Umbrella Thorn Acacia

Exploring the Importance of the Umbrella Thorn Acacia

A tree that commonly brings thoughts of the African desert to mind, the umbrella thorn acacia tree grows in many places.  In the driest soil and conditions, it may only be a wiry bush low to the ground.  Most sightings of the tree show a looming, wide species with a distinct shape.

Not completely unique to the Serengeti, this particular form of the acacia tree is native to the savannas of Africa but grows as far as the Middle East and has been planted in India and Malawi.  Other names for the tree include the Israeli Bambool, samar, abak and karamoja.

The umbrella thorn acacia, or acacia tortilis, can grow to a size from 13 to 68 feet tall and spreads its branches over a wide area, hence the name.  Up to 15 leaves, just under an inch long themselves, sprout from the 4 - 10 pinnae on each branch.  A mature tree looks much like a giant umbrella, covering the soil and wildlife underneath.  It boasts two different sizes of thorns, the longer being straight and white and the shorter more curved and brown in color.  Some consider the tree unusable or difficult to use due to the thorns.

Despite what you may think, the tree does well in rainfall of up to 39 inches.  But it will tolerate droughts of only 3.9 inches of rainfall annually.  The roots spread across a wide area (at times to the detriment of fields and roads around them) and grow well in shallow soil.

Pods and leaves drop to the ground and become food for the local grazing animals.  Human consumption seems to be limited to the use of the tree’s gum for gum arabic.  The trunks have been used as a location for honey production in northern Kenya.  Tannin is found in the bark while the roots and pods are put to use with the locals who create tools, weapons, jewelry and some herbal medicine.

Perhaps the most interesting is the historical use of the umbrella thorn acacia.  Timber is available in the Arabic desert from only a few species and the acacia is one of those.  From this fact, suspicions are that it was the wood used to build the Ark of Covenant in Biblical times.  Specific directions for the construction of the Ark can be found in the book of Exodus, both in the Jewish and Christian texts.  English translations often cite acacia as the wood used.

Another source cites the possibility that the burning bush from the story of Moses was also acacia wood, although possibly not specifically the umbrella thorn.  Interestingly, the acacia tree is also reported to be used in the symbolism of Freemasonry.  Is there something special about this unique looking tree that is the reason for its ancient and sacred associations? 

Perhaps it was the lack of better quality timber or the inherent strength and availability of the acacia tree, but in has undoubtedly played a part in history.  The majestic sight of a full grown umbrella thorn is impressive and has been used in popular films such as Disney’s the Lion King.

Currently, the umbrella thorn acacia is used for common things such as fence posts, wheels and furniture.  Due to the branch structure it is also popular for small cages and short fencing.  Various people have used the tree for boat building, charcoal and fuel and even for needles. Some nomadic Africans use the tree for their temporary homes.  Pods can become jewelry and also ground or crushed to make yellow and brown dyes.

Truly useful in today’s world as well as ancient times, the umbrella thorn acacia is an important tree.  Adding beauty, stability and a plethora of functions within the world around it, locals appreciate the unique umbrella thorn.




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