Spiny Holdback

Caesalpinia spinosa

Caesalpinia spinosa (Molina) Kuntze, commonly known as tara, is a small leguminous tree or thorny shrub native to Peru. C. spinosa is cultivated as a source of tannins and also grown as an ornamental plant because of its large colorful flowers and pods.

Names and Taxonomy

Synonyms: Poinciana spinosa MOL., Caesalpinia pectinata CAV., C. tara, C. tinctoria HBK, Coulteria tinctoria HBK, Tara spinosa, Tara tinctoria. Common names: Spiny holdback; tara, taya, algarroba tanino (Peru).

C. spinosa is in the Caesalpinaceae, Leguminosae or Fabaceae family, depending on the classification system, the Caesalpinioideae subfamily, and Caesalpinieae tribe.


C. spinosa typically grows 2-5 m tall; its bark is dark gray with scattered prickles and hairy twigs. Leaves are alternate, evergreen, lacking stipules, bipinnate, and lacking petiolar and rachis glands. Leaves consist of 3-10 pairs of primary leaflets under 8cm in length, and 5-7 pairs of subsessile elliptic secondary leaflets, each about 1.5-4cm long. Inflorescences are 15-20cm long terminal racemes, many flowered and covered in tiny hairs. Flowers are yellow to orange with 6-7mm petals; the lowest sepal is boat-shaped with many long marginal teeth; stamens are yellow, irregular in length and barely protruding. The fruit is a flat oblong indehiscent pod, about 6-12cm long and 2.5cm wide, contain 4-7 round black seeds, and redden when mature.

Distribution and Habitat

C. spinosa is native to Peru and can be found growing throughout northern, western and southern South America, from Venezuela to Argentina. It has been introduced in drier parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa and has become naturalized in California.

Generally resistant to most pathogens and pests, it will grow between 0 and 3,000 meters above sea level, tolerates dry climates and poor soils including those high in sand and rocks. To propagate, seeds must be scarified (pre-treated to break physical dormancy)and young plants should be transplanted to the field at 40cm in height; trees begin to produce after 4-5 years. Mature pods are usually harvested by hand and typically sun dried before processing. If well irrigated, trees can continue to produce for another 80 years, though their highest production is between 15 and 65 years of age.


C. spinosa pods are an excellent source of environmentally friendly tannins most commonly used in the manufacture of furniture leather and a growing industry is developing around their production in Peru. Gallic acid is the main constituent of tara tannins (53%) and can be easily isolated by alkaline hydrolysis of the plant extract.

Tara gum is a white or beige nearly odorless powder that is produced by separating and grinding the endosperm of C. spinosa seeds. The major component of the gum is a galactomannan polymer similar to the main components of guar and locust bean gums that are used widely in the food industry. Tara gum has been deemed safe for human consumption as a food additive. Tara gum is used as a thickening agent and stabilizer in a number of food applications. A solution of tara gum is less viscous than a guar gum solution of the same concentration, but more viscous than a solution of locust bean gum. Blends of tara with modified and unmodified starches can be produced which have enhanced stabilization and emulsification properties, and these are used in the preparation of convenience foods, such as ice cream.

Medicinal uses in Peru include gargling infusions of the pods for inflamed tonsils or washing wounds; it is also used for fevers, colds and stomach aches. The tree can also be a source of lumber and firewood, and as a live fence. Water from boiled dried pods is also used to kill fleas and other insects. The seeds can be used to produce black dye while dark blue dye can be obtained from the roots.


1. All information in article taken from: A. Brack Egg (1999). Diccionario Enciclopédico de Plantas Utiles del Perú Cusco, Peru: Centro de Investigación Bartolomé de las Casas.

2. USDA, ARS, National Genetic Resources Program. Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN) [Online Database]. National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland. URL: http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/taxon.pl?8311 (27 May 2008)

3. E. McClintock (1996). Caesalpinia. In: J.C. Hickman (ed.) The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press.

4. P. De la Cruz Lapa (2004). An integral and rational utility of tara (Caesalpinia spinosa - caesalpinia tinctoria) Rev. Inst. investig. Fac. minas metal cienc. geogr. [online]. jul./dic. 2004, vol.7, no.14 [citado 27 Mayo 2008], p.64-73.

5. J.M. Garro Galvez1, B. Riedl1 and A. H. Conner (1997). Analytical Studies on Tara Tannins. Holzforschung 51: 235-243.

6. J.F. Borzelleca, B.N. Ladu, F.R. Senti, and J.L. Egle, Jr. (1993). Evaluation of the Safety of Tara Gum as a Food Ingredient: A Review of the Literature. Journal of the American College of Toxicology 12: 81-89.

External links

  • http://zipcodezoo.com/Plants/C/Caesalpinia_spinosa.asp
  • http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/sea/products/afdbases/af/asp/SpeciesInfo.asp?SpID=17978

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