Tree of the Week: Indian Almond aka Wild Almond

Today my team and I spent the afternoon down at Richmond Beach. It is a wonderful place to relax in the sun, go for a dip, or even do some cliff diving. We were doing none of these things. Instead, we were harvesting Indian almond saplings for the tree nursery that we are currently developing.

When someone pointed the almonds out to me, I was slightly surprised. The massive trees were not what came to mind when I thought of almonds. As it turns out, Saint Vincent’s beaches serve as an ideal home for these semi-deciduous tropical trees. They do well in sand or clay as long as there is proper drainage. They are also salt and drought tolerant.

The Indian almond tree (Terminalia catappa) is not very similar to the more widely known Badam (Indian word for almond) tree. In fact, they are not even in the same family. However, its seed tastes quite like that of the Badam tree, hence the name.  Other common names for the tree are Sea Almond, Beach Almond, Story Tree, Tropical Almond, and Wild Almond. Vincentians tend to call it the Wild Almond.

The exact origin of the Indian almond is uncertain. According to the World Agroforestry Centre, it is considered to be a native species in Australia, Cambodia, India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Its usefulness to humans and its natural vivaciousness has resulted in the tree spreading to most of the world’s temperate regions.

It can grow to be as tall as 30 to 35 meters. Its branches tend to grow horizontally and in tiers that are about 1 to 2 meters apart. The leaves are of a medium to large size (up to 24 cm wide). They are dark green, leathery, and glossy but turn different shades of red or yellow with the seasons. The fruit is small (about 2.5 X 3 to 6 cm long). It turns a purplish color when ripe. The outer layer of the fruit is edible and quite sweet but has an acidic flavor. The seed in the middle is also edible, resembling the almond that you likely know well.

Propagating the Indian almond is relatively easy. Especially if you have access to existing adult trees. It can be propagated through two methods. One method is to propagate by seed. You can collect seeds from the fallen fruit of the tree. Other than removing the seed from the fruit, there is no preparation necessary. Sow the seeds within 4 to 6 weeks of collecting them. The sooner the better.

The second method, through saplings, is the one that my team chose. At Richmond Beach there are hundreds of baby almonds sprouting up out of the ground where seeds dropped. Today, we harvested about 70 saplings that were each around 12 inches in height. We did this carefully so as not to cause root damage. It was also important for us to have the planting medium (a combination of soil, compost, and ground coconut husk) at hand. This was so the roots experienced as little exposure as possible.

The advantage of this propagation method is that it saves time. Seeds would take several weeks to develop to the stage that our harvested almond saplings are at now. The important thing to know when using either method of propagation is that the trees prefer soil that drains well.

There are a number of reasons for our decision to add Indian almond to our nursery. First and foremost is its capacity for protecting coastal regions. The tree has a vast root system which holds bad soil and sand together. It also has wide leaves which break the fall of heavy rain, decreasing its impact on the soil. When the leaves themselves fall, they contribute important nutrients to the soil and vegetation growing beneath the tree. The tree is able to withstand medium to high winds, minimizing the impacts of tropical storms and hurricanes.

The Indian almond also offers a number of health benefits for humans. The leaves of the tree are considered to be medicinal. They are sometimes used to treat skin conditions, open wounds, eye irritations, digestive problems, liver complications, and even rheumatism. The leaves may even contain cancer-preventing agents. The nut (seed) is nutritious. It contains protein, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, thiamin, and niacin. The nut can be pressed for oil which can be used for cooking. The root is an antimicrobial and can be used to fight infections like staph and e coli.

Another reason for planting these trees is that they are a good source of hardwood. Since they grow fast and propagate easily, they can serve as a reliable source of quality lumber. The wood is strong but flexible and fairly water resistant. This is important in a country like Saint Vincent. The air here is humid and there is heavy rain for several months of the year.

Like many of the trees that grow in Saint Vincent, the Indian almond serves a number of important purposes. We will not be planting any more on Richmond Beach because they are already established there. We will, however, be exploring other areas in North Leeward that are in need of the many benefits that the almond has to offer. Many people in Saint Vincent already know and appreciate their wild almond trees. Hopefully, as we plant them, even more people will be able to realize their useful qualities.

By Sara