A typical Tropical Almond in a typical setting. Photo by Tropical Plant Book

A typical Tropical Almond in a typical setting. Photo by Tropical Plant Book

I went to Ft. Myers one Friday to look at plants on an 11-acre monastery. On the property there was a large tree they didn’t know nor did I. The following Sunday while teaching a class across the state in West Palm Beach two students knew a tree there that I didn’t know. It was the same tree at the Monastery. Small botanical world. The tree was a Tropical Almond.

Tropica Almonds at various stages of ripening. Photo by Staticd.

Tropical Almonds at various stages of ripening. Photo by Staticd.

You would not know the Tropical Almond is not native to the American tropics if you judged it by popularity there. Starting in mid-Florida along the coast then south it becomes more common if not excessive by Central America. Not bad for a tree that is native to East Indies and related warm areas from Australia to Africa. It’s usually found in coastal locations because it likes low-elevation (under 1300 feet) and is salt, drought and wind tolerant. Add a lot of rain and no freezes and the tree is happy. It’s often used in landscaping because when a leaf dies it turns red making the tree colorful most of the time. The journey west to east probably started in Hawaii. We know it was there before 1800.  It was definitely introduced to Jamaica by 1790.  The tree is naturalized in southern Florida, the Florida Keys, Virgin Island and Hawaii as well as the West Indies and from Mexico to Peru and Brazil. It is also grown in warm areas of Texas and California

Pagoda-like Terminalia mantaly "Tricolor" in Hong Kong. Photo by Green State

Pagoda-like Terminalia mantaly “Tricolor” in Hong Kong. Photo by Green State

Botanically Terminalia catappa (ter-mih-NAIL-ee-uh kuh-TAP-uh) it is not related to the edible almond. No doubt the tree gets it common name from the seed pods which look like large unshelled three-inch almonds and from the seed/kernel which resembles almonds. Unlike true almonds though the outside of the fruit is also edible. Both the seeds and the fruit of this particular species are edible raw. When the fruit dries it is very light thus buoyant and uses water (ocean currents) to get spread around. They are a common “sea bean” found along Florida beaches. For such light fibrous things they are surprisingly tough to open (especially if you have only two chunks of small concrete as we did that day… the surface of Florida does not have rocks.)  Julia Morton, who was a long-term botany professor at the University of Miami, reported in 1985 that “defleshed, thoroughly sun-dried fruits may be readily cracked by a sharp blow on the keel.” If well-dried they will also open if hit on the end point with a hammer.

Inside the Almond-like husk is a tasty kernel. Photo by N.I.T. Gallery

Inside the Almond-like husk is a tasty kernel. Photo by N.I.T. Gallery

Propagated by seed the fast-growing Tropical Almond reaches 30 to 55-feet talls on average but can grow to 80 feet. Deciduous, it forms a symmetrical, upright tree with horizontal branches that reach 35 feet in width. The branches are arranged in tiers giving the tree a pagoda-like look. The tree’s large leaves are distinctive, 12-inches long and six-inches-wide, glossy green, leathery with a heart-shaped base. They are also woolly underneath and grow in a rosette at the end of branches. Leaf stems have two glands at the upper end. Before dropping from age, or winter or drought they change through shades of red, yellow, and purple. Spring time blossoms are inconspicuous, green and white, arranged in fives with 10 to 12 stamens each all on six-inch-long terminal clusters.  They produce the edible fruit that changes through the colors already mentioned for the leaves: green to yellow then red or dark purple. The husk is corky, thin with green flesh inside. The fruit is high in tannic acid which can stain cars, pavement and sidewalks. But the tannic acid is also good for tanning hides. Interestingly the tree does not attract much wildlife. Some tropical ants like it and fruit bats eat the husk. Bees are attracted to the blossom but apparently have a difficult time making honey from them. Humans can barely detect an odor from the flowers. A tree can produce (when shelled) about 11 pounds of kernels per season.

On the let is the Roman God Terminus on a coin from 58 BC.

Above left is the Roman God Terminus on a coin from 58 BC.

There are some 250 species in the Terminalia genus. Terminalia is a variation of the Dead Latin word Terminus, a Roman God who presided over boundaries and frontiers. He liked fences and was never inside a buiding. In English we get termination, terminal and terminus from it. Here Terminalia refers to the rosette of leaves at the end of branches. While I would like to say Catappa is from the Greek word Kata (which means “below, all along” ) it is not. Catappa is variation of the Malaysian name for the tree which is ketapang.

