I hate wild tamarind. They're ugly, untidy and unruly. They spread
rampantly and take over the place. They're prejudiced and intolerant.
They grow close together and won't let any other plants live in
They're resilient and tenacious. Their sturdy taproot goes straight
down into the earth and holds on tight. They can withstand drought,
flood and even come back after a fire. There are no insects, predators
or diseases that can do them any significant harm.
They're hard to get rid of. If you cut them down, they'll grow
right back. If you try and pull out the small one, you'd better
have a lot of time and a lot of patience. If you try and dig out
the big ones, you'd better have a good hoe-pick and a strong back.
They're prolific. They can flower several times a year, bearing
a tree full of seedpods. Each seedpod contains about 20 to 30 seeds
that will germinate easily and remain viable for many years. The
seeds may sprout where they fall or may be spread far and wide by
the wind and by the droppings of birds, rats, mongoose, sheep, cows
Wild Tamarind with mature seedpods
Wild tamarind seedpod
Wild tamarind seeds
On St. John, wild tamarinds thrive wherever land is
disturbed. You'll see them on roadsides, along trails, on land cleared
for construction or wherever hurricanes or severe storms have blown
down trees in the forest.
Wild tamarind or tantan, the botanical name for which is Leucaena,
is native to the West Indies, but now can be found in tropical areas
around the globe. It is the fasting growing tree in the world, reaching
its full height of 15-20 feet in about three to four years. Some
can even grow as high as 30 feet.
Even though I hate them, and other St. John gardeners will probably
share my feelings, they are not without redeeming value. They control
erosion, covering bare land rapidly and effectively.
They are also nitrogen fixing. This means that, unlike most plants
that use up organic nitrogen compounds from the soil, eventually
depleting it, wild tamarinds actually add nitrogen compounds to
the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it into organic
nitrogen compounds that enrich the earth.
The immature green seedpods and leaves of wild tamarind are rich
in protein and can serve as food for goats, sheep and cows. The
foliage and seedpods, however, also contain large amounts of the
amino acid mimosine, which can make animals that have manes, like
horses, pigs, mules and donkeys, go bald. They are also supposed
to be edible and nutritious for human beings, at least for those
unconcerned about hair loss.
Wild Tamarind in flower with green
Wild Tamarind Flower
On many poorer West Indian islands, wood is the primary
source of cooking fuel. This practice can lead to severe deforestation.
Wild tamarind can help. Because it grows so fast and so easily,
it is now being used to make charcoal. On some islands there are
actually wild tamarind plantations dedicated to charcoal making.
And here's one further use of the ubiquitous and often unpopular
wild tamarind. The mature brown seeds are shiny and actually quite
attractive and are sought after by many jewelry makers for use as
beads. A pack of 20 wild tamarind seeds, about the amount found
in one single seedpod, can be purchased from seedman.com in Gautier,
MS for the hefty price of $9.95.
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