Fabaceae, Pea Family
Tree, shrub; from 6 feet by 6 feet to 50 feet high by 100 feet wide
Widespread throughout Africa and into the Middle East
Semi-arid savannahs in sandy, rocky and alluvial soils
Living Desert Location:
East African Garden, Village Watutu
Balls of fragrant, creamy-white flowers occur in late spring to summer and are favored by monkeys and baboons.
This tree is the quintessential symbol of the African flora. With its flattened crown of thorny branches potentially spreading to twice its 50 foot height, Umbrella thorn evokes the image of the African savannah in all who see it. Umbrella thorn is easily identified by its uniquely contorted seed pods and distinctive thorns – curved and straight on the same plant. Gardeners at The Living Desert can attest to the pugnacious quality of the thorns and the aptness of the Afrikaans common name ‘haak-en-steek’ – grab and stab. Overall size is dictated by growing conditions, and oftentimes this plant may be no more than a six to eight foot shrub.
The bi-pinnately compound leaves, each composed of hundreds of tiny leaflets, are consumed by many browsers. The nutritious pods, with a content of nearly 20% protein, are highly sought by many animals including antelope, giraffe, elephant, monkeys and baboons. A hard seed coat protects the embryo through the digestion process and the partially scarified but undigested seed is ‘sown’ in a pile of dung, fertilized and ready to germinate.
Umbrella thorn is an important tree in arid areas providing shade, fuel, construction materials, food, fodder and medicine.