Meet the Ghaf tree

Conserving the tree of the dunes

During long, dry periods, when much of the ground vegetation is dormant, the Ghaf (Prosopis cineraria) spreads out its lush canopy often laden with flower and fruit.

This tree is one great survivor! Fierce temperatures, searing winds, high rates of water loss…the Ghaf tolerates them all. A multipurpose tree of arid lands that is considered a solution to desertification, the Ghaf stabilizes dunes while it improves soil. What is more, it propagates itself by providing new shoots from parent root systems. Identified with Arab tradition, it is not surprising that Ghaf finds a place in folklore.

Today, however, the Ghaf is being over-lopped and over-grazed to destruction. Ghaf groves are succumbing to urbanization and rapid infrastructure development.

“Scientists have long believed that Ghaf trees in the UAE be declared National Monuments and be protected in light of their cultural, aesthetical and ecological significance to the UAE. Without such measures, the specie’s continued survival in the wild is questionable,” says Razan Al Mubarak, managing director of the Emirates Wildlife Society, an associate of the WWF – UAE.

The Wild Ghaf

An indigenous species, specifically of the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, the Ghaf is a drought – tolerant, evergreen tree which is, possibly, the sturdiest plant of the harsh desert environment In the UAE, it can be seen growing on low sand dunes, undulating sand sheets and along margins of gravel plains mostly in the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.

The presence of Ghaf in an area indicates that there is water underground. The tree taps water stored deep in the sand, its roots penetrating as deep as 30 meters to access it. Thus, Ghaf is able to withstand very low rainfall and still stay green. How long it can survive if groundwater itself gets exhausted, is yet to be determined.


Flowers, fruits, leaves, bark, branches and roots of Ghaf – all provide resources and habitat for a variety of native fauna and flora, making the tree a keystone species; one that plays such an integral part of the food chain in an ecosystem, that if it disappeared, it would cause the ultimate extinction of other species in that system.

Many birds build nests on the Ghaf – desert eagle owl, brown-necked raven, yellow-throated sparrow and long-legged buzzard are examples. Still others nest in holes along trunk and branches; and many more use the trees as roosts.

An added economic value of Ghaf is as an ornamental in cities and towns, where it is being extensively planted.


The greatest danger to Ghaf is from browsing by camels and goats; and intensive lopping to provide forage especially during summer. In some places degradation is so intense that Ghaf regeneration has been totally eliminated. Moreover, as urban spread and infrastructure develops rapidly, Ghaf trees often bear the brunt.

Excessive groundwater extraction is another threat. The effect of groundwater withdrawal on trees, in the long term, is uncertain; but could be harmful if extraction is from the soil layers that are tapped by tree roots.


For the UAE, an accelerating decline in Ghaf trees and woodlands implies a loss in cultural and biological heritage. Goumbook wants to preserve its aesthetical, cultural and ecological significance and lead its conservation to undertake a public awareness drive aimed at protecting the wild Ghaf.

To help save the species, Goumbook and its local partners have launched the “Give a Ghaf” programme to raise public awareness about the Ghaf and its values, while encouraging people to plant them.


The Ghaf tree, which scientific name is Prosopis Cineraria, is a small to medium-sized thorny tree, with slender branches armed with conical thorns and with light bluish-green foliage. The leaflets are dark green with thin casting of light shade.

The tree is evergreen or nearly so and produces new flush leaves before summer. The flowers, small in size and yellow or creamy white in color, appear from March to May after the new flush of leaves. The seedpods are formed soon thereafter and grow rapidly in size, attaining full size after about two months.

It is well adapted to browsing by animals, such as camels and goats. Young plants assume a cauliflower-like, bushy appearance in areas open to goat browsing.

Prosopis Cineraria requires strong light, and dense shade will kill seedlings. The crown (aboveground portion) grows slowly.

The root system of Prosopis Cineraria is long and well developed, securing a firm footing for the plant and allowing it to obtain moisture from groundwater. Taproot penetration up to 35 m (115 ft) in soil depth has been reported. Like other members of the family Fabaceae, symbiotic bacteria found in its root nodules allow it to fix nitrogen in the soil, improving soil fertility.


Prosopis Cineraria inhabits dry, arid areas where annual rainfall averages less than 500 mm (20 in). Rainfall shows considerable variation in the most important areas of its distribution, ranging from 100 to 600 mm (3.9 to 24 in) annually, with a long dry season. In areas of its natural distribution, the climate is characterized by extremes of temperature. Summers are very hot and winters are severe with frost from December to January. The maximum shade temperature varies from about 40 to 46 °C (104 to 115 °F), while the absolute minimum temperature ranges from 9 to 16 °C (48 to 61 °F). The tree is able to withstand the hottest winds and the driest season, and remains alive when other plants would succumb.

It is a tree of the plains or gently undulating ground and ravine country and seldom extends into the hills. The tree exhibits considerable drought hardiness.

The tree grows on a variety of soils, but grows best on alluvial soils consisting of various mixtures of sand and clay. It is common on moderately saline soils, but quickly dries out where the soil is very saline.

Prosopis Cineraria occurs in Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, southern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

In India it is one of the chief indigenous trees of the plains of the Punjab, Western Rajasthan and Gujarat and is common in Bundelkhand and the neighborhoods of Delhi and Agra. It is also found in the dry parts of Central and Southern India, occurring in parts of Maharashtra (near Nasik), Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka south of Godavari, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and the drier parts of the Deccan Plateau. Its range extends as far south as Tuticorin.

In general the climatic climax of the Indian Thar Desert is represented by Prosopis Cineraria and Salvadora oleoides. Prosopis Cineraria occurs on grazing lands, cultivated fallows, barrens and reserved forests, and is found in association with Tecomella undulata, Capparis decidua, Maytenus emarginata, Ziziphus species, and Salvadora species.

