Pithecellobium dulce: Madras thorn

Family: Fabaceae
Common name: Madras thorn, Manila tamarind, Blackbead, Sweet Inga, Monkeypod, Camachile

A short, spiny tree that provides good nourishment and housing for birds, Madras thorn trees are ideal for gardens and parks. They are medium-sized trees that grow to a height of 12-15 meters with a heavily branched trunk. The branching starts quite low, giving the Madras thorn tree a short, well-rounded crown.

The terminal branches are thin and twig-like, giving the tree a spindly appearance. They have small oval leaves, about 4 cms long, in pairs at the end of small stalks. The leaves are dark green and glossy on the upper surface, light green on the lower. They also have sharp spines at the base of the leaves which makes the tree an ideal hedge tree, and also gives the tree its name Madras thorn.

These trees produce a profusion of greenish-white flowers that grow in bunches at the tips, giving the tree a fuzzy look. Flower buds looks like small rounded bunch of green globules. The flowers do not have a stalk, are about 10 cms long, with many long thin stamens. These stamens coil and bunch up in older flowers before falling off.

Belonging to the bean family of Fabaceae, their fruits are long pods, coiled around in a spiral shape. Each fruit pod is about 15-20 cms long, initially green and then turning pink or reddish-brown in color. These pods open up on maturity revealing white or pink pulp, which is actually the covering of the seeds or seed arils. Shiny black seeds about 1 cms long, are contained inside this pulp.

The names Madras thorn and Manila tamarind do not make much sense since these trees are not related to Tamarind, Manila or Madras. The name Pithecellobium dulce literally means sweet monkey pods, probably because monkeys love to feast on the sweet pulp of the fruit pods.

Monkeys, bats and birds help in seed dispersal. The tree have now escaped cultivation is seen commonly in the wild, along roadsides, open areas, hillsides and pastureland.

The sweet and sour pulp from the fruit pods is eaten raw, used as relishes and also used as an accompaniment for sweet and savory dishes in Asian cuisine. It’s also used for making juices along with lemon juice, orange juice, coconut water, ginger and mint.

The roots contain nitrogen fixing bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates and nitrites that can be easily absorbed by plants, thus enriching the soil quality.

Madras thorn trees also have many medicinal uses, in treatment of sores, inflammations, fever, indigestion, diarrhea, dysentery, ulcers and chest congestion. Oil obtained from the seeds is used in making soap. The wood is not very strong and durable, but can be used for making small wooden implements and handles. The trunk also exudes a yellow dye, and reddish-brown gum.

Propagation is through seeds, grafting and root suckers that grow near the parent plant.

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