Plant 259

Tamarindus indica L. (Fabaceae)


Tamarind is known as a tree of life because of the shade given by its graceful featherlike leaves, its edible fruits that can be stored for months without refrigeration and its numerous uses. The fruit, a pod that does not break open, has a hard outer shell and a pulpy centre.

Tamarind acquired its common name, and hence its generic name, from Arab sea traders in India; they called it tamrhindi from the Arabic for date palm (tamr; due to the date-like appearance of the dried pulp), and India (hindi). With the specific epithet indica, you would be forgiven for thinking that this monotypic genus (it contains only one species) originates from India. In fact, it is native to the dry regions of tropical east Africa.

The tree's toleration of poor soils and ability to grow in arid conditions has meant it has been used in anti-desertification programs. However, it grows equally well in more humid habitats and today is found throughout the tropics. It does not tolerate frost but will withstand salt spray in coastal habitats.

Tamarind has a long history of cultivation and trade; it was cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean as early as the fourth century BCE.

The pulp has a sweetish sour, tangy flavour but there is marked variability in the degree of sweetness or acidity among trees. Cultivars that have been selected for sweet fruit include 'Makham waan' in Thailand and 'Manila Sweet' in the United States. The fruits are eaten fresh, made into syrup, jam, wine, and juice or preserved with sugar as confectionary. Dehydrated, the fruits are used in chutneys, curries and sauces, including many brands of Worcestershire and barbecue sauce, and Oxford's own 'Baron Pouget's Oxford Sauce'.

The leaves and flowers are used as a mordant in dyeing. The seeds produce an amber-coloured oil that is used as lighting fuel and for varnishing dolls and idols. The hard, heavy timber is used to make furniture, boats and tool handles. The wood is also valued as a fuel as it gives off an intense heat and makes high quality charcoal for use in gunpowder.

Medicinal uses of tamarind are equally numerous. In traditional medicines, tamarind is used for the treatment of cold, fever, stomach disorders, inflammations and constipation, and as a digestive, even by elephants. It is also used as an antiseptic, and controlled, scientific research has shown tamarind has broad-spectrum antibacterial activities.

Further reading

Doughari JH 2006. Antimicrobial activity of Tamarindus indica Linn. Tropical Journal of Pharmaceutical Research 5: 597-603.

Morton J 1987. Fruits of warm climates. Julia F Morton.

National Research Council 2008. Lost crops of Africa. Vol III: fruits. The National Academies Press.

Louisa Hall