The density of Khejri increases from the Western to Eastern part of the Western Rajasthan. Older and younger alluvial plains are the two habitats preferred by Khejri but it also grows well in sandy undulating plains. Because of its capacity to avail perched water and to absorb moisture from rains through its foliage, it can grow in the extremely arid tracts (100 mm rainfall).


Prosopis Cineraria provides wood for use in construction. It is used for house-building, chiefly as rafters, posts scantlings, doors and windows, and for well construction water pipes, upright posts of Persian wheels, agricultural implements and shafts, spokes, fellows and yokes of carts. It can also be used for small turning work and tool-handles. Container manufacturing is another important wood-based industry, which depends heavily on desert grown trees.

Prosopis Cineraria is much valued as a fodder tree. The trees are heavily lopped particularly during winter months when no other green fodder is available in the dry tracts. There is a popular saying that death will not visit a man, even at the time of a famine, if he has a Prosopis cineraria, a goat and a camel, since the three together will sustain a man even under the most trying conditions.

The forage yield per tree varies a great deal. On an average, the yield of green forage from a full grown tree is expected to be about 60 kg with complete lopping having only the central leading shoot, 30 kg when the lower two third crown is lopped and 20 kg when the lower one third crown is lopped. The leaves are of high nutritive value. Feeding of the leaves during winter when no other green fodder is generally available in rain-fed areas is thus profitable.

Prosopis Cineraria is most one of the most important feed species for desert livestock, contributing a major proportion of their feed requirements. It provides nutritious and highly palatable green and well as dry fodder that is readily eaten by camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Locally it is called Loong.

The seedpods, locally called sangar or sangri, contain sweet pulp. The dried pods, locally known as Kho-Kha, are eaten by humans and nearly all livestock. Pods are also fed to animals when young (green) and their taste is improved by boiling and drying them. They are also used as famine food and known even to prehistoric man. Even the bark, having an astringent, bitter taste, was reportedly eaten during the severe famines of 1899 and 1939. Pod yield is nearly 14,000 kg/km² with a variation of 10.7% in dry locations.

The heating value of Prosopis Cineraria wood is reported to be high, making it some of the best firewood. The lopped branches are good as fencing material.

The Prosopis Cineraria leaves are used as a salad in the United Arab Emirates. After mincing the leaves extensively, it’s considered a delicacy by some to mix the leaves with their fish and rice meal.

Conservation uses

Prosopis Cineraria has a very deep taproot system and hence it does not generally compete with the associated crops. The improved physical soil conditions compared with higher availability of nutrients under the Khejri canopy explain the better growth of the crops associated with it.

Rural communities encourage the growth of Prosopis cineraria in their agricultural fields, pastures and village community lands.

Because of its extensive root system, it stabilizes shifting sand dunes and is also useful as a windbreak and in forestation of dry areas. It fixes atmospheric nitrogen through microbial activities and adds organic matter through leaf litter decomposition, rejuvenating poor soils. Because it is the only tree species in arid regions, it provides much needed shade and shelter to the farmers working in the fields as well as to the cattle and wildlife during the summer months.

Cattle, sheep, horses, mules, donkeys, goats, camels and other desert wildlife eat pods of Prosopis Cineraria. In western Rajasthan, Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and Chinkara (Gazella bennettii) have survived by eating the pods and leaves of this tree.

Because of its economic value, the tree is left standing in arable land and the farmers regulate its population by adapting suitable agro forestry management practices.

Medicinal uses

Prosopis Cineraria flower is pounded, mixed with sugar and used during pregnancy as safeguard against miscarriage. Water-soluble extract of the residue from methanol extract of the stem bark exhibits anti-inflammatory properties.

Prosopis Cineraria plant produces gum, which is obtained during May and June. The bark of the tree is dry, acrid, bitter with a sharp taste; cooling anthelmintic; tonic, cures leprosy, dysentery, bronchitis, asthma, leukoderma, hemorrhoids and muscle tremors. The smoke of the leaves is good for eye troubles. The fruit is dry and hot, with a flavor, indigestible, causes biliousness, and destroys the nails and the hair. The pod is considered astringent in Punjab. The bark is used as a remedy for rheumatism, cough, the common cold, asthma, and scorpion stings. The plant is recommended for the treatment of snakebite.

Meet Goumbook’s Partners for the Planting Programme

When Goumbook started the Give a Ghaf Tree Planting Programme, we wanted to source the seeds locally and to be able to plant them in a protected area where the plants could grow safely.

The Environment & Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) in Sharjah, came on board of the Give a Ghaf initiative by generously supplying the first batch of Ghaf seeds from their biological diversity bank. EPAA, who’s former General Director is part of Goumbook’s Advisory Board, aims to protect the environment, the wildlife and the associated biological diversity, conserving the natural resources and ensuring their optimal utilization for the benefit of the present and future generations.

Greenworks is Goumbook’s main partner in the Give a Ghaf Program: each plant in Greenworks is diligently tended to by a team of 60 experts who secure the adequate temperature, wind and soil consistency for every leaf on the premises. Greenworks is different from anything else currently on offer in the UAE. Located within the Al Barari development in Nada Al Sheba, Greenworks provide high level services from the growning of plants and trees, to landscape design, construction and maintenance, as well as seasonal services for both indoor and outdoor plants. For almost ten years, Greenworks has exclusively serviced Al Barari, carefully nurturing the lush greenery that makes up 80% of this unique eco-conscious development. Now, Greenworks has joined Goumbook to welcome individuals, groups and corporations to share the passion for nature, plants and environmental sustainability.


Plant your Ghaf trees, click HERE and help us conserve the local environment