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2017 †N7-8(148-149)
The word "desert" in itself carries an unambiguous linguistic coloring, and it has no room for unnecessary details in a dull landscape. At the same time, however, this is a large and complex biosystem with a great variety of plants and animals living in uninhabited spaces.
If one sets himself the task of choosing a symbol of the desert that would characterize both its severity and generosity, the first thing that comes to mind is saxaul - the only plant that preserves green color of its crown even during the most sizzling and waterless summer months. Saksaul has no leaves. Instead, it has thin horsetail shoots that virtually cast no shadow. So, it is rather difficult to hide from the summer heat in the shadow of saxaul. At the same time, its scant greens can be used as food for camels and sheep.
Saksaul belongs to the goosefoot family, whose representatives are known for their ability to grow in saline soils. There are ten varieties of saxaul on the planet among the diversity of the plant world. Two of them - black and white - grow in the Karakum desert.
At first glance, these two species are indistinguishable. However, comparing these perennial plants, one can see significant differences. The light groves of white saxaul are more transparent, and this saxaul is smaller, thinner than the black one, and the bark on its branches and trunk is whitish-ashy. Black saxaul is bigger. It has a strong root system and dark green color of the crown. Some old trees of black saxaul rise to five or even eight meters. A thick, twisted, curved and knotty trunk is dressed in a smooth bark. Sometimes, the interlacing and outgrowths of the trunks create the most bizarre patterns and images. The life span of the green giant of the desert is not more than sixty years.
Black saxaul grows only in places with groundwater, and this quality provides reliable indication of the groundwater availability: at the depth of 5-10 meters in the northern regions and at the depth of 10-20 meters in the southern region of the desert. This plant endures significant salinization, and therefore it grows in the saline land, always preferring heavy soils, such as clay loam. White saxaul sticks to the sands.
In March, the trees of saxaul put on the festive dress of small yellow flowers. In is only in the autumn that fruits ripen. They are the saxaul seed. They look like a nut, 5-7 mm in diameter. The wind picks up the ripen "nuts" and drives them over sand. They quickly sprout in the ground by piercing into sand on the second or third day. Such swiftness is justified, as they can remain buried under the sand. A thin green tail of the saxaul seedling grows very slowly, but the root grows almost one meter high by spring. The plant rushes to reach the wet horizon of the soil as soon as possible before the onset of the hottest season.
The saksaul thickets (sometimes called forests) look very nice both at hot noon time, shading the yellowish undulating surface of the dunes, and at full moon nights, when the crown of saxaul appears woven from the silver falling jets, and a light breeze seems to play a leisured song on these strings. In Turkmenistan, saxaul forests can be seen in all their beauty in the nature reserves - Repetek and Badkhyz.
However, with all the exotic sophistication of the landscapes with saxaul forests, this remarkable plant is valued not only for its appearance. Saksaul's strong root system prevents the movement of dunes. The artificially planted seedlings of saxaul, cultivated in favorable conditions, give a greater yield of seeds than the natural thickets of saxaul. In spring, sheep and camels eagerly eat saxaul, the shoots of which quickly renew. In winter, it is also an additional source of food for farm animals on distant pastures. The defensive stripes of saxaul help to reclaim waste saline lands, and the reserves of forage mass of desert pastures are increasing. This plant forms the soil in desert lands by saturating it with organic substances and regulating the level of groundwater.
The indigenous inhabitants of the desert areas regard saxaul as indispensable aid in their economic activities. Wood is the most valuable quality of saxaul, because it is extremely strong. It is so solid that it sinks in water. It is impossible to cut saxaul with a saw or an ax. One can only chop saxaul by hitting it against more solid material. In the desert, saxaul is the only natural building material except clay. It is used to build fences for cattle. In the old days, saxaul was used to fortify the walls of wells.
Many indigenous inhabitants of the desert believe in the healing properties of saxaul, arguing that several relaxation sessions in a blooming saxaul forest are the best prevention measure of cardiovascular diseases. Turkmen jewelers use ashes of saxaul for cleaning and polishing silver jewelry. In the old days, people polished saber blades and knives in the same way.
In addition, saxaul is an ideal fuel. It burns almost without smoke, it does not crack, it does not shoot sparks, it lights up immediately with one raw match. As regards energy efficiency, it is close to the calorific value of coal. A shepherd or a hunter in the Karakum desert fears no cold when a fire of saxaul branches burns at his feet.
Cooking a meal on saxaul coals is a separate story. Many traditional meals of Turkmen national cuisine are simply unthinkable without using saxaul as a source of heat treatment of food. A deep, fragrant and slightly bitterish smoke of burning wood adds a unique enchanting taste both to a shepherd's meat cake baked in the ashes of a fire or a shish kebab of fresh lamb or strong green tea made of water boiled on saxaul.
The old-timer of the Karakum desert - saxaul - is also the keeper of the desert and its defender. At the same time, it is the best aid of man in his struggle with the severe temper of the desert.


©Turkmenistan Analytic magazine, 2005