Acacia is a genus of shrubs and trees belonging to the subfamily Mimosoideae of the family Fabaceae, first described in Africa by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1773. The plants tend to be thorny and pod-bearing. The name derives from ακις (akis) which is Greek for a sharp point, due to the thorns in the type-species Acacia nilotica ("Nile Acacia") from Egypt.
Acacias are also known as thorntrees or wattles, including the yellow-fever acacia and umbrella acacias.
There are roughly 1300 species of Acacia worldwide, about 960 of them native to Australia, with the remainder spread around the tropical to warm-temperate regions of both hemispheres, including Africa, southern Asia, and the Americas.
The genus Acacia is apparently not monophyletic. This discovery has led to the breaking up of Acacia into five new genera as discussed in list of Acacia species.In common parlance the term "acacia" is occasionally misapplied to species of the genus Robinia, which also belongs in the pea family. Robinia pseudoacacia, an American species locally known as Black locust, is sometimes called "false acacia" in cultivation in the United Kingdom.
The southernmost species in the genus are Acacia dealbata (Silver Wattle), Acacia longifolia (Coast Wattle or Sydney Golden Wattle), Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle), and Acacia melanoxylon (Blackwood), reaching 43°30' S in Tasmania, Australia, while Acacia caven (Espinillo Negro) reaches nearly as far south in northeastern Chubut Province of Argentina. Australian species are usually called wattles, while African and American species tend to be known as acacias.
Acacia albida, Acacia tortilis and Acacia iraqensis can be found growing wild in the Sinai desert and the Jordan valley. It is found in the savanna vegetation of the tropical continental climate.
The leaves of acacias are compound pinnate in general. In some species, however, more especially in the Australian and Pacific islands species, the leaflets are suppressed, and the leaf-stalks (petioles) become vertically flattened, and serve the purpose of leaves. These are known as phyllodes. The vertical orientation of the phyllodes protects them from intense sunlight, as with their edges towards the sky and earth they do not intercept light so fully as horizontally placed leaves. A few species (such as Acacia glaucoptera) lack leaves or phyllodes altogether, but possess instead cladodes, modified leaf-like photosynthetic stems functioning as leaves.
The small flowers have five very small petals, almost hidden by the long stamens, and are arranged in dense globular or cylindrical clusters; they are yellow or cream-colored in most species, whitish in some, even purple (Acacia purpureapetala) or red (Acacia leprosa Scarlet Blaze). Acacia flowers can be distinguished from those of a large related genus, Albizia, by their stamens which are not joined at the base. Also, unlike individual Mimosa flowers, those of Acacia have more than 10 stamens.
The plants often bear spines, especially those species growing in arid regions. These sometimes represent branches which have become short, hard and pungent, or sometimes leaf-stipules. Acacia armata is the Kangaroo-thorn of Australia and Acacia erioloba is the Camelthorn of Africa.