Block of the Week: Acacia Wood
Spruce is tall and noble. Oak is traditional and sturdy. Birch is petite and elegant. So how about acacia, our block of the week? Well, um, it's certainly the most... orange... wood that Minecraft has to offer.
Acacia first started sprouting across our blocky landscapes on 21 October 2013 as part of snapshot 13w43a, and hasn't changed much since. It grows amidst tall grass and herds of horses in savanna biomes, stretching lazily into the sky. Acacia trees are about eight blocks tall, and have unique diagonal trunks and flat canopies of leaves that make them easy to spot from afar.
There are three different types, each of which require seven blocks of empty space above the sapling to get them to grow. Cut one down, and you'll get to see its full orange glory. Or, if you're not keen on cutting down trees "just to see what's inside" then take a wander through a savannah village, which is largely comprised of acacia wood.
Real-world acacia is pretty different to its Minecraft incarnation. The name actually represents a whole family of more than 1,300 kinds of plants - including shrubs, bushes and actual trees. The ones in Minecraft seem to be based on two different kinds of real-world plant. The colourful wood is likely modelled after the bright-orange insides of the Acacia Koa tree, found in Hawaii.
The structure of the tree, on the other hand, is closer to southern Africa's Vachellia erioloba, also known as the "camel thorn" tree, which has a dark reddish-brown wood and the nice leafy canopy that you'll recognise from wandering around Minecraft's savannah. This shape evolved because it lets the tree capture the maximum amount of sunlight with the smallest leaves.
Humanity's relationship with acacia goes back a long way. The first one to be named, known today as Vachellia nilotica, was identified by the early Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, who published a book of herbal medicine between AD 50 and 70. It was named after ακις - the Greek word for the thorns that covered its branches, and has a big collection of different uses. In some places it's used to feed animals, in others its twigs are employed as toothbrushes. The thorns also mean it makes a pretty good hedge.
But the most helpful thing we get from acacia trees is "gum arabic" - basically the tree's hardened sap. Gum arabic is used all over the place - to stabilise food dishes like marshmallows, coca cola and gumdrops, in watercolour paint, in photography, in winemaking, in shoe polish and even as a lickable glue on the backs of stamps.
It's so handy, in fact, that humans have been collecting it since the time of Ancient Egypt. So next time you spot a savannah biome butting up against a desert, with a pyramid-shaped desert temple on one side and sprouting acacia on the other, it's worth stopping for a moment and considering that you're seeing a digital version of a scene that humans have laid eyes on for millennia. How about that for connecting with your roots?