The Casuarina: A local treasure

By Miriam Chacko
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THE NEW YEAR has begun and I want to start it on a green note. I mean green in the traditional sense and not the concept of green that has been sensationalised in modern urban ideology.

I speak of a tree; a deceptive kind that first attracted me because of its looks. I speak of Ents that stand guard and protect the coasts of Sarawak. I speak of Cassowary plume-like foliage swaying at great heights. I speak of ‘Rhu Laut’, the Casuarina tree and in particular, the Casuarina Equisetifolia.

ENT-LIKE: The Giants of the forest.

ENT-LIKE: The Giants of the Sarawak coast.

In my search amongst the local flora for an appropriate Christmas tree, I find the Casuarina youngling to be very suitable. Though at its tallest, funnily enough, it falls short of criteria fitting of a Christmas tree and the indoors. I would imagine stringing Christmas lights up to a possible height of 40m to be risky and expensive.

Moving along, a tree is certainly more than its looks. It is a habitat, and unfortunately in that respect, the Casuarina is known to be a humbug. The tree alters the environment surrounding it, thereby making it unsuitable for other plants and animals. With its pollen unattractive to bees and its fruit unattractive to most birds, there is very little Christmas cheer to go around.

Keeping the aphids, insects and birds away also keeps away contagious infections and diseases. Nevertheless, there are co-habiting fungi that carry deadly contagion. The Hyphomycete fungus is, for example, known to infect the Casuarina Equisetifolia with the Blister Bark disease. In countries like India, China, Kenya and Thailand, this disease was reported to have wiped out Casuarina plantations.

Casuarina roots

HARDY: Casuarinas can thrive on sand, volcanic lava and mangrove mud.

Diseases aside, Casuarinas are hardy trees. They are known to thrive on an odd variety of soils including sand, volcanic lava and mangrove mud. In Sarawak, found on the outer edge of the forests facing the sea, these trees are constantly exposed to salt spray and sea water inundations during high tide. In such locations, the roots help reduce the extent of erosion and the foliage create barriers against strong winds. Hence, its importance in physically protecting the eco-system is certain.

The roots of the Casaurina selectively mine nutrients from the ground, which are then sparsely yet sufficiently distributed to the leaves, flowers and seeds. Instead, a large chunk of the nutrients is used to form the tree’s fiery wooded framework. This constitution lends the Casuarina a reputation as the best firewood in the world, one that produces high-quality charcoal.

Understandably, in a forest fire, Casuarinas would add fuel to the pyre, and combust with haste. However, I was amazed to learn that the seeds sprout from the ashes even more vigorously than if there had been no fire. Like a Phoenix!

Onto more realistic comparisons, Casuarinas, as with most commercially viable woods are planted for logging. The tree’s steadfast dispersal and speedy growth (1.5 to 3m a year) is reassuring, in light of how they may be logged senselessly. Other than firewood, the wood is used to build electric poles and prop up roofs of mines. The root extract has medicinal value in treating dysentery and diarrhea. The bark, in powdered form, is a local remedy to treat facial pimples. Contributing towards commerce and medicine, the Casuarina is highly sought after.

To summarize my thoughts on the Casuarina tree, I would like to conclude with a poem:

Casuarina younglings


From fire, it breathes life and in death it serves lives
Pillage it not, for in its stance there is greater purpose
Sentry for the inlands, it welcomes briny waters
Rising to the sky, it beats the wind
Sitting in its shade, I acknowledge this local treasure.

Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation. 

A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.

Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013. 

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