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I’ve been growing Acacia maidenii for some 15 years, and I must say I have always been impressed with its hardiness and ability to cope with all the British weather, and for that matter, British insect life, and assorted other pests, can throw at it. Considering the plant is native to Australia it has made me giggle on the odd occasion I have had to shake the snow off their branches, and I have never yet seen an Acacia maidenii suffering a pest or disease problem requiring “hospitalisation” or intensive treatment.
So what’s the story with Acacias? Well, as I said it is a plant native to Australia, specifically occupying the edge of rainforests on the coastal areas of Queensland and New South Wales. There are Acacias that are indigenous to Africa, and other areas of the world. Interestingly, African Acacias tend to be called “Acacias“, whilst Australian Acacias are called “Wattles“! Acacia maidenii is commonly known as “Maiden’s wattle”, for example. This is one plant I have found that can grow quite fast, and it can reach 30-40 feet in height in its natural habitat. However, they are easy to keep in check by simple pruning, and look great at about 15-20 feet high. I also find they can make a great screen, hedge or fence if a row of them is kept to a specific height. They can be quite “leggy” as youngsters, with one main trunk reaching upwards rapidly, but a canopy forms as they attain their maximum height. They do prefer warmth but withstand a pounding from the British weather if they have to. All they need really is to be outside during British spring and summer and then offered the protection of a greenhouse, conservatory or lean-to during the colder months of winter. They do like moisture, but “well drained” is the name of the game as they will not appreciate getting water-logged.
Acacias are members of the family of plants known as the Leguminosae of Fabaceae. This is the pea, bean and pulse family. There are over a thousand species world-wide. One of the characteristics of this family of plants is that they “fix” nitrogen from the soil. What this means is that most of the plants in this family have nodules on their roots containing bacteria called Rhizobia. These bacteria take Nitrogen out of the surrounding atmosphere and hold onto it in a process called “fixing”. They then use this nitrogen to aid their own growth but also give some to the plant, helping it to grow healthily too. Importantly, when the plant dies, or is cut down/harvested, the nitrogen is left in the soil, thus enriching it in a sort of natural fertiliser cycle. Planting large areas of Acacias is one technique being used by scientists to enrich the soils in countries such as Africa. Apart from this potentially planet saving effect, Acacias have been used throughout history for the valuable gifts they yield. Native Australians have used several types of Acacia for food, for both animals and humans. Some Acacias provide an excellent wood suitable for joinery or craft purposes. The “Ark of the Covenant” is said to have been made of Acacia wood. “Gum Arabic” is derived from Acacia senegal and has had innumerable uses over the years, such as being used to add the chewiness to sweets and candies as well as being the glue used for cigarette papers! Acacia farnesiana yields a perfume oil highly prized in the perfume industry as a blender and fixing agent in scent blends. Arguably, the most commercially important product of Acacias has been the tannin they contain. Tannins are essential in the leather production process, being used to transform what is effectively dead skin into the everyday item we use to make our shoes, bags, clothing etc. Tannins act by precipitating proteins and forming a seal. This process is not just good for making leather it is one of the most important tools in herbal medicine the world over. Tannins are used to dry up fluid exudations wherever they may be! An example on the inside of the body would be the fluid produced during a gut infection as in dysentery. On the outside of the body weeping ulcers or other infected, oozing, bleeding conditions can be cleaned up and dried using the high tannin herbs. Wounds can be sealed using tannins and low concentrations of tannins are great for reducing the itching and redness that can occur with allergic skin disorders such as eczema. The great world traditions of herbal medicine, the Western/European, the Chinese and the Ayurvedic systems all have Acacias official in their pharmacopoeias.
Acacia is a name derived from the Greek word “akis”, meaning thorn or barb. Whilst most of the African species of Acacia bear thorns most Australian species including maidenii do not. In fact, one of the most interesting features of Acacia maidenii is its bark. The young plant particularly has a green colour that is dappled with white/silver flecks or spots. I often think it looks a bit reptilian, making a great visual spectacle in any garden. The leaves also provide an interesting feature as they are not true leaves at all, but phyllodes. Phyllodes are basically adaptations of the leaf stalk. Most of us recognise the usual situation in which true leaves are attached to a branch or a trunk by a stem, but in the case of Acacia the stem has enlarged to take over the function of the leaf. In the young plant you get the situation in which the true leaves are attached to the end of a phyllode, which also looks like a large leaf itself. The older the plant gets, less and less of the true leaves appear, leaving just the phyllodes which look like elongated, blade shaped leaves. You will also note that the texture of these phyllodes is quite hard and tough and is thought to be an adaptation to living in harsh climates. Take a look at the pictures I have posted along-side this article, you will see the typical arrangement of true leaves and phyllodes in the young plant. In fact, looking at the young true leaves you will see their feather like shape, just like mimosas. Well, mimosas belong to the same family as Acacias, hence the similarity. The flowers of maidenii are also a little unusual being cream to yellowish coloured spikes and having the typical “pom pom “ appearance of other Acacias. I always think they look like those big, fat, colourful caterpillars you sometimes see!
When it comes to growing Acacia maidenii it can be a bit tricky. You need seed that is as fresh as possible. Then you have to get through the really hard seed coat itself. The seed coat is incredibly tough in Acacias and this is once again thought to be an adaptation to living in a harsh climate. To protect the embryo inside the seed the plant gives it a tough shell, but to initiate growth water has to penetrate the shell and the growing plant has to be able to bust out! So, to soften up the shell I usually scarify the seed which means nicking each one individually with a clean scalpel blade. Then I drop them into hot water and leave them overnight. The water is hot initially and left to cool down naturally whilst the seeds are in it. This has always done the trick for me and within 2 weeks you should see new Acacia maidenii babies emerging. Be aware that Acacia maidenii was classified as an endangered species by the Australian government several years ago. I therefore think that the more we can grow the better!
The reason for my interest in Acacia maidenii is not just because it is a beautiful plant with a great history and potential but because of its chemistry. Every plant is one of God’s own chemical factories. Every chemical in humans can be found in a plant somewhere! As a trained herbalist I have an intense interest in plant chemistry and the useful compounds that can be extracted from them. As I have said, every major world herbal tradition has one species or another of Acacia in its materia medicas, usually because of the tannins. However, the most interesting chemicals in Acacia are rarely if ever mentioned. The chemicals in question are tryptamines, specifically di-methyl tryptamine (DMT) and N-methyl tryptamine. The reason DMT is interesting is because it has a powerful psychotropic, hallucinogenic effect. As a pure chemical it is ranked right alongside of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as one of the most powerful mind altering substances there is. Other plants containing DMT, Psychotria viridis for example, are use by indigenous peoples of the Amazon jungle for healing and other ritual/religious purposes. Do not panic though, DMT can not be absorbed through the skin if you touch a plant containing it, and it is not even effective if you eat the plant containing it. It has to be processed specifically first. What the indigenous peoples of the Amazon discovered is that if you mix the DMT containing plant with other plants containing chemicals that allow the body to absorb the DMT, then extract them appropriately, the full effect of this powerful chemical is experienced. Pure DMT, or the traditional extracts made from DMT containing plants, can also be smoked or snuffed. Many other plants contain DMT and chemicals related closely to it, even certain types of grass manufacture it. Why chemicals like this are made by plants has always been a mystery, but it is most likely that they serve as a way to store certain vital nutrients such as nitrogen for times when the plant finds itself in harsh conditions such as drought.
So, there we have Acacia maidenii, not only a wonderful plant to look at and to grow, but one with a fascinating chemical tale to tell. Just think how you could amaze your friends with information about this plant, if you had one in your garden!