Keys Homes
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Tropical almond trees provide wide open spaces under shady canopies

By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club

Halfway up the hill near the xeriscaped garden at the Key West Garden Club is a cleared section that is a favorite of wedding parties. The space is a perfect place to set up chairs for an afternoon nuptial thanks to a huge tropical almond tree (Terminalia catappa) shades it.

Tropical almond branches are arranged in stately tiers that look like a pagoda.

For a gardener, creating a canopy is a job for a lifetime. This tropical almond tree is more than 50 years old and 50 feet tall. At the beginning of its life, it grows more than 6 feet per year. It slows down but can reach a height of 110 feet, although this one probably won't be growing to that height since it is in the Florida Keys oolite limestone.

This tree has survived hurricanes, saltwater intrusion and salt winds while living in nutrient-poor sandy soil. If 50 is the new 30, this youngster can stand for many years welcoming back married couples for anniversaries for another 50 years.

Its leathery, foot-long, paddlelike leaves provide deep shade. New leaves emerge mahogany-red before they turn dark green. Interestingly for the newlyweds, the tannin-filled leaves make a tea reported to be a remedy for premature ejaculation. They are deciduous, with leaves falling during the winter in Key West.

Tropical almond trees are reputed to treat cancer, dysentery, diarrhea, sickle cell disease, worms, headaches, diabetes and liver disease. They are made into Indian almond oil and biodiesel fuel. If that is not enough, the seed kernel is used as an aphrodisiac.

Leaves floated in fish tanks reduce bacterial infections in betta fish, and the tannins may have medical uses in aquaculture as they balance the pH levels in the water.

The tree is not a true almond, Prunus dulcis, but the nut is edible and tastes similar to an almond. They are light, corky, fibrous and difficult to get out of their shells. Ripe nuts fall off the tree while others are still green. These salt-tolerant 3-inch-long seeds have floated all over the tropical world. They like South Florida so much that they are considered invasive, so don't plant it. The garden club tree has not put out saplings.

Flowers and nuts form at the same time. The tree is monoecious. That means that both male and female flowers are on the same tree. They are tiny and form on terminal branches, hence the name Terminalia. They have no petals and look a bit like sea grape flowers.

The Polynesians made canoes out the water-resistant, solid red wood of the trunks.

The city frequently plants canopy trees on Old Town streets to make them shady. New Town, not so much.

Canopy trees play an essential part in the landscaping of large public areas and will surely be featured in the new Truman Waterfront park to provide shade for picnics and other events. Watch for the huge salt-tolerant natives like short leaf fig, strangler fig, Jamaica dogwood, buttonwood, gumbo limbo, mahogany, mastic, sea grape, wild tamarind and tulip tree. They will welcome many a couple back to "their spot" in Key West.

Garden notes

• The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.

Key West Garden Club Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books,. "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots, Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Key West Garden Club and on Visit for more information. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit for more information.

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