The Plants of the Thar Desert

in Article
Published on: 12 July 2018

Malini Saigal

Malini Saigal is a postgraduate in history and a graphic designer. She is also a trained botanical artist and is working on a series of artworks on desert flora.


The harsh landscape of the Thar Desert supports a surprisingly large number of hardy, drought-resistant plant species. These plants have adapted to the desert conditions of sandy soil, scarce water and long hours of strong sunlight. Some have deep root systems to tap into low groundwater levels, others have smaller or no leaves, and spiky thorns to save on water loss through transpiration. Some species, particularly grasses, and small herbaceous plants are ephemerals in that they live in short seasonal cycles; they germinate in the first rains in July and die out by the time the soil dries up by December, leaving behind seeds that will bloom again next year.


The vegetation of the desert remains crucial to the survival of the nomadic pastoral and agricultural communities, providing them with food, fodder, fuel, traditional medicines and a host of other derivatives.


Name: Khejri/jhand/sangri 

Scientific name: Prosopis cineraria


Figs. 1a & 1b. Khejri (Source: 1a, Arna Jharna; 1b, Wikimedia Commons)



  • Medium sized, deciduous
  • Small leaves, thorny branches
  • Deep root system penetrating up to 30 metres
  • Tiny yellow flowers in spikes
  • Bunches of slender fruit pods


Uses/Significance to Community

  • State tree of Rajasthan
  • Pods gathered as vegetable when green
  • Provides timber
  • Range of traditional medicine
  • Fodder for livestock


Name: Rohira/luar/desert teak

Scientific name: Tecomella undulata




Figs. 2a–2c. Rohira (photographs by Malini Saigal)



  • Small to medium deciduous tree
  • Trumpet-shaped flowers in red, yellow or orange clusters
  • Seed pods are long and thin, gently curved


Uses/Significance to Community

  • State flower of Rajasthan
  • Excellent wood used to make furniture, tools and printing blocks
  • Traditional medicine


Name: Kumatiyo/gum arabic

Scientific name: Acacia senegal

Figs. 3a–3c. Kumatiyo (Source: 3a, Arna Jharna; 3b & 3c, Wikimedia Commons) 



  • Small deciduous tree
  • Shiny dark red spines in sets of three, with one thorn hooked like a parrot’s beak
  • Creamy white flowers in cylindrical spikes
  • Flat brown seed pods, gently curved or straight


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Source of the true gum arabic, once used in the printing industry as an adhesive
  • Also used in processed food
  • Seeds collected when green to make a traditional Marwari vegetable dish


Name: Hingot/hingoto/hingua/hingorni/desert date

Scientific name: Balanites roxburghii


Fig. 4. Hingot (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



  • Small tree or deciduous bush with thin branches
  • Small leaves
  • Long green thorns
  • Egg-shaped woody fruit


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Seeds, fruit, leaves and bark have medicinal and detergent use
  • Fruit is a natural dewormer eaten by pigs, porcupines, ruminants and jackals


Name: Jaal/peelu/dhalu/toothbrush/mustard tree

Scientific name: Salvadora persica



Figs. 5a–​5c. Jaal (Source: Wikimedia Commons, 5a & 5b are photographs by J.M. Garg)



  • Resilient tree with evergreen foliage of fleshy leaves
  • Knobbly trunk
  • Tiny white flowers in branching clusters
  • Small translucent berries in red or cream


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Many traditional medicines
  • Small creatures like rodents and birds nest in the trunk


Name: Kharo jaal/bada peelu

Scientific name: Salvadora oleoides




Figs. 6a & 6b. Khaaro Jaal (Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by J.M. Garg)



  • Small evergreen tree
  • Dense canopy of green leaves
  • Branches may droop down to ground
  • Trunk more gnarled than peelu


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Small creatures like rodents and birds nest in the trunk


Name: Neem

Scientific name: Azadirachta indica


Figs. 7a & 7b. Neem (Source: 7a, Arna Jharna; 7b, Wikimedia Commons, photograph by J.M. Garg)



  • Semi evergreen, medium to large, grows to 15 metres
  • Not native to region but well adapted to it
  • Honey-scented flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • All parts have many medicinal uses
  • Timber used for planking


Name: Ber/Indian jujube

Scientific name: Zizyphus mauritiana




Figs. 8a–​8c. Ber (photographs by Malini Saigal)



  • Short hardy tree with evergreen canopy
  • Spines in pairs with one hooked
  • Variable leaf sizes from medium to small
  • Pale greenish flowers in small clusters
  • Fruit is round or oblong


