Dear Readers, this seems to be a particularly good year for tamarisk in the UK – the tree above, spotted in a lane in Dorchester, was stunning, but there are some splendid examples in the County Roads in East Finchley as well. I have never seen a flowering plant with so many individual flowers, and according to my new wildlife gardening bible, ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ by Adrian Thomas, it is very popular with bees.A single flower can produce thousands of tiny seeds, each one adorned with a mini-mohican of hairs to aid in dispersal. This profligacy has made it a problem in some parts of the world, as we shall see.
Also known as salt cedar, the name ‘tamarisk’ encompasses a genus of about 60 species of plants. They all come from the drier parts of Eurasia and Africa, and the name ‘tamarisk’ might come from the Tamaris river in Spain. They are extremely salt-tolerant, and hence are often seen in the coastal areas of southern England, where they are used as windbreaks and for their prettiness. The RHS website suggests cutting them back hard after flowering, so that they don’t become spindly and blow over in a gale.
Being desert plants, tamarisks are extremely hardy – they have long tap roots which enable them to access ground water. They can also use their salt-tolerance to diminish competition – they accumulate salt in their foliage which is then deposited in the surrounding soil, making it impossible for other plants to grow. They are also adapted to survive fires. No doubt being in an East Finchley garden is a pleasant change from the normally harsh conditions that the tamarisk is more familiar with.
Tamarisk was introduced to the US in the nineteenth century as a shade tree and windbreak. In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, it was used as a tool to fight soil erosion on the Great Plains, and it was hoped that it would be able to stabilise the soil, and prevent water loss. The photo below, of a tamarisk tree planted beside the Escalante river in Utah, was taken in 1936. I can well imagine how much people hoped that this plant would help the situation.
Since then the tamarisk has taken to the desert areas of California and the southwestern US with much enthusiasm, using up the groundwater, making the soil salty and changing the habitat for native plants. There are now vast forests of tamarisk. How far they are a good or bad thing remains to be seen; ecosystems are complex, and humans often rush to change things without realising that a balance might be achieved in time without our intervention. Certainly the rush to rid the desert of tamarisk has seen some drastic measures: programmes have tended to concentrate on cutting the adult trees down and applying herbicide to the stumps. However, as we have seen, the tamarisk produces seeds with great profligacy, and also has roots that pop up everywhere, so this has proved to be something of a losing battle.
A more successful method has been the introduction of the northern tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda carinulata) which comes originally from China. It defoliates the tamarisk, and doesn’t eat anything else, so will die once the tamarisk is gone. Normally the introduction of one alien species to eat another brings all kinds of risks, but this has been tested in the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and seems to have been successful. Removing such a well-established species as the tamarisk will not be easy, and it remains to see what the impact of climate change and other environmental impacts will be: increased sea-flooding, for example, creates conditions that favour the plant.
Fortunately, in the UK there are no equivalent habitats to the arid regions of the US, and so the plant has not become a major invasive here. In fact, it is a foodplant for the tamarisk plume moth (Agdistis tamaricis), a species unknown in the UK until 2007. Like all plume moths, this is an elegant and easily-overlooked creature. You can often see other species of plume moth sitting on the window panes after dark, their wings sticking out at right angles to their bodies. You are unlikely to see this particular species, however, unless you live in Jersey, as so far it hasn’t crossed the rest of the Channel.
Tamarisk is mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, and is said to have been the favourite tree of the god Apollo. It is also often seen in the art of the Scythians, a nomadic people who are thought to have originated in Persia before spreading west into the Crimea, Caucasus and Balkan regions. The Scythians are thought to have used a bow made of ibex horn, sinew and the wood of the tamarisk tree: this made a weapon that was stronger, more flexible and capable of firing an arrow for much greater distances than a wooden bow. This was also the type of bow that the Amazons were depicted as using. Tamarisk wood can be used for many other purposes, including as firewood, though it should be remembered that it burns at a much higher temperature than other timber. This rather splendid statue of the goddess Isis, from the Louvre, is made of gilded tamarisk wood.
The tamarisk tree has featured in the art of Judaism, Islam and Christianity – Abraham was said to have planted a tamarisk tree, and in the Quran, the people of Saba were punished by having their garden transformed until it bore only ‘bitter fruits and tamarisk’ by Allah. The tree is also thought to be one possible origin for the idea of ‘manna’ falling from heaven. In some desert regions (including the Sinai), the tree is host to a mealy bug (Trabutina mannipara) which exudes large quantities of honeydew. This would quickly crystallize during the cold conditions overnight, and forms large flakes. Some people have also suggested that the resin of the tree itself could be the source of the legend, though the sugar concentration is much higher once it’s been passed through the guts of the insect, and most people now concur that it was the insect that was the source of the legend. In some countries in the Middle East ‘manna’ is still considered a delicacy.
Sadly, the UK tamarisks seem devoid of any sugar-producing insects, and we shall have to make do with them looking pretty.
Medically, tamarisk has been used for dysentery, snake bite, and as an anti-inflammatory. I can see few uses for it as food for humans, although Sue Eland’s Plant Lives mentions that North American children have eaten the flowers as ‘cedar bread’. I wonder if the salt that the tree metabolizes makes the flowers taste rather like crisps? If you’ve ever munched on any, do let me know.
The American Impressionist Guy Rose(1867 – 1925) seems to have been fascinated by the tamarisk trees that he saw while he had a scholarship in France for two years, and haunting, enigmatic images they are too.
And, of course, a poem. This is by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. We could all do with some hope at the moment, I’m sure.
A night drive to Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert, a drive in the rain. Yes, in the rain. There I met people who grow date palms, there I saw tamarisk trees and risk trees, there I saw hope barbed as barbed wire. And I said to myself: That's true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.
Photo One – no attribution CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=293521
Photo Two by Keith Tailby taken from https://www.ukmoths.org.uk/species/agdistis-tamaricis
Photo Three from http://www.atarn.org/chinese/Yanghai/Scythian_bow_ATARN.pdf
Photo Four by Gary Todd from https://www.flickr.com/photos/101561334@N08/28424255305