Whether by age or conditions Tropical Almond leaves turn red making attractive foliage. Photo by J.M. Garg.

Whether by age or conditions Tropical Almond leaves turn red making attractive foliage. Photo by J.M. Garg.

For flavonoids the tree has quercertin and kamferol; pigments include violaxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin; tannins are  punicalin, punicalagin and tercatein. The leaves and bark are astringent. Medicinally the tree has had a myriad of uses in folk medicine including treatment for cancer, sickle cell disorders,  dysentery, cough, leprosy, nausea, diarrhea, intestinal parasites, eye problems, rheumatism, colic, liver disease, scabies, upset stomach, thrush and as an antibacterial agent and contraceptive. There is some modern research that suggests it might be useful in treating high blood pressure. Leaf extracts have shown to have some anti-diabetic and antioxidant activities. The leaves and bark are put in fish tanks to increase water acidity and reduce bacterial infections amongst the tank’s inhabitants.

Dried fruit floats and is carried thousands of miles by ocean currents. Photo by N.I.T. Gallery

Dried fruit floats and is carried thousands of miles by ocean currents. Photo by N.I.T. Gallery

The wood is moderately dense but had not been used for timber like other Terminalia species. It’s hard, strong, and has an attractive heartwood. Boxes, crates, buildings, bridges, boats, floors, planks, wheelbarrows, carts, barrels and water troughs are made from the wood. It does not do well in soil such as when used as fence posts but does well in water such as for building boats. In Fiji and Samoa it is the favorite wood for native drums.

A Tropica Almond Tree in India. Photo by

A Tropical Almond Tree in India. Note the shallow roots, one reason why it grows well in south Florida which in many places only has a few feet of soil on limestone. Photo by Barbara E.

Related species that have edible kernels after washing and cooking are T. glabrata, T. litoralis, T. mauritiana, T. pamela, and T. kaernbachii, the latter of which has seeds that are 12.5 protein and 70% fat.  Morton reported T. cattapa kernels are 52% fat, 25.5% protein and 6% sugar. The oil is mostly palmitic acid, 55.5% and oleic acid, 23%. Per 100 grams the outer flesh is 74% moisture, 5% protein and has 84 mg of calcium, 24mg of phosphorus, 7 mg iron, 21 mg of ascorbic acid. The T. cattapa is the only one in the genus to produce a kernel that can be eaten raw and does not need washing or cooking. A few species produce lesser quality fruit whose fleshy husks (but not seeds) are eaten: T. edulis, T. oblongata, T. platyphylla, T. sericocarpa, and T. solomonensis. The seeds of those species are often not eaten because of a high tannic acid content sometimes as high as 53%. Whether they can be leached like acorns I do not know. I suspect if they could it would have been discovered by now.

Tropical Almond fruit ripening. Photo by B. Bavez

Tropical Almond fruit ripening. Photo by B. Navez

Other names for the species include: Barbados almond, bastard almond, Bengal almond, country almond, Demarara almond, false kamani, Fijian almond, Malabar almond, Malay almond, sea almond, Singapore almond, story tree, tavola nut, West Indian almond, alconorque, almendrillo, almendro, almendro de la India, almendron, almendro del pais, amandelboom, amandier de Cayenne, amandier des indies, amandier des tropiques, amendoeira, badam, badamier, castafia, castafiola, chapeu de sol, guarda-sol, kalumpit, kamani-haole, ketapang, kotamba, parasol, saori, talie, talisai, tavola, tipapop, tipop, tivi, white bombway, wilde amandel, zanmande, and many more dialect names.

The leaves are also fed to silkworms and animals.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Tropical Almond

Flowers of the Tropical Almond.