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Rich in Vitamin C, the fruit provides a commercial crop, fodder for livestock and food for wild animals
  • Shellac is made from the resin on ber leaves
  • Bark and fruit yield a dye and tanning material
  • Roots, bark and fruit are used in traditional medicine
  • Wood is used for farm implements, beams, oilseed crushers
  • Wood makes fuel and high-grade charcoal


Name: Googal/mukul myrhh

Scientific name: Commiphora wightii


Figs. 9a & 9b. Googal (9a, photograph by Malini Saigal; 9b, Arna Jharna)



  • A low stout thorny shrub, sometimes a tree
  • Small, scanty leaves
  • Shiny, peeling bark
  • Small red flowers
  • Exudes a resin called ‘Indian bedellium’ or ‘gum googal’ in the cold season



  • Most valuable medical plant
  • The resin releases a myrhh-like fragrance when burned and is used as incense
  • In the Red Data list of endangered plants


Name: Kankera/red spike-thorn

Scientific name: Maytelus senegalesis


Fig. 10. Kankera (Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Aldonix)



  • Small deciduous crooked tree or bush
  • Branches with solitary long spines, often leaf and flower bearing
  • Tiny white scented flowers in bunches
  • Tiny dark red fruit


Name: Dhau/dhawra/gum ghati/button tree

Scientific name: Anogeissus latifolia


Fig. 11. Dhau (Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Lalithamba)



  • Tall, slender deciduous tree growing upto 24 metres
  • Clusters of tiny flowers
  • Tiny spiky red fruits
  • A honey-coloured resin called gum ghati is tapped from its trunk


Uses/Significance to Community

  • The resin is used as binding agent in foods, drugs and skincare products
  • The leaves and bark are used for dyeing and tanning
  • Tussar silkworms are reared on its leaves
  • The timber is used in construction, and for charcoal and fuelwood


Name: Badh/Indian banyan/east Indian fig tree

Scientific name: Ficus bengalensis


Figs. 12a & 12b. Badh (Source: Wikimedia Commons; 12a by N. Aditya Madhav, 12b by J.M. Garg)



  • Spreading, almost evergreen tree with prop roots. Can grow to astonishing sizes in height and width
  • Not a species of the arid region, but grown all over India
  • Glossy oval leaves
  • Fruit are red round figs


Uses/Significance to Community

  • The fruit and the shady environs of the branches sustain bats, monkeys and birds
  • Leaves and twigs are excellent fodder
  • Bark, leaves, latex and root fibres have medicinal uses
  • Worshipped by Hindus as the consort of the pipal tree


Name: Pipal/sacred fig

Scientific name: Ficus religiosa



  • Large deciduous tree, up to 27 metres high
  • Sinewed trunk
  • Heart-shaped leaves with prominent pointed tips
  • New leaves are very colourful in shades of rust and yellow
  • Fruit is round, in pairs, and changes from unripe yellow-green to deep red-black when ripe
  • Not an arid species, but cultivated across India


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Most sacred of Indian trees. Often there is a shrine at the base
  • Root, latex, bark, fruits and new shoots are used as medicines
  • Fruits eaten by birds, and leaves are fodder for buffaloes and elephants


Name: Shisham/chirhol

Scientific name: Dalbergia sissoo


Fig. 13. Shisham (Source: Arna Jharna)



  • Middle-sized deciduous tree
  • Oval leaves with pointed tips
  • Small flowers in creamy ­clusters
  • Long flat fruit pods
  • Not an arid species but adapts to dry conditions


Uses/Significance to Community

  • The best quality timber
  • The wood ‘raspings’ and bark are used for medicine
  • Leaves are used for fodder
  • Often planted as a windbreak to prevent erosion


Name: Sargado/bitter drumstick

Scientific name: Moringa concanesis




Figs. 14a & 14b, Sargado/bitter drumstick (photographs by Malini Saigal)



  • Similar to the soajna or drumstick
  • Small tree with feathery leaves
  • Enormous roots to anchor in the sandy soil
  • Clusters of fragrant cream flowers
  • Long striated fruit pods


Name: Lasura/risalla/Indian cherry 

Scientific name: Cordia myxa


Fig. 15. Lasura (photograph by Chiranjit Parmar, source: Fruitipedia, encyclopaedia of the edible fruits of the world, initiated, coordinated and edited by Dr Chiranjit Parmar)


  • Hardy, middle-sized deciduous tree
  • Broadly oval leaves
  • Round yellow fruit with smooth skin and sticky pulp
  • In dry areas, grows around depressions and water margins


 Uses/Significance to Community

  • Fruit and leaves have multiple medicinal uses
  • Fruit is eaten as vegetable and pickled
  • Leaves used as fodder
  • Wood is light but usable for boats and farming tools


