Tamarisk: the manna tree

Tamarisk shrub flowering in late April in Galicia, Spain.
Tamarisk shrub flowering in late April in Galicia, Spain.

The French Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) is a deciduous shrub, or small tree, which originates from Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula and is now very common around the Mediterranean region and beyond. It is wind and salt tolerant and frequently occurs in coastal areas, near the sea. It is easy to miss, or ignore, until it bursts into flower in the Spring. I came across this one – flowering in late April – on the Ria Ortigueira, in Galicia, Spain.

Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) in flower in late April in Galicia, Spain
Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) in flower in late April in Galicia, Spain

The small white, pink and red coloured flowers occur in dense clusters (or panicles), with five of each: sepals, petals and stamens. Amazingly, each tiny flower contains 20 or more ovules, each of which is capable of developing into a seed (1). A  single mature plant can therefore produce hundreds of thousands of seeds in single season.

Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) flowers in late April
Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) flowers in late April

This tree was once quite common in the Sinai desert – not sure of its status now – and it is thought to be the origin of the term ‘manna from heaven’ in the bible (2). The tamarisk manna scaleTrabutina mannipara, produces large quantities of honeydew which solidify in a thick sugary exudate on the leaves. The book of Exodus 16:1-36, states that raw manna tasted like wafers that had been made with honey (2). There did not seem to be any manna on these trees in Spain, so perhaps the insect only occurs in the Sinai? The mealybug was still present there in 1988 (3); I guess both the tree and the insect have been there for millions of years.

This tree boasts a long list of medicinal properties. One researcher writes that ‘Tamarix gallica possesses both anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects comparable to that of non-steroidal drugs such as diclofenac and Aspirin respectively’ (4).  Extracts from the shoots of  Tamarix gallica were also found to have an anticancer effect on human colon cancer cells (5). Well let’s hope some Tamarix drugs appear on the market soon (assuming that it does not have any negative side effects!).

Although native to the Mediterranean region and Arabia, this plant is listed as an invasive species in South Africa and North America, where it is considered to be a noxious weed! It gets its bad reputation as a result of the fact that it crowds out other native riverside species, and because of its long tap-root, which can reduce water tables. This also makes it resistant to forest fires! Sounds like a born survivor to me! It no doubt adapted to harsh desert conditions – including putting up with the sap-sucking insects! – so perhaps it finds life fairly easy-going in other spots?!

The plant was cultivated and introduced to many places beyond its native range; it even occurs along the south coast of England, but I had never seen one in flower until I came across this one, looking pretty in pink (!), on the pathway from Santa Marta de Ortigueira to Morouzos Beach.

1. http://age-web.nmsu.edu/saltcedar/BiologyandEcology.htm

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manna

3. BEN‐DOV, Y. A. I. R. “Manna scale, Trabutina mannipara (Hemprich & Ehrenberg)(Homoptera: Coccoidea: Pseudococcidae)*.” Systematic entomology 13.4 (1988): 387-392.

4. Chaturvedi, S., S. Drabu, and M. Sharma. “ANTI-INFLAMMATORY AND ANALGESIC ACTIVITY OF TAMARIX GALLICA.” International Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences 4 (2012).

4. Boulaaba, Mondher, et al. “Anticancer effect of Tamarix gallica extracts on human colon cancer cells involves Erk1/2 and p38 action on G2/M cell cycle arrest.” Cytotechnology 65.6 (2013): 927-936.

2 thoughts on “Tamarisk: the manna tree

  1. Yes that’s right the females of this species produce large quantities of honeydew that solidify in thick layers on the leaves of the tree. Still eaten today: Google ‘manna from heaven’ for pictures of recipies!

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