Herbs in History: Tamarind


Tamarindus indica L.


By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | March 2024

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Illustration 1: Tamarind (Tamarindus indica L.)

All roads lead to...

Whereas all roads lead to Rome in some parts of the world, in India, “no road does not end at the base of the tamarind tree” (Tamarindus indica L.) according to Tamil novelist Sundara Ramaswamy in Tamarind History (1966) (Illustration 1).


A native to Tropical Africa naturalized in India, tamarind has well-known alimentary and medicinal uses in Africa, and a deeply rooted history in the Indian sub-continent. For the Mediterranean world, instead, it has not been much investigated beyond the Renaissance and the introduction of plants from the New Worlds to the Old one.

Tamarind received its scientific name from Linnaeus, Species plantarum 1753 (vol. 1, p. 34), where it is the only species in the genus Tamarindus (Fabaceae). However, before Linnaeus, it was already present in Western botanical science, however, with a history summarized as early as 1623 by Gaspard Bauhin (1560-1624) in his Pinax Theatri Botanici (p. 403). There, Bauhin listed and briefly reported the information about tamarind in Renaissance botanical works. Going beyond, he also offered a first attempt toward the natural history of the tree. According to him, indeed, tamarind was called Siliqua Arabica, that is, the Arabic silique, because it was introduced from Arabia into India and other regions.

Pursuing his investigation on the names of tamarind, Bauhin proposed an etymology: for the habitants of India, Tamar means date, the fruit of the Palm tree; hence, the names with which tamarind was identified in Renaissance botanical literature: Dactylus Indicus and Palmula Indica, Indian date and Indian palm tree, respectively. However, as Bauhin rightly noted, tamarind is not similar to the palm tree and not even to the genus of Palms, except, according to him, for the shape of its fruit. At that point, Bauhin gave another explanation of the name Dactylus: for him, it does not refer to a date, but to a finger, since the pods of the tamarind recall a bent finger with the shape of the phalanges (Illustrations 2a and b). Hence the name dactylus (finger), digitus as per classical Latin, as Bauhin stressed. This was a subtle and ingenious etymology that allowed to compare and distinguish tamarind from the palm tree, as dactylus in Latin, coming from the Greek daktulos, refers to both a finger and a date (the fruit of the palm tree) as the Linnean binomial designation of the palm tree makes it clear: Phoenix dactylifera, that is, literally, the palm tree (Phoenix) bearing dates (dactyli- designating the dates, and -fera the verb meaning to carry, bear).

Pods of tamarind

Pods of tamarind

Illustrations 2a and 2b: Pods of tamarind

Whereas Bauhin attributed an Arabian origin to tamarind, with an introduction to India and other regions, Linnaeus identified the habitat of tamarind as “in India, America, Aegypto, Arabia” (Species 1753: 1.34). The name he used to identify the genus brings together the Indian name Tamar (palm according to Bauhin and as we shall see below) and indus, referring to India: Tamarindus. The species name attributed to tamarind by Linnaeus reinforced this connection with India: indica (Indian), with the binomial designation Tamarindus indica meaning the Indian date of India. But there is more in this designation as the unfolding of the story will reveal.

Sudano-Sahel region

Illustration 3: Sudano-Sahel region

Although Linnaeus seems to have favored an Indian origin, the native distribution of tamarind is not India—even though Inida is currently the most important grower of tamarind—but Africa—in the alimentary and medicinal traditions of which tamarind is well present. A role of tamarind in the African culture confirms this origin. In the African villages tamarind is the Palaver tree thanks to its thick foliage and the shelter it forms, providing a place to sit down and chat in the shade during sunny and hot days, just like the plane tree on the main square of the Greek villages. Nevertheless, an origin in Madagascar has been proposed, with, however, an affinity with the Sudano-Sahelian eco-system (Aubréville 1950: 226) (Illustration 3).

At a point in time not yet identified—despite affirmations to the contrary referring to specific years in the remote past, up to 1200 or more recently 400 BCE—the tree crossed the Ocean between Africa or Madagascar and India, just as many other plants, medicinal or not, that made once the richness of the Ethiopian flora and are now part of the Indian traditional and Ayurvedic heritage.

Exploring Early History

Available narratives on tamarind history outside India—where the tree generated indeed an important body of uses, data, and beliefs—often start with the Arabic World. A deeper exploration in ancient manuscripts and texts goes beyond. Bauhin opened the way in that direction.

