Want Safer Streets, More Bees and Good Food? Grow Tamarind Trees, not African Tulip Trees

Tamarind pods, Tamarindus indicus

There’s a greater demand for fresh tamarind pods than there is supply in multicultural Brisbane: Grow your own!

I’ve just made Dulce de Tamarindo from tamarind pods, a mouthwatering Mexican sweet that’s guaranteed to stimulate your tastebuds. What could link safer streets, more bees and good food? Here’s a blog on sustainable urban forest management. Let’s start with an end product before making the case to ‘grow me instead’. There is a greater demand for tamarind in multicultural Brisbane than there is supply – just try buying fresh tamarind pods. Every community garden should grow one.

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indicus) originates from tropical Africa. Grown worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, their durable hardwood is valued for carpentry.

Tamarind is a signature street tree in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Tamarinds have few pests but some beetle larvae will eat their seed. They’re drought tolerant, storm-resistant, non-invasive and non-suckering. Saplings grow at a moderate rate, forming attractive, long lived shade trees. Tamarinds are ideal street and park trees, perfect for cooling streets and permitting gardens to grow under their dappled shade. You can shape and train them into bonsai, fruiting shelter belts or hedges. Narrow, busy streets in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam are shaded by tamarind, it is one of that city’s signature trees.

Prior to the Campbell Newman era which saw the diversity of street tree species planted radically simplified, Brisbane City Council planted tamarind. Judging by the age of the stock growing around town, that would have been about twenty to thirty years ago. There are older trees said to be planted in the 1920’s by migrants.

Dulce de Tamarindo is a Mexican sweet based on sour and tangy tamarind pulp which makes a soft and chewy snack combining sweet, sour, salt and hot flavours. Yesterday I made it from locally gathered pods.

How to make tamarind paste

To make Dulce de Tamarindo you first have to prepare tamarind paste.

Like soy, tamari and chilli sauce, tamarind paste has become a cosmopolitan ingredient, adding its unique flavour to sauces and meals worldwide. Most people buy it ready made, but all you need to do is:

Pick some fresh, healthy looking pods. Wash them;

Place whole pods in a saucepan, and cover with water;

Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for twenty minutes;

Pour off half of the liquid, and wait for the contents to cool;

Place a sieve over a bowl, line the sieve with a linen tea towel;

Ladle some pods and juice into the centre of the tea towel, gather the corners, and gradually wring the paste out into the bowl. When the paste stops flowing, discard the waste and repeat. The waste composts quickly.

Tamarind paste can be frozen for later use – freeze them in cubes.

How to make Dulce de Tamarindo

Pour 4 cups of Tamarind paste into a large saucepan, gradually bring to the boil.

Stir in 2 cups of raw sugar, half a level teaspoonful of salt and one level teaspoonful of chilli powder.

Pour into a cup cake tray (smaller cake sizes make smaller, bite-sized sweets) and allow to cool and set (You may find lining the trays with cup cake holders may help the next stage).

When the contents have set, remove sweets from the tray and dust with castor sugar. Traditionally bite sized pieces are moulded and rolled into balls and coated with castor sugar. Store in a cool place.

Grow tamarinds instead of African tulip trees

Tamarind would be a perfect replacement tree for the damaging African tulip trees (Spathodea campanulata) currently littering Brisbane streets.

It’s disappointing that council will spend rates on maintaining weed tree species like African tulip tree. It invades bushland and vigorous, suckering roots damage underground services like water, sewage and gas pipes.

African tulip tree is notorious for poisoning native bees with toxic pollen. The flowers collect dew and rain which mixes with nectar forming a noxious brew. In their native habitat nectar is a lure for birds. But where native stingless bees (Tetragonula) occur they are either killed by the pollen or intoxicated after drinking the solution and drown.

African tulip tree wood is brittle, so it should never be grown in playgrounds or as a street tree. They readily shed limbs on roads in a storm and are are one of the first trees to collapse across streets in a cyclone. This is precisely the kind of liability landowners should avoid.

Weeds Australia describes African tulip tree as being invasive in the tropics, however, the specimen planted in warm temperate Sydney Botanic Gardens suckered freely and set viable seed: it is an invasive weed in frost free regions.

Council recently claimed it wants to reduce wasting money on city repairs and litigation as a result of trees on public land harming the built and natural environment. It’s time they replaced African tulip trees. Sustainable arboriculture is holistic, it’s about creating a beneficial, cost effective legacy.

Gardeners comments about African Tulip trees from my public Facebook page:

M. Rawle: “I didn’t realise that they killed bees – wont be planting one of them!”

M. Kornbrekke: “I used to love popping the seed pods as a kid. Won’t be doing that anymore, I didn’t realise it was a weed, let alone a Bee killer”.

G. Howard: “Didn’t realise they killed bees”.

D. Smith: “used to love these trees as a kid, planted them around the property, then a little wind came and blew them all down. Not the greatest root system”.

A. Cooke: “Anyone know how I can kill mine?”

B. Hamley (ecologist): “Killllll!!!”

C. Komp: “well I am definitely glad I got rid of mine years ago!!! It’s roots are terrible, it suckers and makes a mess. I didn’t know about the bees either. Definitely not one for the back yard!”

D. Weber: “Thank you Jerry for this info. They are not very attractive trees anyway. I will let the people in the Bushcare Group to know to look out for it…….and DESTROY!!!!”

K. Campion: “I was admiring your beautiful picture (of African tulip tree) thinking I must make space for one of these glorious flowers, then read the rest of the post. No not in my garden, only beneficial plant for my beneficial insects. Thanks for all of your wonderful information via sharing on FB. I really appreciate it!😊”

P. Venables: “used them (African Tulip tree) as water pistols as a kid. First tree to come down in a cyclone.”

Gardeners comments about Tamarind trees from my public Facebook page:

M. Carra:There are a couple of streets on the (Brisbane) southside where the council is maintaining existing plantings of Tamarind trees. There is Dornoch Terrace at Highgate Hill where I have noticed recent plantings of Tamarind trees to replace older trees. There is also Ekibin Road through Annerley which has old street tree plantings of Tamarinds. They are a beautiful tree and should be used more often”.

V. Bland: “I have just seen the new plantings of Tamarinds down the road on Dornoch Terrace. How exciting. These are historical Tamarinds. Planted in the 1920’s by immigrants I believe. When they fruit we get lots of Indian, Sri Lankan and Asian folk gathering seed pods from them (we gather as well) I have found out that they also use the new leaves in stir fry and curry for tamarind tang and as a green vege. The one outside our garden is big!”

Jerry Coleby-Williams
16th June 2013