The tree can grow well on degraded land, can survive droughts and floods, and has numerous medicinal properties
The popular Hindi adage, “Boye ped babool ka, toh aam kahan se hoye (How would one get mangoes if they plant babool trees),” is a bit unfair in its implication that babool is any less than a mango.
In fact, of the two trees, babool or gum arabic (Acacia nilotica) is easier to grow. This perennial tree—whose pods grow abundantly in the months of April and May— can thrive on marginal land, which is unsuitable for agriculture, and can survive both droughts and floods.
Historically in India, the bitter babool has been used as famine food in arid and semi-arid regions like Rajasthan. Even now, people in these regions consume its seeds both raw and roasted, or grind them and mix with sorghum or pearl millet flour. Some also use the young babool pods or phali, which look like a string of beads with flat, elliptical seeds separated by constrictions, as vegetable.
Studies show that babool seeds are highly nutritious. As per a 1996 study, published in Food Chemistry by researchers from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, every kilogramme of babool seeds contain as much as 234 g of crude protein, 126 g crude fibre, 66.6 g crude fat and 534 g carbohydrates. The seeds are also rich in minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and manganese.
Studies have also shown that babool pods have antibacterial activity and are effective against gram-positive bacteria such as Bacillus cereus, a food-borne pathogen that causes gastro-intestinal illnesses, and Staphylococcus aureus, which can infect soft tissue in the body.
Extracts of the pods can be used to replace synthetic food preservatives that have negative impact on health, researchers from Saudi Arabia say in an April 2020 study.
They added the pod extract to beef burger patties stored at 4°C. They found that patties even with 1-2 per cent pod extracts recorded a lower rate of microbial spoilage during storage.
The extract also improved cooking properties and antioxidant activity of the burger without impacting taste, they conclude in their study published in the Journal of Food Processing and Preservation.
A study by researchers from Thailand and India suggests that babool seed oil could be an environment-friendly alternative to chemicals to control major farm pests such as Aphis fabae or black bean aphid and Oxycarenus hyalinipennis, a cotton seed bug. The study was published in April 2023 in the journal Heliyon.
In fact, almost every part of the babool tree is packed with medicinal properties. Traditionally, people chew on its young leaves to improve digestion, and on the woody stems to keep teeth clean and gums healthy.
The bark is used to treat burns, skin diseases and clean infected wounds. Nowadays, the bark extract is a common ingredient in toothpastes. Its resin helps deal with skin diseases, oral inflammation and indigestion.
Farmers also use the leaves and pods of babool as animal feed, and say that the feed prepared using babool seeds is comparable to cottonseed meal in terms of nutrition. The pods and seeds are used as feed after grinding them up for easy digestion and better absorption of nutrition.
Studies, however, warn that excess consumption of babool seeds may affect milk yield in cows (if the proportion of pods and seeds in the feed exceeds 20 per cent) and goats (if it exceeds 33 per cent).
Though native to Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, babool is found in almost all tropical and subtropical areas of the world.
India is home to at least three of nine subspecies of the tree, with natural babool forests found in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Karnataka, notes the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun. The tree works as a windbreak and haven for biodiversity where it is planted.
As a nitrogen-fixing legume, it also helps in reclamation of areas degraded by mining or erosion. As part of the natural vegetation of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the tree has been extensively for the reclamation of the Chambal ravines.
Planting babool trees in this changing climate and the aggravating desertification, is therefore not only beneficial for human health but also for biodiversity.
RECIPE: PHALI KI SABJIIngredients
Break the pods into pieces with one seed each. Wash and boil them in salted water till they turn soft and lose their bitterness. Squeeze out the water and keep the pods aside. Chop the onion, garlic, green chillies, raw mango and tomato into small pieces. Heat oil in a pan and add cumin seeds and asafoetida. When the seeds start to sputter, add onion and garlic and cook for half a minute. Put in the tomato, green chilli, raw mango along with coriander powder, turmeric, chilli powder, salt and dry mango powder (only if the raw mango is not sour enough). Mix the ingredients well and add the pods. Add a little water if the ingredients are dry; this will help mix the pods and spices. After cooking for a few minutes, switch off the flame and sprinkle garam masala. The sabji should be on the spicier side and pairs well with millet rotis.
This was first published in the 1-15 May, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth
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