23 Jun 2013

Beach Almond Tree

By Jorge Ventocilla


This full moon is an excellent time for talking about the beach almond tree which can be found in many areas in Panama. We can even find it in Amador Causeway, and near the Biomuseo. This tree provides much needed shade, it grows quickly and thrives on soils and regions where other trees can’t; for example, seashores.

Its branches grow almost horizontally, parallel to the trunk, and are usually arranged in tiers. This kind of tree provides great shade for gardens, if properly trimmed by skillful hands.

Terminalia catappa is the scientific name of this tree. It comes from the Latin terminalis-e (terminal: edge), and refers to the clustering of the leaves at the ends of the branches; and catappa, for its popular Malayan name: katappan.  

Its many popular names attest to its presence in many tropical regions. Some of these names are: Indian almond, tropical almond, sea almond, in English; almendro de playa (Spanish), amendoeira da India (Portuguese); castanhola (Galician language); harara or kaduk-kai (Hindi); ho-di-lê, ho-tsze or k’o-tzu (Chinese); Pathya, in Sanskrit.

A word of caution: this tree is not to be mistaken for the mountain almond tree (Dipterix panamensis), which is essential for Panamanian wildlife and a food source for squirrels, common agoutis, lowland pacas, monkeys and other animals. It produces fruit when there is no food around. This other almond tree grows in the forest.

The beach almond tree is native to India and some nearby regions. Literature shows that this is one of the most common trees in India, Malaysia and most of Southeast Asia, where it grows up to 25-30 m high. However, they don’t grow that high on this side of the globe. Ours are rather small and medium in size, but tall enough to provide good shade. When its growth apex has been removed, the beach almond tree would not grow that much…

Its flowers are not conspicuous. Its fruits, approximately 7 x 5 cm in size, are green at first and then yellow (...kids in rural areas look for the fruit when it is yellow and eat the outer part). After falling from the tree, fruits turn brown. The seed found inside the fruit reminds us of “real” almonds (Prunus amygdalus); however, these come from a different plant family, the rosaceae (pears and apples are also members of this family). Beach almond seeds germinate very easily and, in no time, this tree becomes very productive.

Fruits from these trees can be found in the sand, after being carried along by the waves. The thick and fibrous shell allows it to stay afloat for up to two years. There they go! They travel through tropical ocean currents and the possibility of germination after this journey is very high (our topic for the full moon of March was all about “drifting seeds”).

Years ago, botanist Rafa Aizprúa told me that Scarlet Macaws in Coiba Island love to feast on the fruit of the beach almond tree. There are many beach almond trees in Barco Quebrado beach, located on the largest island of Panama and, every day at sunset, birds fly in to feed.

Besides ocean currents and human intervention, fruit-eating bats are undoubtedly the most important contributors to the spreading of the beach almond tree. These flying mammals love to eat this fruit. You may remember seeing small piles of half-eaten fruit in abandoned houses or locations. These are dinner leftovers.

There are countless medicinal applications for the different parts of the tree. Adalberto Gómez, a fellow biologist who lives in Palmas Bellas (Colon), says that there the fruit is soaked in water and that this water is then used for “cleansing the kidneys” and also for back pains. Because of its antibacterial properties, tropical fish farmers use it in their aquariums.

I once read an anonymous passage about how the roots of trees are like acupuncture needles which help the Earth heal. Trees and flora in general provide many benefits; we just need to pay attention to them. A friend, very disappointed at society, told me one day that we should be sending plants to other planets, instead of people. Well, I think we should keep sending people…but also many, many plants.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.