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Perfumed finery!

Byline: Elizabeth Shaheen

A SHORT while ago I bought an Acacia paradoxa (formerly Acacia armata) from Jassims Garden Centre on Budaiya Highway.

This plant, which is commonly known as "hedge wattle" or "kangaroo thorn", produces yolk-yellow fluffy baubles which ooze the most luscious of perfumes and for me it was a perfect find, for I have wanted this shrub since I saw it growing in Cyprus when we visited there many moons ago.

Jassims have imported this species of Acacia from Holland.

The Acacia clan comprises some 1,200 species of deciduous low growing shrubs to tall evergreen trees and climbers, so we are spoilt for choice.

They are grown mainly for their flowers and their seductive perfume that drifts from many of them, but some are grown for their beautiful foliage alone.

We already enjoy Acacia auriculiformis and Acacia holoserica, each with bright yellow catkin-like flower tassels.

This great genus is perfect for Bahrain's gardens, for they are found dwelling naturally in the drier regions of the tropics and subtropics of Central and South America, Kenya, southern Africa, Polynesia and Australia.

In fact, 900 of the species originate from Australia.

They are Australia's floral emblem, where they are known as 'Wattles'.

The Australian species are renowned to be more extravagant in flower performance, but in most part fall short of size or form.

The lion's share of acacias produce yellow flowers, though some are almost white, while Acacia purpureapetala is a purple form and Acacia leprosa produces scarlet flowers earning it the common name "Scarlet Blaze".

Acacias are showy and lushly flowering with Lilliputian flowers, composed of four or five tiny petals and massed stamens forming globular, fluffy, sweetly scented balls, racemes or panicles in winter or spring.

They offer an open-air cafe luring nectar seeking birds and butterflies.

The name is derived from the Greek word akis, meaning a sharp point and referring to their leaves.

The wonders of nature produced their leaves in two forms. The normal leaf is bipinnate, but some species are leafless.

Therefore, the latter form consists of modified leaf-stalks, which seem to be leaves but are in fact flattened and broadened leaf-stalks that function as leaves known as "phyllodes".

In some species these phyllodes are so compressed in size as to be sheer thorns.

The first form, the normal leaf, consists of true leaves that are bipinnate or occasionally tripinnate.

The Australian and Hawaiian species are all with phyllodes. Some species display both types of leaves in their lifetime: phyllodes in their youth and pinnately compound true leaves in their adulthood.

Acacias have adapted in this way in order to contend with the unwavering heat and drought conditions of Australia. They will thrive in most soils, growing quickly, living only between 20 to 30 years.

A number of these drought resistant plants have been introduced to other lands for economic and ornamental use.

One such example is Acacia farnesiana, which hails from tropical America and is typical of the genus in as much as it's a much-branched shrub with a spreading fashion.

A violet-scented perfume called commercially Cassia Ancienne is distilled from the essential oil secreted by the tiny flowers and is exploited to enrich violet oil.

This is used in confectionary and soaps as well as for perfume.

It is widely cultivated in southern France for the perfume industry.

The leaves and pods are important animal fodder and additionally are high in tannins and have been used traditionally in the tanning industry in addition to the making of dye.

Mucilage from the bark bears a resemblance to gum arabic, which is used as glue and in incense. It also has important medicinal properties.

A number of acacia species yield gum. However, true gum arabic is sourced from Acacia senegal, which grows in abundance in thirsty tropical West Africa from Senegal to Nigeria.

Acacia arabica is native to India, but its gum yield is inferior to Acacia senegal - the true gum arabic.

Many acacia species form an important role in traditional medicine. A good number of the uses have been shown to have a scientific underpinning, for chemical compounds are evident in numerous species.

A 19th Century Ethiopian medical manuscript imparts a cure for rabies. This involves making a concoction from an Ethiopian species of acacia, known as grar, combined with the root of the tacha, which is then boiled and drank as a tea.

Catechu or cutch is an astringent produced from a number of species, but especially from Acacia catechu.

This entails boiling the wood and evaporating the liquid to produce an extract.

The ancient Egyptians used acacia in paints. In India, Nepal and China the bark, root and resin of acacia are used to provide incense for rituals.

The smoke from acacia is believed to guard against demons and ghosts and bring harmony to the gods.

In Freemasonry, the acacia is used as a symbol to signify purity and endurance of the soul, and as a symbol at funerals to signify resurrection and immortality.

The seeds are used as a food and in Thailand, Burma and Laos, the shoots of Acacia pennata provide an important ingredient in soups, omelettes, curries and stir-fries.

Honey is sourced by bees from the flowers and is perceived as a delicacy for its flowery flavour, soft running texture and glass-like look.

The silver wattle Acacia dealbata is the most popular of the genus grown as an ornamental in gardens.

Although it is short-lived, it's hard to resist its single trunk with a smooth grey bark. Its leaves are most picturesque, for they are bipinnate blanketed in tiny white hairs, bestowing the foliage a silvery radiance.

Therefore, the genus is of great valuable economic importance, producing timber, gum and edible seeds as well as glorifying gardens - including our own.

Acacia species feature in my book Tropical Trees and Shrubs of Bahrain

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jun 11, 2008
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