Growing Madras Thorn – Planting Tips, and Ideas

Growing Madras Thorn (Jungle Jalebi, Manila Tamarind, Seema Chintakaya)

The scientific name of Madras Thorn is Pithecellobium dulce. It is an exotic tree introduced to this part of the world from Central America, has now been naturalized throughout the tropics. This medium-sized evergreen tree is widely planted along roadsides and in parks and also in gardens. Each leaf is made up of 2 pairs of smallish leaflets. At the base of the leaf, the stalk is a pair of tiny spines and flowers are greenish-white and 10-20 are grouped into flowering heads (above left). The Madras Thorn fruits are coiled pods, constricted between seeds (above right). With maturity, they develop a tinge of rose-red and split open to expose a thick white pulp and the shiny black color seeds. The Madras Thorn is an exotic Indian fruit, and it has as the fruits or seed pods appear encompassed in flattened whorls, resembling the popular sweet dish of India – the jalebi. In this article we also covered the below topics about growing Madras Thorn;

  • How do you grow Madras Thorn?
  • Is Madras Thorn edible
  • What is Jungle Jalebi called in English
  • How fast does Guamuchil grow
  • Where to find Manila Tamarind in India
  • Tips for Growing Madras Thorn

Other Names of Madras Thorn are Manila Tamarind, Guamuchil, Quamachil, Guayamochil, Jungle Jalebi (Hindi), Seeme hunase (Kannada), Vilayatichinch (Marathi), Kodukkappuli (Tamil), Seema chintakaya (Telegu), and Vilayati ambli (Gujarati)

A Step-by-Step Planting Guide to Growing Madras Thorn (Jungle Jalebi, Manila Tamarind, Seema Chintakaya)

Madras Thorn
Madras Thorn

Madras Thorn tree is indigenous to hot regions of Mexico and Central America and now has been naturalized in India. It grows on a variety of soils and it is identified by the grey lenticellate stem, and bipinnate leaf (pinnae and leaflets each one pair). Manila thorn is one of the major underutilized fruit crops which may be an important fruit for the future due to its high medicinal value, high production per unit area, and also suitable for wasteland cultivation.

The Manila Tamarind is evergreen, growing up to a massive height of about 15 to 20 meters. The branches bear thorny spines and deciduous plant leaves, making the plant appear rich and vibrant green. It bears fragrant whitish-green color flowers that give rise to brown or red color fruits or “pods”, with each pod bearing approximately 10 seeds. Madras Thorn tree grows widely in the tropical regions of the world, including India, Mexico, the Philippines as well as several South American nations. Not only are the pods of jungle jalebi or Madras Thorn fruit edible, with a mildly sweet and tart flavored pulp, also they are laden with essential nutrients. Also, they confer a host of health benefits like treating diarrhoea, strengthening teeth, and managing blood sugar levels in those with diabetes.

Quick Overview about Growing Madras Thorn

  • Botanical Name – Pithecellobium dulce
  • Family name – Fabaceae/Mimosaceae/Leguminosae
  • Origin – It is native to Mexico and Central America
  • Planting season – spring/summer
  • Pruning season – Pruning done all year (in colder climate spring)
  • How to prune – Recommend to keep it small better to harvest the fruit
  • Size of the plant – 7-15 m, 21-45 feet
  • Tree growth speed in optimal condition – Fast growing
  • Water requirement – Big amount of water
  • Planting is also possible in flowerpot/containers – No
  • Plant type – It is an ornamental foliage shrub or agroforestry tree
  • Light – Full sun for best growth performance, though can tolerate partial sun to full shade.
  • Flowering – Flowers in small globose sessile on short pedunculate heads, arranged in long panicled racemes appear in January to March.
  • Fruiting – Madras Thorn fruits ripen from March to May.
  • Fruit harvest season – Summer
  • Time to take to bear fruit – 4-6 years

Geography/History of Madras Thorn

The Madras Thorn tree is native to Mexico and other parts of Central America including Colombia and Venezuela. It has since been introduced to southern Florida, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, India, and throughout southern Asia. Although it is classified as a drought-resistant plant in Tropical and Subtropical Deserts, the Madras Thorn tree also thrives in moist forests and wet sands.

