is administered as a contraceptive in some African communities.

The root infusion is used as an emetic in East Africa and just like the stem bark, the root decoction is also administered for the treatment of malaria across many communities. Furthermore, the root infusion is used in treatment of abdominal pain, syphilis, edema, heart burn, stomach ache, and as a purgative. In some communities, the root bark is crushed and mixed with cold water, filtered and administered as a contraceptive. The mixture of root and stem decoction together with other herbs is used to treat snake bites.

For asthmatic conditions, a given quantity of the seed powder is taken with a glass of water for a specified period of time to manage it. The seed powder is also used widely in East Africa as an antihelmintic, expectorant, antibacterial, antifungal, and as a febrifuge. The seed oil is used to treat tumors and wounds. The seed oil is also used as a laxative, and as a treatment of hemorrhoid, stomachaches, jaundice, yellow fever, syphilis, skin disorders, and epilepsy.

The fleshy fruit pulp of Balanites aegyptiaca is mixed with porridge and eaten by nursing mothers in addition to the seed oil to improve lactation. The edible mesocarp is often used to treat whooping cough, leucoderma, and other skin diseases. The fruit juice is taken orally as a treatment of jaundice, dysentery, and as hypoglycemic to increase the body blood sugar level. Furthermore, the Balanites aegyptiaca fruit is used to treat liver diseases and also as a purgative. The fruit is eaten by school children as a confectionary in some countries. The kernel oil and fruit pulp is used for deworming, especially in children. In addition, the fruits are dried and mashed in millet porridge and eaten to treat and manage diabetic conditions. The raw fruit is used to treat liver and spleen disorders.

The tree is considered valuable in arid regions because it produces fruit even in dry seasons and the fruits can be fermented for alcoholic beverages in addition to other uses. The oil extracted from the kernel is rich in saturated fatty acids and can be used as cooking oil. The seed cake remaining after the oil has been extracted is commonly used as animal fodder. The yellow, single-seeded fruit is edible, but bitter. Many parts of the plant are used as famine foods in Africa; the leaves are eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable in the dry season. The oily seed is boiled to make it less bitter and eaten mixed with sorghum, and the flowers can also be eaten. The plant is also used as firewood, building materials, life fences, and for poisoning fish by fishermen. These numerous above-named attributes of Balanites aegyptiaca make it one of the most popular plants across the African continent and especially in the areas where they grow.

Komakech Richard and Omujal Francis

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