The blooming mustard tree is a culturally important tree not only because of the useful products it produces, but also because some religious scholars consider it to be the tree that produces the mustard seed mentioned in Bible parables. These trees are a welcome addition to many communities in their native habitat, and the products derived from it are used by the people in their daily lives.
The blooming mustard tree grows as a sprawling shrub or small tree with a twisted and crooked trunk reaching up to 20 feet tall. Old trees may have a trunk diameter of up to 1 foot. They have 1- to 2-inch long, oval-shaped light green leaves that are slightly succulent. The leaves are densely covered with fine hairs and sometimes small warts. They produce small clusters of green-yellow flowers that mature into red edible berries when ripe.
The blooming mustard tree (Salvadora persica) is native to the desert, grassland and thorn shrub areas of North Africa, the Middle East, Iran and as far west as India's Punjab region. It naturally grows in low areas, flood plains, drainage areas and along stream banks where there is a supply of ground water. It can adapt to a wide range of soil types, but it is usually found in clay and sandy areas, often in alkaline and salty soil.
Blooming mustard trees are commonly called toothbrush trees because the tender shoots have been used for centuries as a natural chew stick and toothbrush. People living in the tree's natural range cut short lengths of twigs and chew on the ends, which fray into a fine brush used for cleaning teeth. Natural chemicals in the trees act as a sort of toothpaste and antibacterial agent. Many people in Africa and the Middle East still use the twigs for dental care.
Blooming mustard trees are not normally farmed on a large scale and most are naturally occurring. They can be planted in areas where many other trees will not grow, such as deserts and salty drainage plains, and can be used for soil reclamation. They are very drought tolerant and provide leaves for grazing animals that have a high water content. They are often used to feed camels and goats in arid areas. Not much care is required for established trees. Often local people tend nearby trees to harvest chewing sticks and the edible berries.
Blooming mustard tree berries are edible raw or processed, sometimes dried or fermented into wine. The aromatic leaves are also edible and are often cooked in a sauce. They have a mild mustard flavor and are bitter. The wood can be used as firewood, but the trees grow very slowly and take a long time to replace. In construction, the wood is useful because it is termite resistant.