Most of us are familiar with the tamarind in this part of the world. Two types of tamarind exist. The ripe fruit of the sweet tamarinds are available from sale in our local supermarkets where they eaten fresh like a dessert fruit while the fruits of sour types are used as a souring agent (we call it ‘asam’ here) to flavour certain dishes or made into juice, jam, syrup and candy. The sourness is due to acidity of tartaric acid, which on ripening does not disappear but is matched more or less by increasing sugar levels. Hence tamarind is said to be simultaneously a sour and most sweet fruit.
Interestingly, according to Plant Resources of South East Asia (PROSEA), the seeds of this tree are also edible after soaking in water and boiling to remove the seed-coat. Flour from the seed may be made into cake and bread. Roasted seeds are claimed to be superior to groundnuts in flavour. The seeds also yield oil that is used to make paint and varnish. The green fruits and flowers may be used for souring soupy dishes of fish and meat. The young, tender, fine pinnate leaves are also eaten as a vegetable.
Besides food uses, the tamarind tree is also medicinal and hence has a place in a Herb and Spice Garden. Its bark is astringent and tonic and its ash may be given internally as a digestive. Incorporated into lotions or poultices, the bark may be used to relieve sores, ulcers, boils and rashes. It may also be administered as a decoction against asthma and amenorrhea and as a febrifuge. Young leaves may be used in fomentation for rheumatism, applied to sores and wounds, or administered as a poultice for inflammation of joints to reduce swelling and relieve pain. A sweetened decoction of leaves is good against cough and fever. Filtered hot juice of young leaves and a poultice of the flowers are used for conjunctivitis. The pulp may be used as an acid refrigerant, a mild laxative and also to treat scurvy. Powdered seeds may be given to cure dysentery and diarrhoea.
A member of the bean family, Fabaceae, the tamarind tree belongs to the genus Tamarindus and there is only one species in this genus. According to Plant Resources of South East Asia (PROSEA), a distinction was made between tamarinds from the West and the East Indies in the past. In the West Indies, plants are known as Tamarindus occidentalis and these produce pods up to 3 times longer than wide and have 1 to 4 seeds, In the East Indies, plants are known as Tamarindus indica which bear pods up to 6 times or more longer than wide and each fruit contains 6 to 12 seeds.
The exact origin of tamarind is actually unknown. This slow-growing tree can grow up to 30 m tall and features drooping branches and a dome- to umbrella-shaped crown which provides good shade. However, it presents a problem where excessive fruit drop can lead to cleansing issues. It is generally believed to be native to the drier savannas of tropical Africa but now cultivated in all tropical countries, commercially or as an ornamental tree in parks, gardens and streets. Tamarind is highly adaptable and can be found in a wide variety of soils, altitude and rainfall. Excessive rainfall is said to affect fruit production.
The tamarind tree is a sun-loving and semi-deciduous tree which sheds its leaves in a pronounced dry season. It produces bunches of small, yellow coloured, orchid-like flowers. The tree has an extensive root system contributes to its resistance to drought and strong winds and trees generally maintanence-free. In terms of propagation, tamarind can be raised from seeds and vegetatively via marcotting, grafting and budding. Shield and patch budding and cleft grafting are fast and reliable methods.