When the rains are short in Kitui and Texas: jump on the acacia bandwagon

Yesterday in the dusty landscape of Northern Kenya, we saw a tree which was turning green and flowering even though it has not rained in months.  The locals say that the greening of this Acacia species means that the rains are coming soon.  This is just amazing to me.  How and why would a tree be able to anticipate that rain was coming and be so sure that it would produce leaves and flowers? What possible molecular mechanism can explain this?  The indigenous people don’t care so much for a mechanism.  They are willing to just accept the fact that their local Acacia species (nilotica) is unique: ‘A few days before the onset of the rains, Acacia trees start flowering. They also become very green

Acacia nilotica is very variable in stature but is usually a multi-stemmed shrub. It has prominent long, paired straight thorns. (Today the taxonomists say anything that looks like an Acacia but doesn’t have thorns is not an acacia, and is probably an Albizia.) Acacia nilotica flowers mainly in the short rains, producing the fuzz balls characteristic of it’s sub-family. This species has sickly-sweet scented bright yellow flowers. The pods are sometimes curved, fleshy and hairy when young but become black when mature and release a sweet smell when crushed. The pods do not split along their length; instead they break up on the ground.

The timber is dark brown and very hard. It is great for tool handles. Formerly the pods were widely used to tan leather. Leaf extracts are used to treat a variety of medical complaints.


The Resilience Project now has a representative exploring Acacias in Kenya in preparation for work in the High Plains of Texas beginning in late October.  Texas has a large number of Acacia–as many as 18 species.  Some members of the genus are excellent small trees and shrubs for landscaping .  As the water supply in the High Plains continues to diminish, we ought to think more about acacias.

Acacias are some of the most drought-tolerant bushes and trees one can grow.  Once established, they need no water or fertilizer except what Mother Nature provides.  Even during historic droughts, the acacias survive just fine.

An acacia known and loved in Central and South Texas is huisache (Acacia farnesiana or A. smallii), also known as sweet acacia.  This spiny acacia usually it gets no more than about 15-20 feet high.  During early spring, the branches are densely packed with half-inch spheres of bright-golden-yellow blossoms

Some of the prettiest early-spring sights in northeastern Mexico are broad valleys covered in huisache trees.  On February mornings, the whole landscape glows golden yellow as far as the eye can see.

Reportedly, “huisache” comes from an Aztec word, huitz-axin.  “Huitz” means she comes, and “axin” is a yellow oily substance derived from a bug and used to stain skin and other things yellow.

Some people consider it a trash tree.  In South Texas it rapidly infests disturbed land and is consider a nuisance by many ranchers.  However, on the eastern Edwards Plateau it seems much less likely to spread out of control. One gardener says: “We’ve had two small huisache trees in our yard for years.  They grow slowly and have not multiplied.”

Another common acacia around College Station and Austin is Roemer’s acacia (A. roemeriana), sometimes mistakenly called catclaw.  This multi-branched shrub or small tree has doubly compound leaves with 4-8 pairs of leaflets.  In late spring it puts on round, fluffy clusters of white flowers.  The curved catclaw-like thorns will get your attention if you brush against this shrub.

The true Catclaw acacia is a cold-hardy Acacia and grows 25 or 30 feet high. It has twice-compound leaves 1-2 inches long.  Leaflets number 2-6 pairs.  Instead of the bloom head being spherical as in Roemer’s acacia, flowers are cylindrical spikes of many tiny white flowers.   This is the most cold-hardy acacia native to Texas and we hope to find it in the High Plains.

There also exists a Texas acacia which can be used as a groundcover.  Fern acacia (A. angustissima) is a low-growing shrub with delicate, fern-like foliage.  Its leaflets close together at night and when touched. Unlike most other acacias, fern acacia is thornless.  White round flowers appear from time to time during the summer and fall.  It is hardy in full sun or partial shade, and it never needs watering.

Acacia salicina is another thornless species of Acacia tree and native to Australia.  Common names include Cooba, Willow Wattle, and Black Wattle. It is a large shrub or small evergreen tree growing 3 to 20 m tall. It has a life span of about 10–15 years. In the Northern Hemisphere, Acacia salicina flowers primarily from October to January and the seed pods are often visible from April to July. The tree’s seeds are shiny, black and have a crimson appendage-like aril.

