Herbs & Plants

Acanthosicyos horridus

Botanical Name: Acanthosicyos horridus
Family: Cucurbitaceae
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Cucurbitales
Genus: Acanthosicyos
Species: A. horridus

Common Names: Nara, Butter-nuts,?naras, ?nara, Butterpips;

Habitat: Acanthosicyos horridus is native to Tropical Africa – Namib Desert from southern Angola to S. Africa. It grows on sandy dunes of mostly dry river beds where subsurface water is available.

Acanthosicyos horridus is a perennial & dioecious plant, leafless, phreatophyte (meaning its roots penetrate deep down to water near the water table) that is found in sandy deserts but not stony plains, in areas with access to ground water such as ephemeral rivers and paleochannels, where sand accumulating in the shelter of its stems can form hummocks up to 1000–1500 m2 in area and 4 meters in height. Its stems may rise more than a meter above the hummocks, while its system of thick taproots can extend up to 50 m downward. The plant is leafless, so modified stems and spines 2–3 centimetres long serve as the photosynthetic “organs” of the plant. The plant can survive many years without water.


A plant of lowland areas in the very arid tropical deserts of southern Africa, where it is able to survive even in years when there is no rain. It grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range 15 – 30c, but can tolerate 10 – 40c. It prefers a mean annual rainfall in the range 125 – 250mm, but tolerates 75 – 450mm. Plants require a well-drained sandy soil on the poor side and a position in full sun. They can succeed in dry, saline soils, often growing where underground water is available. Prefers a pH in the range 6 – 7, tolerating 5.5 – 7.5. The leaves have been modified into thorns, which acts to give protection against grazing animals and also to minimize water-loss, making the plant very drought tolerant. A deep-rooting plant, the roots can go down 40 metres into the soil in search of water. A dioecious species, male and female plants must be grown if fruits and seed are required.

Edible Uses:
Fruit – raw, cooked or preserved. Juicy, with a pleasant, sweet-acid flavour. The fruit is up to 7cm long and weighs up to 900g. Ripe fruits are collected and either buried in the soil or left in the sun for softening, after which they are peeled and then boiled until the seeds become loose. The pulp is allowed to thicken and turns into a dark orange colour. After separating the seeds, the thick remaining pulp is poured out and allowed to dry in the sun. It solidifies in a few days, forming flat leathery cakes, which are then cut into strips or rolled up for storage. These fruity rolls have good keeping quality and can be chewed or added to porridge for the remainder of the year. Seed – raw or cooked. Eaten roasted or boiled, they can also be stored for later use. They can be ground into flour for cooking with other dishes. They are a good substitute for almonds, and have been exported to bakeries in Cape Town for use in confectionery. The kernel has a soft consistency like butter. The seeds contain about 45% oil. The seed is up to 15mm long. An edible oil is obtained from the seed.

Medicinal Uses:
The bitter roots have medicinal value. Either chewed or made into a decoction, they are used to treat nausea, stomach-ache, venereal diseases, kidney problems, arteriosclerosis and chest pains. The fresh fruit is said to relieve stomach pains. The crushed root mixed with fat is used to heal wounds. Oil from the raw or boiled seeds is used as a skin moisturizer and to protect the skin from sunburn.

Other Uses:
Its sand-binding characteristics also help nara form microclimate within the desert dunes. These microclimates provide food and shelter for a variety of vertebrates. Presence of the nara plant is associated with significantly increased soil microdiversity likely due to the shade it provides and the attraction of foraging mammals which contribute to organic matter.

Acanthosicyos horridus typically occurs in the absence of other vegetation due to the harshness of the climate, though Eragrostis spinosa and Stipagrostis sabulicola grasses may grow between its hummocks. It is regarded as a keystone species because its melons, seeds, shoots, and flowers are food sources for beetles, gemsbok, and ostrich, while small rodents such as Rhabdomys pumilio, Desmodillus auricularis, and Thallomys nigricauda take shelter amid the spiny tangle of its stems. The katydid Acanthoproctus diadematus feeds on the plant, moving between different bushes at night.

Disclaimer : The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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