Tamarinds are spreading trees that produce long, nourishing bean- like pods. While the trees are rarely seen in Australian gardens, tamarind paste is becoming a popular addition to recipes, particularly in dishes from India, the Middle East and Asia.
These trees grow best in subtropical to tropical climates but tolerate drier and cooler conditions, especially near the coast. Young plantings need protection from frost, though.
The species originated in tropical Africa and is now grown widely around the world; it’s naturalized in many areas, particularly throughout India.
It’s also found growing throughout the Pacific region and in subtropical zones of the US such as South Florida.
In areas where it’s widely grown as a commercial crop, there are named varieties available with high yields.
Common name: Tamarind
Botanical name: Tamarindus indica
Family: Fabaceae (pea family)
Aspect & soil: Full sun to light shade; moist soil
Best climate: All
Habit: Evergreen tree (may be briefly deciduous in dry climates)
Propagation: Seed, cuttings, potted plants
SHELTER, FOOD AND MEDICINE
At 20–30m high by 12m wide, tamarind is an ideal shelter tree for large gardens or paddocks. Its spreading habit leads little else to grow underneath, so it’s a tree for large open spaces. The drooping branches add wind resistance, so it’s a good choice for exposed conditions.
It’s also a very attractive tree with ferny leaves and clusters of pink flowers in summer, followed by long pods. It flowers best after a dry winter or spring season so is well suited to northern Australia.
As the pods ripen, they become filled with a thick, brown edible pulp. It can take almost a year to be ready to eat.
To harvest, pick up dropped pods or shake, knock or cut them from the tree, taking care not to damage the next crop.
Accessing tamarind paste is a very hands-on process. The dry pods need to be split open by hand and the paste scooped out, although the process is now becoming more mechanized for commercial crops.
The pulp is sweet when ripe but is used to make a sour tamarind paste that’s added to savory dishes such as pad Thai or added to sauces and chutneys.
It’s also used to make sweet foods and drinks such as tamarind ale. It is considered to be a highly nutritious food containing
calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine and riboflavin. It’s also a good source of niacin.
Its medicinal uses are many and varied throughout the world, but it is widely used in folk medicines to combat digestive problems, alleviate fevers and as a calmative. It’s also said to alleviate datura poisoning – we don’t recommend that!
The leaves are also useful as stock fodder, especially for goats and cattle.
In some parts of India and West Africa, tamarind leaves, not mulberry leaves, are fed to silkworms. There’s much research about uses for all parts of the tamarind tree, from adding pulp to ice-cream as a thickener to using the termite-resistant timber for building.