The tree’s foliage and seed pods are important fodder for livestock during dry periods, since the tree can withstand pretty severe droughts. Its foliage and pods due compare poorly to other fodders in digestibility by livestock. But when drought hits, animals love it.

The wood is very hard and it is used in making fine furniture. At one time, the tree’s wood was used in the manufacture of axles for wagon wheels. Acacia salicina’s wood burns nicely and makes good fuel.  The tree produces seed and timber for woodworking in as little as five years after planting.

The bark has been traditionally put to use by indigenous Australians as a toxin for fishing. The leaves of A. salicina are thought to be psychoactive, since indigenous Australians burn its leaves and smoke the ash to obtain a state of inebriation.

It’s great fun to be in Africa exploring the Acacias once again.  My first trip to Kenya was in 1991 to work with ICRAF on a project sponsored by Michigan State University.  Thanks to Catholic Relief Services I’m back in Kenya again to get refreshed and re-motivated to stoke the Acacia movement in the High Plains of Texas and anywhere drought is imminent in the US.  After our August visit to drought-stricken Maine, anywhere may be fair game for Acacia.


For more in-depth studies:

Source of quote:  ‘A few days before the onset of the rains, Acacia trees start flowering. They also become very green’. Kagunyu et al., 2016. The use of indigenous climate forecasting methods by the pastoralists of Northern Kenya. Pastoralism 6:7.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s13570-016-0054-0 or https://pastoralismjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s13570-016-0054-0


Click to access Otieno%20etal%202005%20acacia%20growth.pdf

Acacias can be nice

Malawi: poverty and resilience

Kenyan Airways was a delight yesterday.  It was just a short hop from Lilongwe to Nairobi.  Barely enough time to watch a great recent release, chosen from a better list than you’d find on most international flights by US airlines.  Only an hour and a half flight, but still got a delicious breakfast.  The terminal was well-organized and I speeded through getting the visa.

Spent a short wait talking to an Australian engineer before my driver found me and brought me to a luxurious hotel room provided by officials of one of the world’s top NGOs A little different from the last few days in rural Malawi.

In both Malawi and here, I’ve woken up to African birds chirping and making other strange noises. Living and traveling in rural areas let me learn more about the Go Away bird which I haven’t heard since I left Malawi. The Go Away bird tells everyone to Go Away from wildlife areas in Africa.  Hear it on the video below.

So many pleasures in Africa’s poorest country.  Wish we didn’t measure poverty by such things by GDP, unemployment and income.  On any measure of quality of life, Malawi would be close to the top.  Every family has at least one cell phone.  Airtime is a tenth the cost of the US.

The ability to see over 50 elephants and 100 baboons on a random morning should add a little to the ranking of a country, but it doesn’t mean anything to traditional economists.  That said, the social economy could be better organized in Malawi so that villagers have options to cutting down more and more of the trees to fire charcoal and brick kilns.

The wondrous landscape of Malawi near Kasungu reminds me of the Knobs region of Kentucky which every suburbanite in his right mind is trying to move to. The isolated small mountains are monadnocks resulting from the erosion of the margins of a plateau, the geologists say.  The locals don’t have an explanation for their origin or appearance, they just enjoy them.

Percent of time spent laughing should also come into the rankings.  On that score, the Malawians are at the very top, in my experience.  I’ve only worked in 34 countries and traveled to a handful more, but the country fully deserves the title “Warm Heart of Africa.”

I was visiting Malawi thanks to CNFA (Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture).  Innocent was the staff member assigned to facilitating my visit.  Bright was my translator.  Innocent was not innocent and Bright was bright, so I got along fine.

I didn’t have a chance to present our resilience research or expand it to Malawi much.  The Kabeza Cooperative I was working with was more interested in how to increase the price they got for their maize and soya and beans.  They also liked to devote significant time to dancing and prayer at the end and beginning of our meetings.  All that was fine, but I wasn’t there long enough to address the enormous problem of lack of ecological resilience.

First you have to establish a good relationship with people and they have to be satisfied with your efforts to help them.  Then, maybe, they will be open to a little constructive proselytization.  A hungry man doesn’t want to listen to philosophy and the long term.  All he wants is to survive the day and maybe the week.

