Tamarind Tree

PIJ #48, Sep – Nov 1993

The graceful tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is believed to have originated in Africa and is now cultivated in many parts of the tropical world. Although in the legume family, it does not fix nitrogen; however, its many attractive qualities make it a splendid addition to the large permaculture garden. It is one of the most useful of tropical trees – for shelter, shade, food firebreaks, fuel wood, forage, fodder, bee food and mulch. Leaves, flowers and immature pods are eaten as vegetables, while these items plus the bark and roots have medicinal properties.

Also of high ornamental value, this semi-evergreen dome-shaped tree has graceful weeping branches that almost touch the ground. It can grow to 25m in height and 7.5 m trunk circumference on rich deep soils and live for hundreds of years. The leaves, which form the dense ferny foliage, are 7.5 – 15 cm long with leaflets in 10 – 12 pairs. The flowers which are yellow striped with red are held in a raceme.

Cultivation and Propagation

The tamarind needs a dry season to prosper and has great drought resistance – it is ideal for semi-arid regions (but may require some irrigation). It will recover from frosts if protected when young, greater cold tolerance developing with age. Tropical conditions are preferred. It prefers to grow on its own, being not very compatible with other trees. It tolerates most soils, as long as they are free draining.

Propagation is by means of seeds, which retain viability many months when kept dry. Seedling trees are slow to bear fruit; however, young trees can be shield-budded for more precocious bearing. A mature tree can bear about 160kg (350lb) of fruit annually.

Harvesting Fruit

The pods are harvested when mature, that is, when coloured cinnamon-brown. In many tropical countries they have been an important item of export, thanks to their long shelf life. The pulp is generally stripped from the shell and pressed into large cakes, seeds and all. These used to be packed for shipment on sacks made from palm leaves.

Timber Qualities

Tamarind timber is prized for its strength and termite resistance. It has a beautiful grain, yellow with red streaks, and is hard and durable. Furniture made from this tree indicated wealth in ancient Sri Lanka, where it was used to make rice pounders, mortars, side planks for boat wheels, axles and naves.

Fruit uses

Tamarind fruit pulp is found in the pea-like pods (up to 15cm long by 2.5cm across) surrounding one to twelve seeds. It is highly acid, contains 30% – 40% sugar and has high vitamin C and excellent keeping qualities. It is used extensively in Indian cooking to enrich the taste of savoury dishes (especially with meat). It is a popular ingredient in curries, chutneys, preserves and refreshing drinks. The acidic pulp is also used to clean silverware.

The fruit is acclaimed for its medicinal uses, either eaten straight, infused into tea, or added to decoctions or poultices. Its medicinal actions are refrigerant (useful for fevers), digestive (and helpful for deranged bile), carminative, laxative and antiscorbutic. The seeds are also used medicinally, ground up and made into a paste with cold water for applying to boils.

Leaf Uses

Leaves are eaten as a vegetable and are also used medicinally. Leaf juice is good for bilious fevers, urinary disorders and jaundice. A fresh leaf poultice is applied locally over swellings of ankles and joints, sprains, boils, sore eyes and scabies. Dried leaves powdered can be dusted over ulcers. The leaves yield a fixed dye which colours woollens red.

With its multiple products and functions the tamarind is excellent in larger permaculture gardens in warm areas.