Flowers of the Tropical Almond. Photo by J.M. Garg

IDENTIFICATION: Terminalia catappa:  Usually a single trunk tree that can reach 80 feet high, 18 inches through at the base. It has whorls of nearly horizontal, slightly ascending, branches like pine trees eventually taking on a pagoda-like appearance. Branches droop at the tips. Leaves are short stemmed, spirally clustered at the branch tips, obovate, up to 11 inches long, six inches wide, dark-green above, paler beneath, leathery and glossy turning bright-scarlet, dark-red, dark purplish-red, or yellow in midwinter often right at Christmas time in Florida. In Hawaii the tree is evergreen. Foetid flowers are greenish-white, very small, no petals but 10-12 conspicuous stamens, in slender spikes in the leaf axils. Most flowers are male, a few hermaphrodite, some female. The fruit is two inches or more long, one inch or more wide. Most that I’ve seen are about three inches long and half as wide, ellipsoid more pointed at the end than at the base, slightly flattened, with a prominent keel around both sides and the tip. Skin is smooth, waxy, and thin. Pulp layer is juicy, whitish to pink or reddish, slightly sweet or acidic. The seed in the husk is spindle-shaped with a thin brown covering.  The “kernel” is actually the tightly coiled seed leaves of the embryo, more tender than an almond with a hazel nut like flavor.

TIME OF YEAR: Varies on location, summer, winter or nearly all year.  Here in Florida they bear in November. In southern Indian they have two crops per year. In the Caribbean they fruit continuously.

Young Tropical Almonds in pots. Photo by Tropicals USA

Young Tropical Almonds in pots. Photo by Tropicals USA

ENVIRONMENT: Full sun to medium shade on well-drained soil, tolerant of wind, salt, and drought, likes being mulched and regularly fertilized. Will not tolerate freezes. The germination rate for whole fruit is 25%. Seedlings are transplanted into pots and raised in shade slowly acclimatizing them to full sun. Field planting is done when they are seasonally leafless.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: The fruit has a pleasant aroma but is not too tasty. The ripe husks of the fruit can be eat raw but are best when young and sweet.  The seeds have an almond or hazel-nut flavor. In India they are often served sitting in water on a small plate. The oil can also be used for cooking or to make soap. Leaves can be used as plates or to wrap small amounts of food. Among the fruit there can be a lot of variation as to when they are edible and palatable, sometimes when younger other times when older.

Tropical Almond Fruit. Photo by Barbera E.

Tropical Almond Fruit. Photo by The Three Foragers

 

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 peter from Fort Myers June 12, 2013 at 22:03

have to look for that one

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2 Basil Gua July 9, 2013 at 22:44

There is a sentence regarding T. Catappa, which reads: “The T. cattapa is the only one in the genus to produce a kernel that can be eaten raw and does not need washing or cooking”. I know two others species of terminalia that the kernel can be eaten raw; they are T. Kaernbachii and T. Calamansanai. The later is not appealing to fetch because it has very small fruits but the T.Kaernbachii is bigger than T. catappa and their test are amost the same…very appealling!!

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3 Green Deane July 10, 2013 at 15:17

thanks.. clearly local opinions differ.

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4 Kenneth Vittetoe August 23, 2013 at 17:07

being from Central America (Honduras) and having eaten both these and store bought almonds, I thought that they were the same. today I saw a picture of real almond and the leaf was totally different from the big round leaves on the tropical almond. my mind was blown!! thanks for the article it is an interesting read.

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5 Laura Q September 8, 2013 at 21:53

When I lived in island Margarita in 1978, I learned to eat those almonds from other kids. We would eat the flesh of those with great colors. Some trees would give more yellow ones, some more pink red. They were delicious, strange, sweet taste. Then, we would collect those dried up on the floor crack them with stones to eat the almond! Huuuum, what a souvenir!

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6 Enid R. October 26, 2013 at 16:17

Growing up in Puerto Rico, our next door neighbor had one in front of the house. I never ate the fruit, if I recall corectly it was the same as eating a not totaly ripe wild perssimon. We did spend a lot of time scraping off the fruit on the sidewalk until we had a goodly number of kernels that we would bust open with a hammer. Good memories, good time. Sadly my zone would not allow me to try and grow one.

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7 V.Ducray December 19, 2013 at 06:11

is the sprout of the indian almond good to eat ?

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8 Green Deane December 19, 2013 at 08:01

I have no reference to that.

