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Celebrating Tamarind Trees This Season

Tamarind trees can grow to over 60 feet tall and almost as big across. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

The tamarind tree by our house on St. John has grown remarkably tall and bushy recently. It is also ­­­wonderfully full of life even around the winter solstice.

The hummingbirds that come to my sugar-water feeder in the morning will go over and rest in the shade of the tamarind’s feathery leaves.

A Green-throated Carib hummingbird takes a break in the tamarind tree. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

The black Smooth-billed Anis explore the top branches and sometimes snack on the wasp nests lower down. They have communal nests and usually move around in a pack of five.

Smooth-billed Anis are related to cuckoos but have much thicker bills. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

My Swedish ancestors endured long days of darkness surrounding the winter solstice but also found solace in the evergreen firs and spruce trees filling the northern forests. Bringing cut trees inside and hanging lights and decorations on them has remained a beloved holiday tradition for many families.

Here in the Virgin Islands, we can enjoy an outside tree with live decorations.

The tamarind has tiny, delicate flowers for such a big tree. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

I recently learned about a different Scandinavian tradition, which appears to date back to the Viking age or even earlier. It involves planting a special tree in the middle of the yard on a family farm – a Vårdträd, or guardian tree – which was viewed as sacred. Some of them can still be seen by farms across the countryside. Caring for these trees is a way of showing respect for the ancestors who have lived on the land, as well as the nature spirits thought to dwell within the trees.

With roots deep underground and branches reaching into the sky, trees have held social and mystical significance in many cultures, including in the Virgin Islands. Large trees, especially, can be seen as representing deep connections between the land, human societies, ancestors and the spirit world, even as they support today’s people and wildlife.

A Hammock Skipper butterfly examines the tamarind flowers. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

We didn’t plant the tamarind tree in our yard ourselves. It was fairly small when we started building the house almost 20 years ago and probably grew from a seed dropped by a bird or animal.

But we have nurtured it. Early on, my husband spared the young tamarind tree when he was out with his machete, trying to clear out the somewhat similar-looking false tamarinds or tan-tans (Leucaena leucocephala). The tan-tans were originally introduced in the mid-1800s to feed cows on St. John. They will grow quickly on disturbed land, producing foliage for fodder and large quantities of seeds but no tasty fruit.

Tamarinds (Tamarindus indica) are native to Africa, are widely naturalized in Asia, and have been transported around the world. They were probably brought here around the mid-1600s because people enjoyed cooking with their tart (sometimes sweet) fruit. They are not as widespread as the tan-tans but can get much larger and live longer.

Unfortunately, as the tree gets taller, it gets harder to pick the fruits. Sometimes only the birds can reach them.

A Pearly-eyed Thrasher has its pick of the high tamarind fruit. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

The tamarind tree has definitely become a cherished feature in our yard. And fortunately it’s not right in the center, so it doesn’t block the walkway – or my view into the wetlands pond below the house.

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer. She is the author of two books about the Virgin Islands – The Wild Life in an Island House, and the guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John. She has also recently published A Birds’ Guide to The Battery and New York Harbor. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com.

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