Aizen (scientific name B. senegalensis) belong to the Boscia genus, which is a member of the Capparaceae (caper) family. This perennially growing woody plant has been classified as a dicotyledon or dicot. Aizen has its origin in Africa’s Sahel region.
This is an evergreen shrub that may grow up to a height of anything between 2 meters and 4 meters (6 feet 7 inches and 13 feet 1 inch) when grown under encouraging conditions. This herb bears small, leathery leaves that measure about 12 cm (4.7 inches) in length and 4 cm (1.6 inches) in width.
The spherical yellow berry-like fruits of B. senegalensis appear in small clusters. Each fruit measures roughly 1.5 cm across and encloses one to four seeds, whose color changes to greenish when they mature.
Aizen fruits are of the size of cherries and enclose a sweet, squashy pulp, which is akin to jelly. When the pulp comes in contact with dry air, it becomes thicker – somewhat akin to caramel. If allowed to dehydrate for a prolonged period, the pulp turns out to be brittle, sugary, and its flavour is similar to a toffee.
Usually, the berry-like fruits of B. senegalensis are consumed fresh, but occasionally they are also consumed after boiling. Often people make butter from the juice obtained from the fruits after boiling. This juice is blended with milk and millet to prepare cakes. This shrub begins to bear fruits just around the start of the rainy season when foods are in short supply and most crops have been just planted.
Aizen fruits generally have anything between one and two seeds, but sometimes a fruit may contain up to four seeds. As a food source, the seeds of aizen are considered to be more valuable that the fruit itself. The seeds have a greenish hue and resemble peas. Usually, these seeds are dried out and stored for use as a food when other sources of food become scarce.
The dried seeds are soaked before use with a view to get rid of their bitterness. Subsequently, they are dried again and ground to make flour. Often aizen flour is used as a substitute for millet, lentils or sorghum for making porridge. Alternatively, the seeds are roasted and pulverized into a powdery substance for use as coffee. While one aizen seed contains the amount of protein in two grains of millet, its carbohydrate content is equal to those of millet and sorghum.
In Sahel, aizen is among the edible species that helps to make the conditions more endurable when foods are scarce. Widespread poverty prevails in this region and often life becomes hard owing to rapid increase in population and frequent incidences of drought, which is attributed to climate change. Aizen possesses the aptitude to endure severe heat and drought.
Normally, this shrub is found growing in rocky, hardened, poor and barren soils, especially on sand, and barren soils found on slopes, cracking clay plains and sand dunes. This shrub can endure extreme direct sunlight throughout the year; thereby it is a useful plant that offers slight shade respite to other plants growing in the vicinity.
These include crops that would otherwise not be able to endure exposure to intense sunlight. All these attributes of the aizen shrub makes it a perfect plant for growing in re-greening practices by farmers to turn around desertification.
Locals obtain various products from the aizen, which is considered to be valuable for them. Such products comprise the leaves, fruits, seeds, roots, wood and emergency fodder.
This herb is also used in the form of a pest repellent and coagulants that clarify water. It may be noted that when Sudan was hit by famine in 1984, it was the most important food in the region. This herb helped to save the lives of more people compared to the food aid provided in the region by various international organizations.
The roots of aizen are scraped from the bark of the shrub and the ground. Subsequently, the roots are included in a mixture of different cereals and boiled together to make porridge. This, in a way, helps to widen grain supplies. Like the berry-like fruits of aizen, even the plant’s roots are highly sweet. You can slice the roots into thin pieces and boil them slowly to prepare sweet syrup. Alternatively, one can also dry the roots in the same way they dry and store the seeds of aizen for future use.
Usually the leaves of aizen are not consumed because they not only have a bitter flavour, but also have a rubber-like texture. In fact, even livestock and wildlife also consider aizen leaves to be inedible unless all other sources of food have depleted. B. senegalensis leaves are considered to be an emergency fodder and they may prove to be vital for the survival of livestock in Sahel region.
This is an important food security source, especially in the rural communities of Sahel. However, they are only used when other foods are scarce. In a number of communities in Sahel, farmers use the leaves of aizen to repel pests, thereby protecting their grains. It is believed that these leaves are effective in repelling pests like insects and mice.
