October 2020

by John Clements, Horticulture Manager

The Vachellia seyal is a tree I have known about since my childhood and I was thrilled when I encountered a lovely specimen in the Garden as I was performing tree assessments a while back.

Commonly known as the red Acacia, it is often called the shittah tree which is its name in Hebrew. This tree was previously classified in the genus Acacia but the African thorned Acacias were recently reclassified into two groups, Vachellia and Senegalia. Our Vachellia seyal is just east of the large flat topped Socotran fig, on the path from the main parking area to the Australian Garden.

The shittah tree grows throughout eastern and northern Africa. It was once a very common tree in ancient Israel and the ancient land of Moab in what is now western Jordan. The tree was well known to the ancient Egyptians and Israelites. The Egyptians used the wood of this tree to make the elaborately painted and gilded coffins for the mummified remains of the pharaohs.

In Jewish religious practices, the wood of the red Acacia was very important. The Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, the Altar of Incense and all the structural components of the Tabernacle built by Moses were fabricated from the shittah tree.

The name of this tree also figures in many historical place names in Jewish history. Abel Shittim (Meadow of Acacias) was the site of the second giving of the law (Deuteronomy in Greek, from the Greek words deutero for second and namas for law) by Moses and the launching off point for the entry into the Promised Land after the Israelites were freed from slavery from the Egyptian pharaohs.

The red Acacia has many practical and medicinal uses in the land of its nativity. The plant and the seedpods it forms are widely used as fodder for domestic animals and is a major food source for wildlife. Its wood is a significant source of fuel as firewood and charcoal. Tribal women use the smoke from the wood to perfume their bodies. The smoke from red Acacia is also used to control lice.

The resinous sap it secretes is burned as a sweet smelling incense, and is also used as a source of gum arabic. The fibrous bark can be brewed into a tea used to cure diarrhea and stomach ailments.

In the spring the tree is covered with a multitude of yellow ball-shaped flowers that are very sweetly perfumed. Add this tree to your list of must-see plants for your next visit to San Diego Botanic Garden.