SCIENTIFIC NAME: Hymenaea courbaril
FAMILY: Leguminosae

When Europeans first came to the Americas, they bestowed Old World names on unknown plants which seemed similar to the ones they knew back home. That's how Hymenaea courbaril came to be called 'algarobbo' in Spanish, a name more properly applied to the carob, Ceratonia siliqua.

Although the Spaniards also used the world 'algarrobo' for other members of the Leguminosae, H. courbaril stands out because of its many uses and wide distribution in tropical America.

This ambiguity also has conferred upon the species multiple common names. It's called 'guapinol' in Mexico, 'algarrobo', 'stinking toe', 'West Indian locust' and 'coubaril' in the Antilles, 'jutai' in Brazil and 'abati' in Paraguay, its southernmost range.

The algarrobo, or locust, prefers a hot, tropical climate, but will adopt to a wide variety of conditions. In Puerto Rico, it grows both in the arid south coast and the humid northeast, as well as in the northwestern limestone country.

In Colombia, the species is regarded as xerophytic, as well as in Guatemala, where it grows up to 1,300 meters altitude, but generally in plains or hills 900 m. above sea level or lower.

Its ample range goes down to Paraguay, a country roughly bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn, the traditional boundary of the Tropics located at 23.5° south of the Equator.

Two related Brazilian species, Hymenaea stilbocarpa and H. martiana, grow as far south as São Paulo and Paraguay, respectively. In Florida, specimens of H. courbaril have been grown as far north as Stuart and at McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero Beach. Hardiness, as with many other lesser-known species, is a matter of experimentation.

Sketch of algarrobo twig H. courbaril is a member of the Caesalpinioidae, a subfamIly of the Leguminosae. In Puerto Rico, trees range from 10 to 30 m tall, with occasionally, buttressed trunks up to 1 m in diameter, and large, spreading canopies. Brazilian rainforest specimens have been observed to 50 m tall, while Venezuelan ones seldom top 20 m. The bark is gray, rather smooth and at least 3 cm thick.

Locust wood is reddish brown, very hard and heavy (50 to 65 pounds per cubic foot), with a specific weight of 0.7 or more. Oblong leaves, almost stemless, are produced in pairs, each 5 to 10 cm long and slightly less than half as wide. The tree exhibits deciduous behaviour during dry seasons in Barbados and other areas.

The whitish, 3cm flowers are borne in crowded terminal racemes or clusters. H. courbaril fruits or pods, which contain the edible portion of the species, are dark brown, oblong, hard and woody, 5 to 15 cm long, 3 to 6cm wide and sometimes more than 3cm thick. (The longest pods in the genus belong to H. stigonocarpa, measuring up to 25 cm long).

Locust pods are indehiscent, which means they do not open by themselves but must be cracked open. This is no easy task, since they are as hard as macadamia shells and have to be struck with a hammer or stone in order to split them. Inside is the edible pulp as well as 1 to 6 thick ovoid seeds 2 to 3 cm long and about 1.5 cm wide. Seeds are a dark reddish brown.


Locust trees are only propagated by seed. Though no data on earliest bearing age is available, the leguminosae, as a rule, bear earlier than most fruit species.

In Brazil, H. courbaril flowers August through October. Pods mature four months afterward. After ripening, the pods remain on the tree for a while and then fall to the ground, where they are collected. They suffer no damage due to their thick walls. The pods are found in Puerto Rican markets in early summer.

The edible pulp which surrounds the seeds is whitish or yellowish, mealy/floury and sweet. The Peruvian H. palustris also has a sweet, edible pulp, and it is known colloquially as 'azucar huayo', a Spanish Quechua name meaning 'sweet fruit'.

The pulp of H. courbaril has a rather strong, unpleasant odor, which is why trees should be planted away from houses. The nutritional value of the pulp, however, is noteworthy: every 100 grams of pulp contains 309 calories, roughly the same as honey or egg yolks and higher than the caloric content of raisins, carob flour, dried figs or dates.

Those same 100 grams of locust pulp contain 5.9 grams protein, 2.2 grams fat and 75.3 grams of carbohydrates. No fruit grown or commonly available in Puerto Rico surpasses the locust in any of these three categories.

Furthermore, it has more than twice the fiber of dried figs or tamarind pulp. It has nearly the same iron content as raisins, as well as a high niacine and thiamine content. To round this out, the pulp's moisture content is just under 15% of its weight, which makes it more than twice as dry as tamarind pulp.

The pulp's dryness, along with the pod's considerable hardness, makes this fruit easy to transport and suitable for long-term storage without specialized equipment or treatments. If the objectionable odor could be lessened or eliminated by processing or selective breeding, the pulp might conceivably be of use as a dietary supplement in tropical areas suitable to its culture.

In Colombia and Guatemala, the pods are in demand in local markets. In the latter country, the pulp is used to flavour a corn beverage and is also fermented with water to yield a beer-like drink. In other localities, pulp is used to make gruels.

Algarrobas (the fruit of the algarrobo) are still seen in Puerto Rican markets, though not as much as in the past. This past season they were selling for about eight pods for a dollar.

In the northeast of Brazil, H. courbaril pulp is reportedly eaten in times of food shortages. One thing is certain, a delicious tropical treat it is not. This is evidenced by the fact that in the countries where it grows, the locust's edibility is of secondary or tertiary importance compared to its value as a source of excellent wood, resin and medicinal compounds.

