A Saudi desert expert recently told me about an unusual tree that grows near the old town of ‘Ain Dar, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The tree is four or five meters tall, and local lore maintains that it has been around for hundreds of years. It is extremely rare; he only knows of one other tree like it, near the archaeological site of Thaj to the north.
The tree is called ‘aqul in Saudi Arabia and Oman. Its scientific name is Alhagi maurorum and it is known in the English-speaking world as camelthorn or camel’s thorn.
The woody plant is unusual because its sap crystallizes into manna, an edible famine food known to many from Exodus in the Old Testament as well as from the Qur’an. No one really knows which plant or process provided the original manna cited in the Bible and Qur’an. A minority view is that it was Alhagi, because of its appetite-suppressing effect.
According to a description of A. maurorum on the website Practical Plants:
A sweet-tasting manna is exuded from the twigs at flowering time. It is exuded during hot weather according to one report. It contains about 47% melizitose, 26% sucrose, 12% invert sugar. Another manna is obtained from the pods – it is sweet and laxative. Root – cooked. A famine food, it is only used in times of need.
‘Aqul normally grows as a shrub, about a meter high, with dark red flowers and pods. The shrub rarely survives in the desert long enough to be transformed into a proper tree.
‘Aqul has many medicinal uses in the Arabian Peninsula. Here is one description of its value as an Arabian natural remedy:
Medicinal uses The whole plant is used for treating cataracts, jaundice, migraine, painful joints and as an aphrodisiac.
Treatment An infusion of the plant or juice is used for treatment. The root is cleaned and boiled with water to make a tea. Lemon or lime is added to it and taken orally. The solution is very bitter to taste.
Chemical composition Several β-phenethylamines and a tetrahydroisoquinoline have been isolated from the plant. The roots contain essentially the same alkaloids as the stems, but in different quantities.
Up north, in Iraq, ‘aqul is used for rheumatic pains, liver disorders, urinary tract infections and for various types of gastrointestinal discomfort.
I have seen A. maurorum referred to by some writers as a “noxious weed.” I suspect that accusation is exaggerated.