Usually, the trunk is straight and supports a wide-spreading crown of feathery foliage, the leaves have two pairs of small, oblong leaflets. The leaflets emerge pinkish to reddish color, and then with age become dull green, on top darker than underneath. Although most remain on the tree, leaf-fall mainly occurs as part of normal leaf exchange and is heaviest in areas with a long or pronounced dry season.

The flowers are small, tubular, and greenish, and have prominent, creamy-white stamens. They are borne tightly packed, some 20 to 30 in a cluster and with clusters grouped on flower spikes arising at the sides and ends of the branches. Flowering occurs in the dry season and, after pollination, gives rise to straight, slender, green color seedpods that, as they lengthen, become coiled and curved. Also, the seedpods change color as they mature, becoming reddish, and develop prominent ribbing, due to the seed enlarging inside the shell. The Madras Thorn seed is oval, glossy black, and covered with a thick pink and white pulp.

Stems and Leaves – Young tree stems and branches have smooth or slightly rough bark with small white patches (lenticels). Spines (when present) are straight, short, and stout, arranged in pairs at the base of plant leaves. Leaves are abruptly bipinnate with just about 1 pair of pinnae and one pair of leaves per pinna (equal to 4 leaflets). Leaflets are ovate to obovate, 2 to 5 cm long and 1-3 cm wide, and are often variegated.

Flowers and Fruit – Flowers are white or cream color and fragrant, arranged in globular heads 1 cm wide on short stalks. Though, the heads are arranged in terminal or axillary panicles up to 30 cm long. The petals are softly hairy. Pods are coiled and twisted, green or slightly pinkish, and 1 to 2 cm wide with 10 seeds. The seeds are black in color, shiny and 1 cm long surrounded by an edible white pulp.

Availability of Madras Thorn in India

In tropical conditions at an elevation below 300 meters, Madras Thorn grows like weeds. The Madras Thorn tree can withstand poor nutrient soil, saline, and rocky terrain.

In India, Madras Thorn grows wild throughout Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi. Few, if any, farmers grow the trees commercially. Instead, they are found growing as a hedge tree or as road shrubbery. Madras Thorn bears fruit from February through March but may continue until May. Most Madras Thorn trees are stumbled upon while driving along tree-lined roads and through small villages. Older generations of the South are most familiar with the Madras Thorn fruits.

Botanic Description for Madras Thorn Tree

The height of Madras Thorn is commonly 12-15 meters but ranges from 5-18 meters. Crown is broad spreading with irregular branches up to 30 meters across; bole short, up to 1 meter thick. The bark is grey, becoming rough, and eventually peeling. Tree leaves are bipinnate, with 2 pairs of 2 kidney-shaped leaflets each about 2-2.5 x 1-2 cm. Though, thin spines are in pairs at the base of leaves and range from 2 to 15 mm in length.

The tree flowers are in small white head’s 1 cm in diameter. While each flower has a hairy corolla and calyx surrounding about 50 thin stamens united in a tube at the base. Pods are 10-15 x 1.5 cm; the color becoming spiral and reddish-brown color as they ripen. Each pod contains 5 to 10 shiny black seeds up to 2 cm long. The grey bark and tightly-coiled seed pods are characteristic of this tree, and then make it easy to distinguish.

Madras Thorn tolerates a wide range of soil types, including clays, rocky limestone soils, nutrient-poor sands, and soils with high, brackish water. The Madras Thorn tree is reported to grow well on saline sites in India. Where it is native, Madras Thorn is common in dry thickets or forests, plains, and hillsides to an altitude of 1,800 meters.

The species is fast-growing; trees reach a height of 12-15 meters and a girth of 0.91-1.2 meters in about 40 years. In favorable soil conditions, it may reach a height of 10 meters in 5-6 years. It coppices vigorously and then produces root suckers upon injury to roots. The Madras Thorn tree can stand a considerable amount of pruning, lopping, and nibbling by sheep and goats. Also, it competes with weeds and outgrows fast.

