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Phuket Gardening – Between a rock and a hard place



PHUKET: Since we all live on Phuket island, seaside plants deserve a bit more attention here. Like the screw pine and sea vine, there are other plants that also stubbornly refuse to lie down when inundated by seawater.

Take the casuarina tree. Although this tropical pine normally spreads its extensive roots on slightly higher ground, it still grows close enough to the shoreline to have felt the full effects of the tsunami.

All along Phuket’s western seaboard, stately groves of casuarinas were saturated by salt water, but unlike the trees further inland, they mostly survived, slowly readjusting to higher levels of salinity in the soil, and then resuming their progress skyward.

They are, and will continue to be, a dominant feature in areas such as Rawai, Nai Harn, Patong and other beaches further north, offering welcome protection and shade to picnickers and beach-side vendors.

The casuarina, (son thaleh) has distinctive gray-green, wiry branchlets which function as leaves – a bit like pine needles. It has a number of practical attributes. For one, it grows very quickly into a shapely, open tree, and can easily reach thirty meters or so. It is also able to withstand harsh, windy conditions as well as salty environments. It can be usefully employed in coastal dune stabilization, and it has root nodules which are nitrogen-fixing, adding to the fertility of the soil.

Remember, its resinous needles, unless swept up periodically, can inhibit growth beneath its branches.

Although it’s not often found in gardens here, it is well worth considering if you want a quick screen or a bushy hedge.

Casuarina equisetifolia, to give its full name, is now being used increasingly in non-marine contexts. It’s often used as a median strip tree or to line urban streets since it not only provides a pleasant and effective barrier, but it can readily be pruned into attractive shapes. Young specimens are naturally conical. After clipping, the new foliage is an attractive shade of light green.

Another shoreline tree that sometimes grows right on the dunes beside the screw pines is the sea almond or Terminalia catappa (huu kwang). If your garden is close to the beach, this is an excellent tree to acquire. It is deciduous and has shiny, bright green leaves, some of which turn an attractive yellow or rich red before falling twice a year.

It’s called the sea almond because its nuts resemble almonds. Wherever the tree grows, these edible nuts populate the shoreline at high tide. Like the screw pine and sea vine, the seeds float and are impervious to seawater. A fast-growing and unusual tree, it grows from seedlings and will reach sizable proportions after only four years.

Both the casuarina and the Terminalia catappa are pretty much ignored as potential garden trees. Fortunately, people are beginning to realize their value. Many of these trees are being introduced in areas such as Kata and Karon.

Gardening Tip

It’s a good idea to have an area in your garden where young plants and cuttings can develop and convalesce. In temperate countries, we use greenhouses for protection against winter chill, or to take advantage of the intermittent summer sunshine.

In Phuket, by way of contrast, you need a space where the rays of the overhead sun cannot strike, that enjoys some protection from tropical storms.

Choosing a place next to a north facing wall is sensible. Here you can put your cuttings in plastic pots and monitor their progress, and revitalize houseplants suffering from an extended stay indoors, and showing signs of malaise brought on by low levels of light and inadequate levels of humidity.

If you circulate all your houseplants by giving them a temporary spell outdoors, you will certainly extend their lifespan.

Phuket Gardening is Phuket Gazette columnist Patrick Campbell’s feature of all things flora.

If you have a garden that you would like featured on this page, please email Patrick by clicking here.

Keep checking our online Phuket Lifestyle pages for regular gardening features and tips.

— Patrick Campbell


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