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Tamarindus indica L. 1753
pronounced: tam-uh-RIN-duss IN-dik-uh
(Fabaceae — the pea family)
subfamily: Caesalpiniaceae — the cassia subfamily
common name: Tamarind
The name of this tree comes from the Arabic tamar hindi (Indian date). Its origin is not, in fact, Indian, but it is from tropical Africa, including the Sudan, and some of the Madagascan dry deciduous forests. It was introduced into India so long ago that apparently the Persians and Arabs thought it had originated there. Unfortunately the Latin specific name indica (of India) perpetuates the misconception. The term tamar (date) is due to the fact that the dried pulp looks a little like dried dates. The fruit was well-known to the Ancient Egyptians, and to the Greeks by at least the 4th century BC.
Once there were dozens of these majestic trees gracing the island, and in particular Picnic Bay. Alas, most of them have been felled in the name of progress.
The tree has long been naturalized in the East Indies and the Pacific islands, and also in the sub-tropical parts of the Americas, where it serves as a shade and fruit tree. There are large commercial plantings in India, Mexico, Central America and Brazil, and the fruit pulp is marketed extensively in many parts of the world, even where there are no plantations.
The tamarind tree can grow to a height of about 18 m, with an irregular vase-shaped crown of dense foliage. It grows well in sandy soils, and is fairly tolerant to salt, which makes it an excellant tree for our island.
The alternate, pinnately compound leaves with opposite leaflets are evergreen, and up to 5 cm in length. The flowers are inconspiculous, elongated, 5-petalled, borne in small racemes, yellow with orange or red streaks. The buds are pink, as the 4 sepals are pink, and are lost when the flower blooms.
The fruit is an indehiscent pod, up to about 15 cm in length, with a hard brown shell. It has a fleshy, juice, acidulous pulp, red or reddish brown at maturity. Asian tamarinds have pods containing 6-12 seeds, whereas the indian and West Indian varieties have shorter pods containing 1-6 seeds. The seeds are rather flattened, and glossy brown in colour.
The extract from the seed pods is used to provide a “sweet and sour” flavour to savoury meat and vegetable dishes, and in drinks and desserts. Extracts from the seeds are used as a stabilizing agent in some ice creams, especially Indian kulfi. In some parts of India a gum is prepared from the ground-up seeds and used as a size on cloth used for making traditional paintings.
The heartwood of the tamarind is a deep reddish brown, and sometimes has a purplish hue; it is dark-reddish veined with an irregular outline and radiating ramifications. Heartwood portions tend to be narrow, and are usually present only in older trees. There is a much wider section of pale yellow, easily perishable sapwood that is sharply demarcated from the heartwood. Spalting and other discoloration are very common in the sapwood, and it is very liable to insect attack, whereas the heartwood is resistant to termites.
The heartwood is hard to very hard, considered difficult to work, and rapidly bluntens the woodworker’s tools. It is fibrous, heavy and strong, and is regarded as very durable. It will take a fine polish, and can be used for furniture-making, and general carpentry, e.g. flooring. It turns well, although the wood-turner will need to be an adept chisel-sharpener! Most turned tamarind products are made from the spalted sapwood, which is easy to turn, and much easier on the chisels; it is a great favourite with US turners, who use it to make such items as billiard cues, bowls and knife handles. It is also highly favoured for fine inlay and veneer work (it glues well), for musical instrument making, and for making carved items such as pistol grips.
Among the Lepidoptera larvae that feed on the plant are:
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2008, 2009
Page last updated 8th March 2018