10 Things You Didn’t Know About African Acacia Trees

Acacia trees are without a doubt the most iconic trees in Africa (besides baobabs, a close runner-up). The subject of countless thousands of silhouette sunset photos (like the one above), this picturesque tree is inextricably linked with vast African savannas and epitomizes the seeming exotic-ness of the continent.

But how much do you really know about the acacia — which, incidentally, is not just one species? Read on for some fascinating and crucial facts about acacia trees.

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Sunset over the lake at Kruger National Park with acacia trees (Shutterstock)

There are thousands of species

There are over 1,300 species of acacia worldwide, primarily in Australia and Africa, and to a lesser extent in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

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Kalahari desert with acacia, South Africa (Shutterstock)

They are abundant in Africa

Acacias are especially numerous on the plains of southern and eastern Africa, where they are well-known landmarks on the veld and savanna.


Courtesy of Michael Sprague/flickr

They are an essential part of the food chain

Acacias provide food and habitats for a variety of animals, from hoofed mammals and birds to countless species of insects.

sudan acacia

An acacia in Sudan (Shutterstock)

They are the source of gum arabic

Acacia senegal, found in Sudan and the northern Sahara, is the main source of gum arabic, which has been used for over 2,000 years in paints and watercolors. The substance is also used in candy, medicines, calico printing, dyeing, and in the making of silk, paper, and cosmetics.

acacia thorn

Acacia thorns (Shutterstock)

They protect themselves

The African acacia is self-protecting in many ways. First, most species have long, sharp thorns, which prevent (most) animals from eating their leaves. Second, sometimes stinging ants live inside hollowed-out thorns, which provides another disincentive for predators. And furthermore, the trees create poisonous chemicals when they detect an “assault.” Not only can these chemicals be fatal to animals, but the trees “warn” nearby acacias to start making their own poison. How it works: When the leaves begin to fill with poison, they release ethylene gas, which drifts out of their pores and toward other acacias (within 50 yards). In response, the nearby trees begin to manufacture poison themselves.

whistling acacia

Whistling acacia at Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania (Shutterstock)

They can ‘whistle’

“Whistling” acacias (Acacia drepanolobium) are so named because thorns which no longer house ants make a whistling sound when the wind blows over the entrance hole.

umbrella thorn acacia

Umbrella thorn acacia (Shutterstock)

There’s a reason they are dome-shaped

The umbrella-dome shape of most African acacias is an evolutionary adaptation that enables the trees to capture the maximum amount of sunlight, with the smallest of leaves.

acacia and giraffes

Giraffes eating leaves from an acacia tree (Shutterstock)

Giraffes love them

Giraffes “prune” the undersides of acacia trees, yet surprisingly do not get pierced by the thorns. They carefully wrap their long, prehensile tongues between the spines and delicately remove the tender tasty leaves.

camel thorn tree / acacia

Camel Thorn tree (Shutterstock)

They are strongly identified with the Kalahari

Acacia erioloba, known as the giraffe thorn or camel thorn tree, is the most recognizable tree in the Kalahari desert (and elsewhere in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). It can grow up to grow up to 18 m tall and live up to 200 years. The tap root can grow up to 60 m, allowing it to access deep ground water sources and live in extremely dry climates.

deadvlei acacia trees

Acacia trees in Deadvlei, Namibian desert (Shutterstock)

They are a hallmark of Deadvlei

Deadvlei in Namibia is famous for its 800-year-old dead acacias, which still stand because the climate in the desert is so dry that they were never able to decompose.

Related content on AFKTravel: 

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