Captivated by the foliage of Madras thorn

THE gorgeous variegated Madras thorn was one of the few species that took me a long time to identify. I was glad that an old friend spoke about it during our usual afternoon tea.

BIRD ATTRACTION: The seed pods, which resemble peanuts, contain a sweet edible pulp.

This plant caught my attention on several occasions, with some gardening friends calling it changing-colour dragon. It took my breath away when I first saw a display plant at the Kuala Lumpur flower show in 2003. It was well trimmed into a standard topiary and its variegated leaves looked fantastic in white to reddish pink and green. It was really very rare to see all three colours at the same time on one plant.

The foliage of the variegated Madras thorn is a captivating mixture, which I am sure artists would love to use for batik or other paintings. I often use it for landscaping to brighten up dull areas in particular.

The plant requires minimal care, making it an ideal ornamental for busy gardeners.


Despite its name, Madras thorn does not originate from India at all. The plant is native to Mexico and Central America. It is known as Pithecellobium dulce and Inga dulcis in Latin as well as Manila tamarind, sweet inga and monkey pod. It is grouped under the families Fabaceae, Leguminosae or Mimosaceae.

Planting and maintenance

Propagate using seeds. Germination only takes a week or so. The shrub has difficulties striking roots from cuttings but with good gardening techniques and rooting hormone such as Rootone, you can get new plants in two months’ time.

Once rooted in a seedling bed, allow them to reach a height of around 10 inches before transferring into bigger bags or pots. Nursery them up to one and half feet or taller before planting in the garden.

Choose a spot with full sun for good performance, although some shade is okay. The plant can withstand short periods of low light before it loses its leaves to allow for new foliage. It can survive droughts and is tolerant of salinity as well.

Although the plant can tolerate poor soils such as limestone clay and sandy soil, it is best to use fertile and well-drained loamy soil.

Madras thorn is a good species for bonsai because it can take severe cuttings and still regenerate freely.

Use pruning shears to maintain the shape or height. A fast grower, this species can reach up to 10 feet in height.

Normal green Madras thorn

This species of tree is often used by the roadside. A very fast growing tree, it can reach over 20 metres, so it is suitable to give shade. Its canopy is so broad that it can extend over 30 metres across and the trunk can even get to one metre thick.

There are sharp thorns at the base of each leaf, although some varieties are thornless.

Flowers come in small spherical glomerules of about one centimetre across. These form spiral fruit pods, with 10 seeds inside, that turn reddish brown as they ripen. The pods, which look a little like peanut pods, contain an edible sweet pulp. They will attract birds, which will also eat some leaves. In Africa and India, the leaves are apparently used as animal feed.

Happy gardening!

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