Sandy’s Garden ... The Dilly Tree

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“On the left-hand side of the coach you’ll see a few of the surviving wild dill trees,” the courier said.

Well, I thought that was what the courier said; and I immediately thought, ‘Wild dill trees? Surely dill is a hardy annual herb, a small plant of which I have a specimen growing in a pot in my collection of culinary herbs? A dill tree?’ And, being seated on the left-hand side of the coach I stared out attentively, searching ... in vain … for any tree with foliage bearing the slightest resemblance to the little plant in its pot outside my back door.

It was little wonder that I failed in my quest, although it was some days before I discovered why. We ... my wife and I … were on an excursion on the island of Syros in the eastern Mediterranean, part of a cruise of that part of the world which we greatly enjoyed a few weeks back. It wasn’t until I returned home that I learned what the courier had actually said for … although I am entitled to unlimited access to the internet when I am travelling with our preferred cruise line … I make a point of not accessing the internet while I am on holiday. And, on my return home, I learned that her words must have been, “On the left-hand side of the coach you’ll see a few of the surviving wild dilly trees.” So, unknowingly, I had been looking at trees which I had never heard of before, for I had never heard of the dilly tree until this day on Syros.

I now know, thanks to the internet, that the dilly tree boasts the rather splendid botanical name Manilkara jaimiqui subspecies emarginata, the generic name, Manilkara, being derived from ‘manil-kara’, a vernacular name in Malayalam, one of the many languages spoken in India especially in the province of Kerala, for a cousin of the dilly tree. The specific name jaimiqui is actually the Cuban name for the tree, while emarginata indicates that there is a shallow notch at the end of each leaf as though a piece had been removed. So much for the botanical name; I don’t know how it came by its common name of ‘wild dilly’. But let’s look at the tree itself.

Wild dilly is described either as a short to medium tree or as a large shrub depending on whether it grows from a single trunk … a tree … or from two or more shoots at ground level … a shrub. In either case the grey to reddish-brown stem supports a dense, rounded crown with thick, leathery leaves in clusters towards the end of the numerous twigs. It grows, commonly, to a height of between three and ten metres … say, ten to thirty feet in old money … and is usually at least as broad as it is tall. The species is native to the Florida Keys and Bahamas in the Caribbean, although it has proved to be very adaptable and grows fairly happily in many tropical or subtropical regions. It does best on moist, well-drained soil rich in organic matter and really enjoys full sun, although it can survive short spells of slight frost. It is, however, happiest in coastal hammocks, mangroves and other salt-water-side thickets.

During the spring and summer wild dilly carries small … actually, insignificant … yellow flowers which mature into light brown, round berries in the late summer and autumn. These, I learn, taste a little like pear and a lot like brown sugar; and people who know about these things caution not to eat a lot of the ripe berries in one go, for they cause constipation. A tea brewed from the dried leaves has been found useful to treat the flu and fever; and the first chewing gum was made from the sap of the dilly tree. Nowadays, dilly trees are most commonly cultivated as decorative trees in Florida, where the once widespread wild dilly is now seen as an endangered species. But we can’t grow them at all in the United Kingdom.