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9 Jordy January 4, 2014 at 18:29

Natural Island Almonds are Good Eats. I’m from the Virgin Islands & These Trees are All Over the Island. When I was Smaller we use ot Collect a Ton of these for our Eating Pleasure lol Sometimes I jus use to eat them Plain, its Sweet & Tart but dats if you get a Really Good one lol We Also use to Take the Meat off of the Fruit & Stew them in a Pot wit Water Sugar & Vanilla until they were Soft Sticky & Sweet. Then we would Save the Seed, allow it to Dry Out for about 3Days in the Sun then Crack it Open for Delicious Almonds inside in which we use to Bake in the Oven. Good Times. I’m glad I Found this Page, I was jus Browsing around & Lookin for Local stuff, this was a Good Read.

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10 Jordy January 4, 2014 at 18:38

Ha Ha! Crazy Idea jus came to my Mind. Wouldn’t it Be Great if Cruzan Rum Made Amaretto Liquor from this Almonds! They have these Fruit all over the Islands in Abundance & it seem lik a Easy Transition to me. I could Taste it Now lol The Worlds Greatest Rum Combined with its Locally Grown Fruit to Created one of the Worlds Favorite Liquors. I think this would be a Big Hit throughout the Carriben if they did this. Everyone Loves Amaretto so why not make it? They hav all the Stuff they Need. (Please Cruzan Rum Read this Lol)

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11 Carole February 10, 2014 at 21:55

Thanks for the article. We have some growing on/near the beach here in western part of Panama (Pacific side). One of the locals cracked a seed open for me last year using two rocks; they were scattered around from a nearby tree and I liked it. Discovered one beginning to grow near to one of the coco palms I planted several years ago and since it’s too close, I want to transplant it to a better location. It’s in the sandy soil. Can it be moved a little further from the beach? I’d like it to be in a sunny place with lots of space to grow, but the beach area is dense with other trees, thus a spot away from where it is now. Any tips for doing so successfully?

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12 Green Deane February 11, 2014 at 08:34

Yes, they can be moved inland. I know of at least one tree that is a good 10 miles from the shore.

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13 R Mantha March 5, 2014 at 11:09

I live in Hyderabad, India which is 250 miles from the coast, and these trees are everywhere. So yes.

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14 ELMER February 21, 2014 at 08:10

DEAR SIR THE WRITER OF THIS ARTICLE MAY I KNOW
WHAT ARE THE REFERENCES OF THIS THIS ARTICLE?
YOUR RESPONSE WILL BE HIGLY APPRECIATED THANK YOU.

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15 Green Deane February 21, 2014 at 08:13

I usually use the journal of Economic Botany.

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16 A Kingg March 28, 2014 at 07:17

I would like to know where I can buy these almonds(the seed) in bulk at a good price and do you know where I can possibly buy a machine that cost under 1500 U$ that can open /crack these nuts without chopping up the seed. Thanks in advance

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17 Vic Cherikoff June 3, 2014 at 16:08

Hi Green Deane,

One related species you did not mention in T. ferdinandiana which is an edible fruit known as the Kakadu or Kalari plum. It is the world’s highest fruit source of vitamin C and is rich in elagic acid, gallic acid, folates, Cu, Fe and Zn. It is still wild harvested by Australian Aborigines today who supply companies like mine and I supply food, nutritional and cosmetic companies with fruits, purees, extracts and freeze dried flesh.

Great article. Thanks.

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18 Colin Plummer June 11, 2014 at 14:03

Very interesting, We have a couple of these trees in Antigua where they grow well and fruit all year. We were looking up the tree to find out if they could be pickled? The fruit bats love them but make a real mess! Like the idea of flavouring rum!

Colin.

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19 James Dougherty September 13, 2014 at 12:52

Moved from NYC to S. Florida 3 1/2 yrs ago. There were two small trees on my small property just outside and smaller my screened enclosure. 3 1/2 yrs later they tower over the house. It’s growth rate has me concerned but less so since it seems the roots like to work around obstructions rather than destroy. Worried about pipes. Also, “wind tolerant”, does that mean they are pretty sturdy during hurricanes are should I continue to cut away the tops and keep them from getting taller? Did store large pieces in attic to dry and then use for wood. Seemed quite hard to work with and the dust flew like dry wall dust instead of dropping like most woods so I do not use it for wood projects. Shame, it yields a lot of wood.

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20 cyro October 13, 2014 at 20:37

Also called Chepéu-de-praia and Sete Copas.

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21 Julian December 8, 2014 at 10:36

Is it safe to eat freshly cut leaves? I’ve made a lot of tinctures with them and I’d like to know if I was supposed to use the brown fallen leaves and not the green ones.

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