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What is Pithecellobium?

Pithecellobium is a genus of flowering plants in the pea family, known for its lush foliage and strikingly unique seed pods. These tropical trees are not only visually captivating but also play a crucial role in their ecosystems. Intrigued by nature's marvels? Discover how Pithecellobium species contribute to environmental health and biodiversity.
Angie Bates
Angie Bates

Pithecellobium is a genus of plants with both trees and shrubs, which all produce seed pods containing seeds and pulpy fruit. Species are found primarily in tropical regions of north and central America and parts of Asia. The various species of pithecellobium are diverse, and are often used for woodworking, natural privacy screens, and food.

Species of pithecellobium vary in size and shape. Some species are more shrub-like, and others are small- or medium-sized trees. Every species produces pod-shaped fruit and most have powderpuff-shaped flowers in yellow or white. There is some confusion regarding this genus since many species once classified as pithecellobium have since been recategorized in other genera.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Pithecellobium flexicaule, or Texas ebony, is an example of a species that has since been reclassified. Now more commonly referenced as Ebenopsis ebano, Texas ebony has the brown pods and white puffy flowers seen on all pithecellobium plants. Texas ebony is a large shrub, usually reaching 15–30 feet (4.5–9.1 m) tall and equally wide. As its name suggests, it is primarily seen in Texas, though many can be found in northern Mexico as well. This species has many thorns on its branches, so works well as natural fencing or privacy screens.

One of the most well known pithecellobium species is Pithecellobium dulce. Commonly called a Manila tamarind tree, dulce is native to central America but was intentionally cultivated in the Caribbean, Florida, and Hawaii, where it is often considered a weed. The tamarind tree is useful for its fruit. The pulp is eaten raw or used in drinks and the seeds are ingredients in many Indian and Thai dishes.

The Manila tamarind is also used as a shade tree or, in topiary art, tree sculptures. It can grow as tall as 60 feet (18.2 m) but is usually 33–49 feet (10–15 meters) high. Being a very hardy tree, Manila tamarind is able to cope with temperatures over 100&degF; (37.7&degC;) and brief dips below freezing. Drought tolerant, the Manila tamarind can grow in most types of soil.

Another common pithecellobium species is Pithecellobium saman. Also called monkey-pod or a rain tree, is it found natively in Central and South America, but has become a staple in Hawaii for use in wood carvings and furniture, particularly in the tourist trade. Monkey-pod has the telltale powderpuff flowers and brown pods of its genus. The pods are often eaten by children and animals in Hawaii and are said to taste like licorice.

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