Australia has the most magical environment, it is sometimes easy to forget how unique and wonderful our environment is, the flora as well as the fauna. I realize I take so much for granted. I sometimes look at European landscapes with envy, I am drawn to cooler and greener landscapes, but my own environment is so unique and so captivating, I should take more time to appreciate it. Since reading Sophia Cunningham’s City of Trees and discovering her tree of the day instagram post I have become a bit more aware of trees in my environment and to give myself something to write about thought I might try and do an arboreal themed post once a week, this is the first such post.
So many of our trees have been coveted and imported to areas they do not really belong, in some cases becoming invasive or controversial like our iconic eucalypts in Spain and Portugal. I have walked through Christmas markets in Barcelona and been struck by the fragrance of eucalypt from all the cuttings for sale as part of Christmas floral arrangements. A sudden fragrance of home. And then there are our alluring coastal sheoaks, used for dune stabilisation only to become invasive in environments they did not originate in, like in Florida in the United States. Woodgate is becoming one of my favourite locale escape locations and it is characterised by an esplanade of coastal sheoaks. The first view of the gently waving sheoaks feels like a welcome back when we visit.
Sheoaks are amongst my favourite trees, they are the ultimate beach tree, Casuarina equisetifolia, nothing evokes a Queensland beach holiday quite like the wispy, whispering casuarina. They are sometimes called the “whistling tree” and their weeping foliage captures the music of the wind. Like a Van Gogh painting capturing the movement of the wind in glowing swirls on the canvas, casuarinas capture the breeze in the murmuring movement of the weeping foliage. Their name, Casuarina equisetifolia is derived from the foliage’s similarity to firstly cassowary plumage and secondly a horses tail, there is poetry and metaphor even in scientific naming and the name captures the thin wispy quality of the leaves arranged in cascading strings.
Like so much Australian flora they embody hardiness, clinging to the dunes in coastal environments, tolerating salt spray and stabilizing the earth in face of the endless onslaught of rising sea levels. They do not always win that battle and too much seawater can leave them desolate and evolving into driftwood sculptures, evocative stately skeletons of their former selves. The rough bark exfoliated leaving a hard, salt dried grey timber. Around the northern end of Woodgate up towards Theodolite creek it is not uncommon to see sheoaks uprooted by encroaching tides or turning brown and dying with too much sea water having violated their roots.
Like legumes, they can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil with the help of a symbiotic bacteria, which again makes them desirable as a coastal stabilizing plant. Enriching the sandy soil as they grow, both by fixing nitrogen and enriching the earth with a carpet of organic litter, maybe that is why they were planted in Florida in the first place but now they are considered a noxious weed there.
They are also sometimes referred to as the Australian pine, (mainly in Florida), and despite their pine-like foliage, they are no pine tree. Pine trees are gymnosperms, non-flowering seed producers but casaurina produce both male and female flowers on the one parent plant, relying on wind pollination to set the seeds. What clever evolution. The seeds are contained in a hard little cone like structure, rounded but with hard pointed edges once the pod opens and walking on them in bare feet is like walking on lego. Walking on casuarina seed pods in bare feet is as much a part of the Queensland beach experiences as the soft sands as you walk down to the surf.
Casuarinas are also a favourite bonsai subject, it seems they can take much abuse from human hands and yet they give us so much back. The tree like many plants lends itself to natural cures for a variety of afflecitons, diarrhoea and stomach-ache being one( http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Casuarina+equisetifolia ) and inflamation and arthritis another (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casuarina_equisetifolia). A quick google search discovered potential pharmacological benifits are being investigated but I would not reccomend any amateur experimentation:(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313677699_THE_PHARMACOLOGICAL_IMPORTANCE_OF_CASUARINA_EQUISETIFOLIA_-AN_OVERVIEW ). For me the tree provides a spiritual balm rather than a physical one.
Even the names of this tree are appealing, musical and poetic; casuarina equisetifolia, just rolls off the tongue, “whispering tree” or “singing tree” evokes the movement of sea breezes in the cascading branches but sheoak is my favourite appellation. The name apparently meant to draw an unfavourable comparison with English oak. That ugly binary code of meaning where the feminine is almost always seen as something inferior to the masculine. Just as casuarina is not a pine, it is also not an oak, but it is definitely a hardwood, an “ironwood”, it is also sometimes called “beefwood”. But sheoak captures the spirit of the tree, I always feel there is something intrinsically feminine about these trees. But then oak trees were thought to harbour dryads, tree nymphs and I feel a feminine spirit here as well, what is an Australian dryad I wonder.
Down south around the Sydney region there is a D’harawal story about the grandmother trees, the Dahl’wah, you can read it here: https://dharawalstories.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/dahlwah890kb.pdf The whispering trees are considered a safe place, they don’t drop branches like red gums do and the leaf litter discourages snakes because it gets caught in their scales, so sitting under the grandmother trees, listening to their whispered conversation is considered a safe place to be. And the trees do feel like gentle guardians. Sitting under the spreading branches, listening to the murmurring of the breeze and the crash of waves is a soothing experience. I wish I knew if there is a Gabi Gabi or Butchulla story about the trees but unfortunetly I don’t. It is Gabi Gabi country I am on. Sadly there is little acknowledgement of traditional owners in this space but I acknowledge the traditonal owners of this land and sea country and pay respect to their elders, past, present and emerging. I wish I saw more open acknowledgement and celebration of traditonal owners on this land. I feel like I am walking on obscurred history here. The frontieer wars were particularly brutual in Queensland and sometimes absences speak loundly of a history some people would rather forget than acknowledge.
You can feel very welcome and at home under a sheoak. The grandmother trees make for good company. One of the places I go to escape the world and work, a place of peace and contemplation. The sheoaks are very much the spirit of this place.