While listing the Renaissance herbals that described tamarind, he went far back, up to classical Antiquity and Pliny (23/4-79 A.D.), even though he did so to negate that Pliny might have described tamarind in his comprehensive Natural History (Book 12, chapter 24).

There—according to Bauhin—Pliny described a tree that he identified as a “fig tree” growing in the most advanced area of India reached by the Greek troops led by Alexander the Great (356-323) in their expedition eastwards—which corresponds to Pamir. In modern scholarly literature, this tree is traditionally identified as the banana. Pliny goes on with the following evocation of another tree:

There is also another tree resembling the previous one [= the banana tree], the fruit of which is sweeter, but causes derangement of the bowels. Alexander issued an order in advance forbidding any member of his expedition to touch it.

This tree with a sweeter fruit that follows—which is not tamarind according to Bauhin—has not been identified thus far in historical studies. There is no similarity between the banana tree and the tamarind, indeed. However, the effect on the intestinal system that led Alexander the Great to prohibit consumption of the tree to his troops might be relevant and may point to tamarind, the cathartic action of which has been known through the centuries, until well into the 20th century as a syrup made of pulpa tamarindorum depuratae mixed with syrupum manae (pulp of cleaned tamarind fruits and syrup of manna) used as a laxative indicated for children indicates (Meyer 1935: 159).

If Pliny did not describe tamarind, the Greek physician Rufus of Ephesus (70-110 A.D.), who practiced medicine in Rome slightly later, might have prescribed it in the treatment of fever in a case of jaundice (fragm. 80 ed. Daremberg and Ruelle 1879). He did not identify tamarind with any of the names above, but with a phytonym attested later in the Greek World: oxufoinikos. The term is significant, as it refers again to a palm tree—the compound -foinikos, which is the Linnean name for the genus palm trees Phoenix as we have seen—and a taste—the first compound, oxus—referring to a sour taste, which is indeed typical of tamarind pulp characterized by a citrus-like taste. Furthermore, the indication against fever in the case of jaundice is compatible with the historical uses of tamarind.

If this identification is correct, tamarind might have been present in the Mediterranean region well before it is attested in the Arabic World. We find it, indeed, in the Qanun by ibn Sina (980-1037), most commonly identified as Avicenna. There, we also discover the origin of the name tamar mentioned by Bauhin and used by Linnaeus to form the binomial designation of the genus. According to Ibn Sina, indeed, tamarind is called tamar hindi in Arabic, meaning the Indian date.

Therapeutic indications of tamarind in Avicenna’s Qanun are not abundant, hinting at a recent introduction of tamarind into the Arabic World. In the present case, this introduction certainly came from India, although an introduction from Africa cannot be ruled out as the Arabs were present in northern Africa and beyond, and Arabic scientists studied African botany. According to Avicenna, tamarind was used as a laxative as we have already seen about Alexander’s troops, and in cases of fever, and for the elimination of bile (probably jaundice).

Pan-Mediterranean Diffusion

Traditional histories of materia medica usually jump over the centuries, moving from the Arabic World to the Renaissance and the several authors listed by Bauhin in his treatment of tamarind. However, a deeper investigation in manuscripts in libraries all over the world reveals the presence and use of tamarind in Byzantium, possibly as early as the 13th century, in a history that might seem surprising at first glance.

Title page of Myrepsos, Dunameron, in anuscript of Paris, Bibliotheque national grec 2243

Illustration 4: Title page of Myrepsos, Dunameron, in manuscript of Paris, Bibliotheque national grec 2243