The flowers of aizen are an excellent food for bees. In a number of Sahel regions, the conditions become such that very few flowering plants are able to survive. In such situations, beekeepers usually depend on the aizen shrub in regions where the bee colonies can feed on very few other plants.
Even the wood of the aizen shrub is used for various purposes, including tool making, construction of houses and also as a cooking fuel. This plant encloses a natural coagulant, which is employed for clarifying dirty water. The leaves, twigs, bark as well as roots of aizen are sliced into small pieces and left to drift on the surface of murky water contained in a tank or bucket.
As a result, clay as well as other dirt particles stick to these plant parts making them sink to the bottom of the container, enabling one to skim clear water from the surface.
Seeds, bark, roots.
People inhabiting the Sahel region of Africa use the evergreen shrub aizen (B. senegalensis) for various purposes, including therapeutic, culinary and others. The root of this herb possesses worming properties and is said to be effective for treating conditions like gastritis, impotence and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
The bark of the herb is said to be a useful medication for fatigue, gastritis and rheumatism. In addition, the aizen root is used for alleviating pains and aches and treating wounds, abscesses, blindness, jaundice, urticaria, hemorrhoids, and colic. The berry-like fruits of this shrub are employed for curing syphilis.
While the wood is macerated in water and used for baking purpose, this plant is appreciated by livestock, especially cattle, during the latter part of the dry season in the Sahel region. In addition, the wood is used for bringing down body temperature of horses during fever and to treat trypanosomiasis in camels.
The leaves of aizen contain elevated amounts of antioxidants, almost 1.5 times of spinach. In addition, these leaves contain high amounts of a number of essential minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
An extract from leaves contains carbohydrate hydrolase enzymes, which are extremely valuable for producing flour based on cereals and also for lessening the bulk of porridges made from cereals. It has been proved that aizen leaves have biocidal activities and, hence, farmers place them in granaries with a view to protect grains from pathogens and insects.
Aside from this, these leaves possess several therapeutic properties. For instance, they are anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic and fungicidal. In addition, they facilitate healing wounds. Though leaves of B. senegalensis are not considered palatable even by wild life, they are often used in the form of emergency foods for livestock, especially when other foods become in short supply.
The berry-like yellow fruits and greenish seeds of aizen are edible. In fact, the seeds are considered to be more valuable compared to the fruits. The seeds have a bitter flavour and, hence, they are soaked in water prior to consumption to get rid of their unpleasant taste. The seeds are considered to be a very important food in Sudan and Senegal.
The seeds of aizen are somewhat nutritive and enclose roughly 25 percent protein, in addition to 60 percent carbohydrates. These seeds also contain reasonable amounts of iron and zinc. They are used for making a number of food items, including soups, stews and porridges.
Aizen seeds can be dried after soaking in water and subsequently ground into flour, which is used in various bakery items. At the same time, the seeds are roasted, pulverized and used in the form of a coffee substitute.
Mature aizen fruits enclose a soft pulp which is deliciously sweet like jelly. The jelly surrounds the seeds and is consumed directly. In addition, you can make syrup with this jelly-like aizen fruit pulp. People in Sudan ferment the fruits to make a local beer.
Habitat and cultivation
Aizen (B. senegalensis) is usually found growing in places at altitudes of anything between 60 meters and 1,450 meters (200 feet and 4,760 feet), where the temperatures range between 22°C and 30°C (72°F and 86°F) and receiving an annual rainfall of anything between 100 mm and 500 mm (3.9 inches and 19.7 inches).
This shrub is usually found growing naturally in marginal soils such as clay stone hills, lateritic, rocky, sand dunes, clay stony hills and sand-clay plains. The distinctiveness of aizen makes this shrub an extremely tough species. This plant can grow in intense hot and dry desert conditions of the Sahel even without costly inputs.
This is where this shrub is of great importance to the poor farmers in the region. When the region is hit by severe famine and drought, several other crops fail to survive. However, aizen can survive even in such harsh conditions and continue to provide the people several useful products.