Madras Thorn Tree
Madras Thorn Tree ( Image credit: pixabay)

Soil and Climate Requirement for Growing Madras Thorn

Madras Thorn grows best in fertile and well-drained loamy soil though highly adaptable to any kind including clay, limestone, and sand or poor, depleted soils. Madras Thorn is tolerant of soil types and moderately saline tolerant. It needs regular watering and moderately. Though it is drought and salt tolerant too, thus can survive in dry climates and coastlines. The tree can survive droughts and poor soils, but it’s better to grow it in well-drained soil.

Manila tamarind tree requires full sun. Madras Thorn trees can tolerate exceedingly hot conditions (above 40C) and also cold conditions (less than 5C) provided it is not prolonged. Madras Thorn tree will tolerate a great diversity of soil types but does best in deep, well-drained soils that are slightly acid. Madras Thorn trees will not tolerate cold, wet soils.

Grows naturally in sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and lowland to mid-elevation tropical climate conditions, generally in areas with annual lows of 17 to 25°C, annual highs of about 27 to 35°C, and a dry season of 3 to 8 months.

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Madras Thorn Propagation

Madras Thorn seeds remain viable for months and will germinate in a week after planting. Madras Thorn can be propagated from stem cuttings which are easy to root or germination of seeds which take about 7 to 10 days. Natural reproduction abounds as it freely self-sow from the burst ripen pods, as such listed as weed or pest plants in some areas. Rooted cuttings, cuttings grafted onto seedling rootstock. Seed germinates quickly, but is only viable for 6 months and does not grow true to the parent.

Planting Process of Madras Thorn

  • Plant Madras Thorn in the first half of spring before high temperatures arrive, in full sun, in an area where it can grow to its natural size without pruning. It should have 12-15 feet clearance on all sides. A southwest exposure is best to minimize winter freezes in Madras Thorn.
  • New Madras Thorn plants can be started from seed or cuttings. The seed remains viable for up to 6 months under cold, dry storage, and germination within a week of seed sowing. A seed must be sown in a free-draining potting mix and the seedlings tending in a nursery for around 3 months, or until they are about 40 cm tall.
  • Madras Thorn performs best on free-draining clay-loam, loam, and sandy-loam soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH level of 5.5 to 7.5 and on sites with full sun exposure.
  • Usually, seed viability is long under dry cool storage. No pretreatment is necessary for seeds to germinate, although nicking can improve and hasten the process. Germination occurs quickly, normally in 1-2 days. Then, application of Rhizobium inoculum to seeds is suggested before sowing. Successful propagation by cuttings has also been reported.
  • Madras Thorn normally competes successfully with other vegetation. It establishes grass ecosystems without the benefit of weed and grass control. Height growth can reach about 10 meters in 5-6 years under good environmental conditions.
  • Reproduces Madras Thorn easily by seeds or cuttings. For hedges, seeds may be sown in site; spaced 15 cm apart in 2 rows 30 cm apart.
  • Madras Thorn has long been raised by seeds, results in a long gestation period and lack of improved cultivars despite its high potential as a dry land horticultural fruit crop and its multifarious uses. There is a greater demand for true to type propagules to optimize the production of quality fruits and advance the commencement of flowers. True-to-type seedlings have the uniform characters as that of mother plants; it fulfils the farmer’s demand. Any propagation process which can be successfully adopted will vary from region to region due to environmental factors such as temperature, relative humidity, and rainfall, etc.
  • Madras Thorn is the emerging fruit crop in the market and the research work on vegetative propagation of Manila tamarind is rather scanty and sporadic.
  • The Madras Thorn tree grows well at low and medium altitudes in both wet and dry areas of the tropics. It will grow in areas where the average temperature ranges from 18 – 27.9°C. Can also succeed in heavy clay soils.
  • The Madras Thorn tree can grow on poor soils, on wastelands, and even with its roots in brackish water. Established plants are drought tolerant.
  • Trees have escaped from cultivation and become naturalized as a weed in dry places in some areas of the tropics. Commences flowering when only 1 to 2 meters tall. Trees can reach a height of 12 – 15 meters in about 40 years. In favorable soil conditions, they may reach a height of 10 meters in only 5 – 6 years.
  • The Madras Thorn trees coppice vigorously and produce root suckers upon injury to the roots. Once Madras Thorn planted in the field, the tree does not need any treatment other than occasional pruning. There are some named varieties and this species has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria, these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. This nitrogen is utilized by the growing tree but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby.