So, I’ll have to come back.  I hope it’s soon.




Humiliation the Chinese way

Paper tiger,  burning bright, turns to ashes, then to night.

Few of us are lucky enough to be humiliated on a world stage.  Most of us never achieve enough power or clout for anyone to purposefully snub us while the world watches.  All of us, if we ever push ourselves too far, will be humiliated.  The trick is to learn from it and not try to sweep it under the rug.posts-and-pounder

Last weekend, we hosted about 50 people for a Labor Day potluck.  The food was one big draw: Laotians, Chinese, Indians and Vietnamese all brought delicacies from their regions.  I could have experienced humiliation trying to compete with those expert cooks, but I didn’t try.

Instead, my job was to set up and encourage all the games.  One big hit was mah jongg, with the Chinese teaching us strategy and the slightly different rules they use in various regions.  I had a good teacher at the beginning, but then, left to my own devices, made serious public blunders, but persisted and learned.  Failure can be wonderful if you learn from it.  If you never try, you will never fail, but you will never learn.

My main job was setting up the outside games.  Croquet, jarts, horseshoes, and kiddie basketball were easy to set up.  Badminton required a net and that meant sturdy posts, so I brought steel posts and a post driver.  These posts are designed so they don’t pull out of the ground easily.  That makes them great as supports for a fence or net, but hard to pull out.  Driving them into the hard ground was tough.  Pulling them out at the end of the day was where the humiliation came in.

I tried all my tricks of 55 years dealing with steel posts; the post would not come out.  I got it as far as the middle of the flange, but couldn’t pull it up the remaining couple of feet.  Several years of chair sitting had occurred since I’d last pulled out a steel post.

So, with all the party-goers milling around, I’m wrestling with a steel post and being defeated.  Failing.  But refusing to give up. While I rested after one failed attempt, two younger, stronger Chinese teamed up to pull it out for me.  It wasn’t a total humiliation because even the two of them did have some difficulty pulling it up.

A couple of days before my latest public failure, the United States’ President got a little more public humiliation at the hands of more muscular Chinese.  When he arrived in Hangzhou for a Group of 20 summit, the Chinese didn’t provide a rolling staircase.  They did provide red carpeted staircases for the leaders of Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Brazil and Britain, as they had for the US President in 2014.

A former ambassador to China told the Guardian: “These things do not happen by mistake. It’s a snub. It’s a way of saying: ‘You know, you’re not that special to us.’ It’s part of the new Chinese arrogance. It’s part of stirring up Chinese nationalism. It’s part of saying: ‘China stands up to the superpower.’”

As with any failure or humiliation, the value is in what we learn.  Some want to forget the snub, attribute it to unintended glitches.  Some Chinese, instead of apologizing for the mistake, see the real problem as arrogance of Americans.  Many in the US seem to agree.  Maybe America does need to be taken down a notch or two.  If it really was an intended snub, one thing’s for sure: ignoring it will only encourage more severe insults in the future.

Planned humiliation is an attempt to humble someone and therefore increase the status of the one who plans the humiliation. When you seek to be humble, planned humiliation can have the opposite effect.  The humble can be exalted and the proud excoriated.  Unfortunately the humility espoused by the ancient Chinese religion of Taoism and by Christianity is a tactic, not a goal, for many leaders today.

More prescient leaders realize humility is not the opposite of strength. Humility is a complementary aspect of strength in a resilient system.  Both are required for a system to be resilient.  The danger is when either comes to dominate a system or society.  Especially where humility is a virtue, strength must be maintained. Continuing to ignore and even apologize for public humiliation can mean that the big and powerful one is really just a paper tiger.  It awaits only the right match to go up in flames.

Or, if the insulted one does still have some strength and wisdom, he can just ignore the pesky upstart for the time being and resolve to rebuild his strength so that he does not fail when failure would mean much more than a trifling public humiliation.

That’s my take on the weekend.  I need to get back in the gym or, better, back to digging in the garden, back to chopping wood.  Then maybe I won’t have to rely on two young Chinese to pull up the badminton post.


If a system fails, but its failure is part of a larger system which learns from and adapts to the failure, then lack of resilience of the component system can increase resilience of the larger system.  For more on failure, humility and resilience of systems see Sources of Resilience–free and online with just a couple of clicks.