Guatemala and other countries formerly exported the wood to Europe. It is regarded locally as comparable to mahogany (Swietenia sp.) due to its beauty and resistance to termites. The wood has been used in cabinetmaking, general construction work, shipbuilding and for fence posts in Central and South America.

The bark of large trees was reputedly removed in one piece by Indians to build canoes. The ends were sewn together, wooden crosspieces inserted and the seams were waterproofed with gums or resins. They are locally considered good shade trees alongside roads, though not suitable for reforestation of degraded sites.

H. courbaril is generally slow growing and must be shaded initially if a straight trunk is desired. Unshaded trees will grow faster, but will tend to lean sideways. Shaded trees near San Juan took 13 years to reach heights of nearly seven metres.

Another very important product of the West Indian locust is its hardened, resin-like gum, variously known as South America, Brazil or Demerara copal to distinguish it from 'true' copal, a product of an unrelated African species. South American copal is an amber-like substance, reddish to transparent; sometimes as much as a barrel of the opalescent gum is found at the base of H. courbaril trees. The exuded resin apparently drips down, hardening among the roots. Pieces are of variable size and may contain preserved insects or other organic matter. Copal is used to manufacture varnishes, including some employed in oil painting and serigraphy. In Guatemala, the Indians burn it as a kind of incense.

Medicinal uses are varied and utilize locust bark, resin and pulp. The resin is burned and the fumes are used to treat asthma and other respiratory afflictions. An infusion of the bark is reputedly laxative. Other conditions that have been treated with Hymenaea products include bronchitis, diarrhea and goiters.

Finally, a minor use in Puerto Rico, though dear to the author, is the traditional fabrication of 'gallitos'. Gallitos, meaning 'little roosters' in Spanish, are simply algarrobo seeds threaded with a piece of string and used to play a children's game with the same name.

Calling an African horned melon a kiwano won't make it any dearer. And so it is with the locust, no name changing will alter the fact that it is not a particularly appealing fruit, not even compared to other edible-podded Leguminosae such as carob, tamarind, or the various inga species. However, Hymenaea courbaril has a number of attributes that make it worth growing and perhaps worth developing further. At the very least, it will furnish a large handsome shade tree.


1. Food Value per 100 grams of edible portions:

NameHymenaea courbaril*Ceratonia siliqua**Tamarindus indica *
% moisture14.611.231.4
Protein, g5.94.52.8
Fat, g2.21.40.6
Carbohydrates, g75.380.762.5
Fiber, g13.47.75.1
Calcium, mg2835274
Iron, mg3.2NA2.8
Thiamine, mg0.23NA0.34
Riboflavin, mg0.17NA0.14
Niacin, mg4.1NA1.2
* Colon de Reguero
** Morton

2. But compare Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants: "The pods contain three or four seeds, enclosed in a whitish substance, as sweet as honey, which the Indians eat with great avidity." Another source quoted says, "...this pulp tastes not unlike a dry cake, being sweet and melting in the mouth." p. 310.


• Barrett, M.F., Common Exotic Trees of South Florida, p 41, Univ. of Florida Press, Gainesville, Florida 1956.

• Braga, R, Plantas de Nordeste, Especialmente de Ceara, 2nd cd., p 300-302, Imprensa Oficial, Forteleza, Ceara, Brazil 1960.

• Cavalcante, P.B., Frutas Comestiveis da Amazonia, p. 148, Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Belem, Para, Brazil 1988.

• Colon de Reguero, L. And S.M. Rodriguez de Santiago, Tabla de composicion de Alimentos de Uso Corriente en Puerto Rico, p. 16, Editorial Universidad de P. R, Rio Piedras, P.R 1986.

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• Liogier, H.A., Plantas Medicinales de Puerto Rico y del Caribe, p. 114, Iberoamericana de Ediciones, San Juan, Puerto Rico 1990.

• Little. E.L., F.H. Wadsworth and J. Marrero, Arboles Comunes de Puerto Rico y las lslas Virgenes, p. 217-219, Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedra, P.R 1977.

• MacBride, J.F., Flora of Peru, p. 124-126, Fieldiana, Botany, Vol XIII, Part III, No. I, Chicago, III. 1943.

• Morton, J.F., Fruits of Warm Climates, p. 123, Creative Resource Systems, Winterville, N.C., 1987.

• Nunez Melendez, E., Plantas Medicinales de Puerto Rico, p. 134-135, Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, P.R 1982.

• Perez-Arbelaez, E., Plantas Utiles de Colombia, p. 273-274, Camacho Roldan and Cia, Bogota, Colombia, 1956.

• Romero Castaneda, R., Frutas Silvestres de Colombia, Vol. I p. 93-95, Bogota, Colomhia 1961.

• Schnee, L., Plantas Comunes de Venezuela, p. 194, Revista de la Facultad de Agronomia de la Universidad Central de Venezuela, alcance num. 3, Oct. 1960.

• Standley, P.c. and J.A. Steyermark, Flora of Guatemala, p. 141-142, Fieldiana, Botany Vol. XXIV, Part V., Chicago, Illinois 1946.

Gerardo Garcia-Ramis
Article, Tropical Fruit News, August, 1990

DATE: November 1990

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