Name: Imli/tamarind

Scientific name: Tamarindus indica


Fig. 16. Imli (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



  • Large deciduous tree
  • Compound leaves with pairs of leaflets
  • Yellow three-petal flowers
  • Fruit are green bean-like pods that ripen to brown, with a soft downy texture
  • Cultivated across India


Uses/Significance to Community

  • The tart fruit is used in cooking and has many medicinal properties
  • Imli seeds provide an oil varnish
  • The bark is used in tanning and dyeing




Name: Kair/ker/kareel

Scientific name: Capparis decidua






Figs. 17a–17d. Kair (Source: Arna Jharna)



  • Spiny bush or small tree, deciduous
  • Dense clump of leafless branches
  • Tiny leaves, shed quickly in less than a month
  • Bright red/orange flowers twice a year
  • Round dark pink fruit


Uses/Significance to Community

  • The flowers and fruit are pickled or cooked as a vegetable dish
  • Is a sand binder that stabilises sand dunes
  • Used in traditional medicines


Name: Aakado/aakra/giant milkweed

Scientific name: Caliotropis procera



Figs. 18a–18c. Aakado (Source: 18a & b, Arna Jharna; 18c, photograph by Malini Saigal)



  • A large bush with big fleshy leaves
  • Small pink/purple flowers in clusters
  • Ubiquitous in dry sandy areas and along roads and highways


Uses/Significance to Community

  • All parts of the plant are poisonous
  • The aakra flower is sacred to Hindus and is offered in prayers to Shiva


Name: Kheemp/broom brush 

Scientific name: Leptadenia pyrotechnica




Figs. 19a–19c. Kheemp (19a, photograph by Malini Saigal; 19b, Wikimedia Commons; 19c, Arna Jharna)



  • Grows up to two and a half metres
  • Wiry stems and leaves
  • Tiny star-shaped flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • A sand binder
  • The dried stems are used for thatching and to make brooms
  • Fruit is collected and cooked as a vegetable dish
  • Traditional medicine for sheep


Name: Phog

Scientific name: Calligonum polygonides



  • Small shrub that grows up to one or two metres


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Edible flowers called phogalo
  • Provides fodder
  • Its charcoal is used to melt iron


Name:  Bui/desert cotton

Scientific name: Aerva javanica



Figs. 20a–20c. Bui (20a, Arna Jharna; 20b & 20c, photographs by Malini Saigal)



  • Most common desert bush
  • Produces thick white inflorescence
  • Grows up to a metre high


Uses/Significance to Community

  • A sand binder
  • The fluffy flowers are used as filling for bedding
  • Anti-inflammatory in traditional medicine
  • Fodder for goats


Name: Thhor/danda thor/leafless spurge

Scientific name: Euphorbia caducifolia



Figs. 21a & 21b. Thhor (21a, photograph by Malini Saigal; 21b, Arna Jharna)



  • Multi-stemmed succulent that grow to a large circumference
  • Small red or green flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • It creates a mini protected zone within its stems where rodents, small animals and a host of plants prosper in shade and safety


Name:  Baonli

Scientific name: Acacia jacquemontii


Fig. 22. Baonli (photograph by Vishal Pratap Singh Deo)



  • Hardy shrub with multiple shoots
  • Up to two metres tall


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Sand binder
  • Used in traditional medicine
  • Provides fodder and fuelwood


Name: Sinniya/senna/swarna patri

Scientific name: Cassia augustiflora


Fig. 23. Sinniya (photograph by Yashaswini Chandra)



  • Small perennial shrub
  • Yellow flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Leaves and seed used in medicine as laxative and blood purifier


Name: Tulsi/holy basil/ sweet basil

Scientific name: Ocimum tenuiflorum 


Fig. 24. Tulsi (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



  • Small aromatic shrub
  • Green and purple leaves, small purplish flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Seeds and leaves used in traditional medicine to cure bronchitis, stress, acne and leucoderma
  • Significant in Hindu rituals


Name:  Dhatura/thorn apple/devil’s trumpet

Scientific name: Datura stramonium


Fig. 25. Dhatura (Source: Arna Jharna)



  • Foul-smelling bush
  • Up to two metres tall
  • Bell-shaped white-violet flowers
  • Highly toxic plant


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Traditional medicine for asthma, as an analgesic and as an anaesthetic


Name: Kaner/desert rose

Scientific name: Nerium indicum




Figs. 26a & 26b. Kaner (Source: Wikimedia Commons)



  • Tall evergreen shrub that rises up to five metres
  • Pale to bright pink scented flowers


Uses/Significance to Community

  • Traditional medicine for malaria, ulcers, piles, skin diseases
  • Also used to induce abortions