Fertilize and Water Requirement for Growing Madras Thorn

  • Do not use fertilizer containing nitrogen because the plant roots are nitrogen-fixing.
  • Water after becoming established and deep water every few weeks.
  • It is a hardy tree and grows well even without irrigation. At the initial stage, irrigation is required to establish the young plant. Once established, irrigation is not mandatory to produce fruits, and irrigation during summer improves fruit size and yield.

Mulching Requirement for Growing Madras Thorn

Madras Thorn tree is hardy and drought-tolerant plants, however, paddy straw, and dry banana leaf, etc., and can be used as mulch beneath the tree canopy. Black polythene mulch is effective to conserve soil moisture. Protect from freezing in the first 3 years, including using winter mulch. Water every 1 to 3 days in the summer season and twice a month in winter. Remember, keep other plants and grass away from its root area.

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Training and Pruning for Growing Madras Thorn

Training in the Madras Thorn tree is essential at the initial stage to provide a better framework. As an avenue plant, the tree trunk is kept clean up to 3­4 meters height and then branches are allowed in all directions. It does not need regular pruning to produce fruits. Madras Thorn tree has a fast growth rate and vigorous coppicing capacity and can withstand any amount of pruning, lopping, or browsing by animals. For hedge regular pruning is necessary.

Madras Thorn tree is somewhat thorny and pruning substantially increases the thorniness. Older trees seem to have fewer thorns. It can be pruned as a hedge by cutting close to the ground (coppicing), causing it to turn thorny and becoming a livestock barrier.

Pests and Diseases Problems for Growing Madras Thorn

The sharp thin spines can be fierce on young shoots and limit plant utilization. Though, spines are reportedly absent in some trees; pastures and cropland. Madras Thorn can be a tenacious weed. Coppice regrowth is rapid and the Madras Thorn tree is not easily killed once established.

Madras Thorn tree is not deeply rooted and is subject to blow-down. Superficial rooting is not common in drier soils; therefore blow-down is less of a problem under such conditions. The sap is said to cause irritating skin welts and severe eye irritation (the latter is common to sap or juice from legume trees and their fruits). Some pests include the thorn bug and several boring and defoliating insects.

Madras Thorn generally remains free from pests and diseases. Though, some defoliating and boring insect pests have been reported. Shoot hole borer cause damage by making holes in the trunk which can be controlled by plugging cotton swabs soaked in petrol or kerosene. It is the favorite host for thorn bugs.

Special Problem of Madras Thorn Fruit Production

Madras Thorn fruit cracking or splitting is a major problem. Though fruit splitting indicates the maturity of pods by showing pinkish pulp and brown seed color. When a pod splitting takes place, individual pulp segment starts to drop on the ground and then dropping of segment become serious at the time of the attack of birds on the tree. Sudden rainfall facilitates pathogen (fungus and bacteria) to attack split pods.

Checking for Ripeness in Madras Thorn

Unripe Madras Thorns are greenish-white. When fruits ready for picking, their skin becomes pinkish gold. Do not think that the fruit has spoiled on the Madras Thorn tree when the white flesh peeks out from its flimsy shell. This is a sign that it’s ready to eat.

Ripe fruits are manually harvested when the peel color turns from green to pink color or when the pulp becomes pinkish in color. However, climbing on the Madras Thorn tree is a risk because the tree has thorny stems and branches. To harvest the Madras Thorn fruits from a tall (10­15 m) tree, thin and long bamboo poles having a sharp pruning knife fixed at the top of it, are used for harvesting. Harvested pods are separated from the twigs and then packed in bamboo baskets and wooden baskets for marketing. Madras Thorn fruit can be stored for a few days at room temperature. Then, the pulp is extracted from the pods by removing the peel and seeds. Fresh fruits are eaten and the fruits do not store for long and must be eaten within a few days.


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