Known locally as "country-almond," "Indian-almond," "sea-almond," 'Malabar-almond," "tropical almond," "false kamani," "almendron," "alcornoque" and on Reunion as "amandier bord-de-mer" or "badamier," this handsome tree is a common sight in most coastal tropical areas around the world. But let's all become more familiar with it. Although Terminalia catappa is the accepted Latin name today, this tree bears no less than sixteen synonyms amongst which Badamia commersonii, Juglans catappa, Myrobalanus catappa and so on...note here that 'badam' means 'almond' in Hindi and 'juglans' is the genera for walnut trees.
It is part of the Combretaceae family which is divided into 18 genera and 500 species, the genus Terminalia itself counts between 150 and 250 species, one of them (Terminalia bentzoë) being endemic to Mauritius and Reunion islands. Its original area is believed to be New-Guinea Papuasia but it has has spread rapidly to southeast Asia, India, northern Australia and Polynesia, both through human travels and because of the dry fruits floating on water hence disseminated by sea currents.
This large tree can reach 15 to 25 meters (45 to 75 feet) high. It usually grows a main trunk with large low horizontal branches which give it a unique look. Mature trees can grow impressive buttress roots which act as stabilizing systems. The leaves are rather large (up to one foot long) and appear as clusters at the end of shoots, turning yellow-orange to bright red before falling. Those leaves fall during the dry season and the tree usually grows back new leaves soon enough so they do not stay naked for long. Our myrobalanus grows close to shore but can be found inland up to 400m (1200 feet) in elevation. If one strolls near such trees during the dry season while leaves fall, one will soon find out that those leaves turn water in puddles into a dark red color. This is because of the high content of tannins which are powerful coloring natural chemicals, and the leaves also contain diterpenes, triterpens, flavonoids and phenolics. Tropical fish enthusiasts have been using those leaves since years to boost health and vigor among their fishes. One large leaf for 40 liters of water has great effects as it fights bacterias, fungi, parasites, promotes activity and boosts brighter colors, relieves stress and is effective for propagation. And it will also give a reddish-brown tint to aquarium waters, closer to the water naturally found in the tropics, rather than crystal-clear water from the tap!
Flowers on the tree are far from showy; small yellowish things about 4mm in diameter, they come in pendulous racemes up to half a foot long. Fruits are much more interesting: they grow up to 10cm long and 6cm wide, they have an ovoid though slightly flattened shape, range from yellow to reddish-brown or purple in color. They contain a very edible white almond protected by a hard coat which has to be carefully smashed in order not to ruin the precious almond, this coat itself is surrounded by an edible flesh...yes of course the common name "almond tree" is not a joke here! The 'real' almond (Pyrus amygdalus) comes from Central Asia but is largely linked to Mediterranea and is mentioned in the Bible, so this is another story. Our tropical almond is of course different but certainly deserves more attention than most regular tourists would give it, and I know my readers are not the regular kind of tourist! Anyway, let us get hold of a rather solid stone and find a less-solid stand in order to access to the famous almond of our island. The ripe flesh is edible itself though unable to compete with mangoes or guava but if this is all you got you better use it than fast. It has a rather stringent taste, the slightly acidic juice will stench your thirst even the meat does not do the same for hunger. The green fruits can be preserved in vinegar just like gherkins. Although rarely eaten on Reunion except by kids and gullies roamers like me, it is an important crop in parts of sotheast Asia like in Vanuatu where the dry nuts are sold in local stores. In New-Britain and Bougainville island (close to New-Guinea) the almonds are dried over fire or smoked so they can be kept longer. The almond contains 40 to 50% of lipidic compounds and can be processed to get a good quality oil which does not become rancid with time.
Besides this great food value, the tree has many other uses; the timber is turned into canoes and small statues in Vanuatu, it also makes quality pieces for house framing lumber. On Wallis (near New-Caledonia) drums are carved in the trunk and on Kiribati the whole tree is the favourite of the goddess Nei Tituaabane. The bark is effective to treat coughing (by extracting the juice) and urinary disorders (decoction). Crushed leaves relieve bad digestion, the high tannin level is a good remedy for diarroea, against fever, liver troubles, rheumatism as well as a tooth-ache remedy.
As stated before, the genera Terminalia has many species and several produce edible flesh or almonds. T. fernandiana which is endemic to Northern Australia is eaten by aboriginal people as its flesh contains sixty times more C vitamin than oranges ! T.impediens, which originates from New-Guinea and has been introduced to the Salomon archipelago is sought after for the almonds and carefully kept whenever people clear land by slash and burning for new crops. T. samoensis which is a small treelet produces fruits and almonds both enjoyed in Vanuatu and Samoa, this one grows on coral soil.
Another much enjoyed feature this tree offer is a soothing shade when the scorching tropical sun tries to fry you alive! The solid branches are perfect to hang hammocks and will allow you to peacefully snooze while trade winds would gently rock you...which seems the perfect way to end our adventure today. Until next time!