A significant source for this is the vast compilation of formulae for medicines assembled by the otherwise not well-known Byzantine physician Nikolaos Myrepsos under the title Dunameron, (Illustration 4). In this manual, we find tamarind among the ingredients of seventeen medicines identified by their galenic form as drosation (a syrup) and zoulapion (a julep). Their therapeutic indications are significant: they are recommended to hepatic, splenetic, hydropic and flatulent patients (drosation no. 14); for the treatment of tertian and continuous fever (drosation 48); in cases of jaundice (drosation 84), gout and arthritis (drosation 86); to patients splenetic, stomachic and cachectic (drosation 508), and also to hepatic and splenetic patients (drosation 509); and, finally, to quench thirst in cases of excessive bodily heat (zoulapion 10 and 11).
Though not explicitly stated, these formulae most probably came from the Arabic World, however contradictory such an origin may seem when compared with the traditional historiographic narrative of ancient science and medicine, which describes the transmission of the Greek heritage to the Arabic World from the late 8th century on in a clockwise movement, and not the other way around as it would be the case here. Nevertheless, we do have here a case of reverse transmission, from the Arabic to the Greek World in a counter-clock movement. Indeed, an abundant corpus of documentation confirms this movement of knowledge, further attested by economic history and the presence of tamarind in the fluxes of trade between East and West from the 13th century onwards.
From the limited indications in Avicenna—suggesting a recent introduction of tamarind into the Arabic World as we have said—to the more specific ones in Nikolaos Myrepsos, we may hypothesize that new research was performed in the Arabic World after Avicenna’s time to optimize the use of tamarind and take better advantage of its action, resulting in the indications in Myrepsos. Interestingly, these new indications are compatible with the therapeutic profile of tamarind gradually developed through the centuries.
In the Renaissance, when Western scholars—particularly Italian—sought to recover the legacy of classical Greece, be it in philosophy, science, medicine or the arts, the presence of non-Mediterranean plants and drugs in contemporary medicine, particularly if they came from the Arabic World, seemed aberrant and required taxonomical acrobatics to be assimilated in these attempts to recover the ancient legacy. This difficult exercise is particularly well illustrated by the Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1578), who specialized in translating, and commenting on, the most comprehensive and important manual of pharmaco-therapeutics of Antiquity, De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. A.D.).

Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica, German edition, Prague and Venice, 1563, f. 77 verso

Illustration 5: Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Translation of, and commentary on, Dioscorides, De materia medica, German edition, Prague and Venice, 1563, f. 77 verso

Remarkably, Mattioli embedded tamarind in his treatment of the palm tree, well described in Dioscorides’ text. There, Mattioli first introduced the banana tree, which, instead, is not present in the Greek text of Dioscorides. The connection with the palm tree is the similarity between the leaves of the palm tree and the banana tree. Going on, Mattioli devoted a short, yet substantial section to tamarind, referring to it by its name in the pharmacies of that time, Tamarindus. He also mentioned the Greek name used as early as Rufus, oxufoinikos, which he commented as meaning “with an acrid taste”. He then provided a short description of tamarind as he knew it in his time, that is, as a reddish paste made of the pulp of the fruit and mixed with yellowish seeds. Contrary to what he did for so many plants—including the banana tree—Mattioli did not provide an illustration of tamarind as, in fact, he never saw either the tree or its parts used in medicine (the fruit). He concluded his paragraph in a very modern and realistic way by noting that this tamarind paste was adulterated by mixing it with plum paste.

It is worth noting that Mattioli did not include tamarind from the very first edition of his work in 1544, but only from the 1554 edition on. He probably did not know the plant when he started his work, but succeeded only later in obtaining information about it thanks to an intensive search which made him famous, with exchanges of plants or seeds, letters to colleagues, requests for information, and other methods of investigation. Once he wrote the notice as above, he reproduced it invariably in the several editions of his work, including the Czech and German ones (Illustration 5). Nevertheless, from the 1567 Italian edition to the last one until his death, he dropped the Greek name oxufoinikos and its explanation as if he were unsure that it refers to tamarind.

In spite of the interest in returning to the authentically Greek tradition in medicine and, by way of consequence, the trend to reject other traditions, tamarind was soon fully assimilated into the therapeutic arsenal of medicine. Even more: all roads led to tamarind, even the most unexpected ones. As early as 1617, indeed, the many mariners and soldiers sailing the oceans for the British Crown were instructed to carry tamarind on their ships to compensate for the scurvy-generating vitaminic deficiency typical of their navigations in a previously unknown use of the tree attesting to successful new research on this exotic plant.

Aubréville A., Flore forestière Soudano-Guinéenne. A.O.F.—Cameroun—A.E.F. Paris: Société d’Editions Géographiques et colonials, 1950.
Gauhin, G., ΠΙΝΑΞ Theatri Botanici, sive Index in Theophrasti Dioscoridis Plini et Botanicorum qui a Seculo scripserunt opera: Plantarum circiter sex millium ab ipsis exhibitarum nomina cum earundem Synonymiis & differentiis … Basileae: Ludovicus Rex, 1623.
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