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Green Thoughts: Consider the Casuarina

When it comes to tropical trees, the mangrove is top of the pops for environmentalists. Rightly so. It not only protects all our silt-laden and sandy coastlines from erosion, it is a nursery for a pullulating array of marine life.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 25 December 2022, 11:00AM

Towering casuarina trees adorn the park at Nai Harn Lake. Photo: Patrick Campbell

Towering casuarina trees adorn the park at Nai Harn Lake. Photo: Patrick Campbell

The fry of 170 species of fish seek sanctuary in its labyrinthine root systems, protected from all the predators that view them as a tasty snack. Able to survive and thrive in low-oxygen, saturated conditions, mangrove swamps are crucial to our planet’s well-being: significant carbon sinks, they sequester carbon and water-borne pollutants at a much higher rate than terrestrial forests.

In short, mangroves are indispensable. 

But the casuarina, rarely given prominence in ecological dispatches, is also important in the ongoing struggle to preserve our natural heritage. You might be forgiven for asking: What on earth is a casuarina? To give it its full botanical name – casuarinas equisetifolia – it is a tropical conifer, a cone-bearing, single-bole, evergreen tree which grows to 100 feet or more (over 30 metres).

Its name derives from the perceived similarity between its grey-green, needle-like foliage and the plumage of the cassowary bird (kasuari in Malay).While it is a small genus, consisting of 17 species, it is found everywhere in Southern Asia ‒ from India to Australia. 

That the casuarina is so important is because it is one of the very few tropical trees that can thrive in the inhospitable environment of the ocean littoral, sharing with the stilt pine and sea almond, the ability to grow – and grow rapidly – in hot, sandy, salt laden soil. Its serpentine roots snake out in all directions, often visible like giant ribs, but so extensively grounded that the tree will withstand the buffeting of waves and tempests.

In the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004, when billions of tons of water crashed into Phuket’s shores, reducing the beachside scene to a breaker’s yard, those roots still clung tenaciously to life. Today, the trees line the upper slopes of most sea-side areas, sometimes self-sown, often planted by local communities, both a wind-break and protection against nature’s excesses , and a source of shade and verdancy in an otherwise hostile environment. 

Happily, the local Thai population is still aware of their value. A few years ago, a plan was hatched to create a movie museum at a prime location in Phuket. The selected site was a world-renowned beach, set in a sweeping bay and backed by maybe 400m of mature casuarinas. Had the decision to build gone ahead, many trees would have been sacrificed to Mammon. Instead, there were local protests , letters to the press, and many of the tree trunks were garlanded with swatches of orange material. The project never went ahead. Vox populi…

Is there a downside? Yes, as is so often the case: if the species is introduced to new and perhaps unsuitable habitats. Because of its adaptability and rapid growth, it will compete aggressively with other plants and trees. It requires little moisture at its roots. Moreover, the discarded needles, in the form of leaf litter, contain chemicals which act as a herbicide and suppress the germination and growth of understorey plants. Beneath the grove of casuarinas at Nai Harn Beach in Phuket, there is little or no vegetation.

Having said that, and left to its own devices in its proper environment, the tree has massive value. Indeed, it is being increasingly employed in local contexts, both as an addition to highways (where it will require regular pruning) or as a pleasant addition to open spaces. Near my house is a large plot, once neglected, but now planted with casuarinas. Three years on, they have flourished mightily; now graceful trees 25-feet tall, they dominate the area. I am not sure if the landowner intended an aesthetic resolution, or planted the casuarinas as a way of avoiding land tax. Either way, the result is pleasing and positive.

There is one further benefit for the horticulturalists among you. Casuarinas, like the entire family of legumes (peas, beans, cassias, etc.) produce root nodules. These ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, a key nutrient often in short supply. So their presence can actually contribute to soil fertility. Not that I recommend growing casuarinas in your average-sized garden; they would take over the place in no time…

Patrick Campbell’s book ‘The Tropic Gardener’, described in one Bangkok review as the best book on Thai gardening for 50 years, is available for B500 (half price) to personal callers from 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13 in Rawai (Tel: 076-61227 or 085-7827551).

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