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Casuarina Trees

By Thomas Keyes
Dec. 11, 2006

A very unusual and interesting tree is the casuarina tree, which is also known as the cassowary tree, the she-oak, the whistling pine, the Australian pine, the beefwood tree, the ironwood tree and the horsetail tree. But the casuarina is neither an oak nor a pine. The scientific name is ‘Casuarina equisetifolia’. ‘Casuarina’ is merely a Latinization of ‘cassowary’, an Australian bird that someone must have felt the tree resembles. ‘Equisetifolia’ is merely Latin for ‘horsetail-leaved’. The genus Casuarina is in the family Casuarinaceae. Before 1998, according to the Cronquist System, Casuarinaceae were co-extensive with the order Casuarinales, now obsolete. The APG (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) puts Casuarinaceae in the order Fagales. Fagales also include oak, beech, birch and other trees. Fagales are dicots, far removed botanically from Coniferales, so the name ‘pine’ is totally unapt. However, despite being a broadleaf tree, the casuarina has acicular leaves or needles. It does indeed look like a pine.

I first became aware of these trees in 1986-1987, when I was living in Honolulu. There is a grove of 50 or 100 casuarinas, all over 50 feet tall and perfectly erect, in Kapiolani Park, at Waikiki, near Honolulu Zoo. The trunks are about 3 feet in diameter at the base. Looking them up, I found that they were presented by the Australian government to King David Kalakaua, the penultimate Hawaiian monarch, who reigned from 1876 to 1891. Nowadays, casuarinas are planted widely in Honolulu.

Then, several years later, when I had moved to Florida, I was surprised to learn that they are common there too, in spite of the fact that their entry has been outlawed for some reason unknown to me.

In August of 1992, Florida’s severest-ever hurricane, Andrew, struck. I was camping out in those days, in Aventura, a semi-rural district in upper Dade County, north of Miami. I cycled to a park on Dairy Road opposite Highland Oaks Middle School. In the school, a hurricane shelter had been set up. But I preferred to sleep outdoors, as the police who were monitoring the shelter kept making loud, lengthy announcements over the loudspeaker. I bundled up in a sleeping bag and tarpaulin and slept out the storm. But in the morning, I was shocked to see that trees had fallen all around me, including banyans, palms and two rows of casuarina trees that lined two edges of the park. One fallen casuarina had pancaked a red Corvette belonging to someone who had driven in to take refuge in the hurricane shelter. Several other casuarinas, along with some lofty concrete lampposts, had fallen athwart Dairy Road, which, perforce, was closed for several days.

I hadn’t seen a casuarina since, not even in California, where I lived several years and where they are supposed to have been introduced. Now I see that they are planted in Argentina. The building where I am living in the Villa Soldati District of Buenos Aires has one.

There are none in the northern states of the US. Here is a picture of a small stand on the highway in Hawaii:

http://www.hear.org/starr/hiplants/images/600max/starr_050717_2852_casuarina_equisetifolia.jpg

Here are the deceptively pinaceous-looking leaves:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Casuarina_equisetifolia_leaves.jpg

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About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com


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