The Sahara Desert in Africa is the world’s largest hot desert. The Sahara is characterized by daytime temperatures that reach 136 degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime temperatures that frequently drop below freezing. This desert typically receives less than 3 inches of precipitation each year. The flora of the Sahara Desert contains about 1,200 plant species, primarily hardy trees, shrubs and grasses that have adapted to withstand the aridity and the temperature extremes of this demanding climate.
The doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica) is a native Saharan plant that thrives in the desert areas of coastal northeastern Africa. Also called the gingerbread palm, this tree bears reddish-orange fruit with a distinct gingerbread flavor. Long considered sacred by the Egyptian people, doum palm seeds were often buried with the ancient pharaohs. The palm leaves are often used to make paper and mats. These trees flower in the summer, and the hard, white date fruit takes about two years to ripen. These slow-growing palm trees reach up to 30 feet in height.
Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) have grown in the Nile Valley for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians considered date palm leaves to be a symbol of longevity. The sugary dates are frequently used to make vinegar, alcohol and syrup. Date palms must have full sun and can tolerate extended droughts. These palm trees reach up to 75 feet tall and live for about 150 years.
Red acacia trees (Acacia seyal) grow in the areas of the Sahara that receive at least 1 inch of rain every year, primarily Sudan, Chad and Mali. The feathery leaves protect the tree’s bark from dry winds. Red acacia trees bloom small clusters of fuzzy, white or yellow flowers on the younger parts of shoots. These tall trees typically reach about 30 feet in height. Red acacia bark contains tannin, which the natives use to tan leather.
The salam plant (Acacia ehrenbergiana) is a multibranched small tree or tall shrub with shiny, peeling bark in green or brown tones. This plant has long, white thorns and golden-yellow flowers. Found in the central and eastern Sahara, the salam plant is one of the most drought-tolerant of the acacias. Salam plants reach up to 15 feet high. The wood is sometimes used to make ropes and firewood.
Bitter apple (Citrullus colocynthis), also called wild desert gourd, is a perennial or annual vine in the watermelon family (Cucurbitaceae), that generally reaches 7 to 10 feet long. The round fruit starts out yellow and green, but becomes yellow as it ripens. The hard rind conceals an inedible, bitter pulp. Bitter apple flowers and seeds are edible, and the succulent stems contain water. Bitter apple pulp is used as a purgative medicine and as a moth repellent. This creeping vine grows in the waste areas of the Sahara.