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Wild Tamarind, Leucaena leucocephala, Leucaena, tantan

St John Flora: Wild Tamarind

I hate wild tamarind. They're ugly, untidy and unruly. They spread rampantly and take over the place. They're prejudiced and intolerant. They grow close together and won't let any other plants live in their neighborhood.

They're resilient and tenacious. Their sturdy taproot goes straight down into the earth and holds on tight. They can withstand drought, flood and even come back after a fire. There are no insects, predators or diseases that can do them any significant harm.

st john virgin islands flora: wild tamarind
Wild Tamarind Leaves & Seedpod

They're hard to get rid of. If you cut them down, they’ll grow right back. If you try and pull out the small one, you’d better have a lot of time and a lot of patience. If you try and dig out the big ones, you’d better have a good hoe-pick and a strong back.

They're prolific. They can flower several times a year, bearing a tree full of seedpods. Each seedpod contains about 20 to 30 seeds that will germinate easily and remain viable for many years. The seeds may sprout where they fall or may be spread far and wide by the wind and by the droppings of birds, rats, mongoose, sheep, cows and goats.

st john flora: wild tamarind seeds
Wild Tamarind Seeds

On St. John, wild tamarinds thrive wherever land is disturbed. You'll see them on roadsides, along trails, on land cleared for construction or wherever hurricanes or severe storms have blown down trees in the forest.

Wild tamarind or tantan, the botanical name for which is Leucaena, is native to the West Indies, but now can be found in tropical areas around the globe. It is the fasting growing tree in the world, reaching its full height of 15-20 feet in about three to four years. Some can even grow as high as 30 feet.

st john flora: wild tamarind flower
Wild Tamarind Flower

Even though I hate them, and other St. John gardeners will probably share my feelings, they are not without redeeming value. They control erosion, covering bare land rapidly and effectively.

They are also nitrogen fixing. This means that, unlike most plants that use up organic nitrogen compounds from the soil, eventually depleting it, wild tamarinds actually add nitrogen compounds to the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it into organic nitrogen compounds that enrich the earth.

The immature green seedpods and leaves of wild tamarind are rich in protein and can serve as food for goats, sheep and cows. The foliage and seedpods, however, also contain large amounts of the amino acid mimosine, which can make animals that have manes, like horses, pigs, mules and donkeys, go bald. They are also supposed to be edible and nutritious for human beings, at least for those unconcerned about hair loss.

On many poorer West Indian islands, wood is the primary source of cooking fuel. This practice can lead to severe deforestation. Wild tamarind can help. Because it grows so fast and so easily, it is now being used to make charcoal. On some islands there are actually wild tamarind plantations dedicated to charcoal making.

And here's one further use of the ubiquitous and often unpopular wild tamarind. The mature brown seeds are shiny and actually quite attractive and are sought after by many jewelry makers for use as beads. A pack of 20 wild tamarind seeds, about the amount found in one single seedpod, can be purchased from in Gautier, MS for the hefty price of $9.95.