Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Beach Plants

“Remove the vegetable kingdom, or interrupt the flow of its unconscious benefactions, and the whole higher life of the world ends.”— HENRY DRUMMOND.

Strolling on the curving footway of broken shells and coral chips marking the limit of the morning’s tide, a vague attempt was made to catalogue the plants which crowd each other on the verge of salt water, and so to make comparison with that part of Australia the features of which provoked Adam Lindsay Gordon to frame an adhesive phrase concerning bright scentless blossoms and songless, bright birds. Excluding the acacias and eucalypts, said to have given sameness to the scenes among which the exotic poet ranged, a long list might be compiled; nor will the pleasant sounds of the afternoon be set down in formal order to the vexing of his memory, for possibly he never heard the whoop and gurgle of the swamp pheasant or the blended voices of hundreds of nutmeg pigeons mellowed by half a mile of still, warm air.

Nor may such unassuming vegetation as the grasses — at least a dozen varieties — find place in an enumeration which appeals primarily on the grounds of prominence, though it would not do to despise the soft and pleasant carpet beneath the orderly row of Casuarinas which the tide planted during the last big cyclone with gardener’s art. The common name for the trees —“she” (or “shea” oaks, as the late F. Manson Bailey preferred)— mimics the sound of the wind among the branches, which the slightest zephyr stirs and, the storm lashes into sea-like roar. The bright green of the grasses sets off the dull green and bronze of the steadfast harps of the beach. At certain seasons and in some lights, when the sun is in the west, the minute scales at the joints of the slender, pendulous branchlets shine like old gold, producing a theatrical effect which, if not experienced before, startles and almost persuades to the belief that the complaining trees have been decorated by one who “has sought out many inventions.” But the slant of the sun alters, the light fades, leaving them sombre in hue and whispering more and more discreetly as the night calm settles over the scene. Such communicable trees should stand together, commenting on passing events, booming in unison with the cyclone, and mimicking the tenderest tones of the idlest wind. During a storm, when the big waves crash on the beach and the Casuarinas are tormented, the tumult is bewildering; but however loud their plaint, very few suffer, though growing in loose sand; for the roots are widespread and, like the trunk and main branches, tough, while the branchlets stream before the wind.

Close behind the screen of Casuarinas is a magnificent specimen of a wide-spreading shrub, in form a squat dome, which commemorates the name of a French naturalist — TOURNEFORTIA ARGENTA. The leaves, crowded at the ends of thick branchlets, are covered with soft, silky hairs of a silvery cast, which reflect the sun’s rays. It would be gross exaggeration to say that the finely shaped shrub shines like silver, for the general hue of the foliage is sage green, but that it has a silvery cast, which in certain lights contrasts with the dull gold of its neighbours, is an alluring fact which must not be strained. Moreover, the shrub covers an almost perfect circle, about thirty feet in diameter, and since it is not more than ten feet high, its form is as if Nature had designed the creation of a circus of shadow, dense and cool, for the comfort of mankind.

At high-water mark stands one of the Terminalias with big terminal light green leaves, musty flowers, and purple fruit — gold, silver, and purple in close array — while over the sand the goat-footed convolvulus sends long, succulent shoots bearing huge pink flowers complementary to the purple of the beach-pea (CANVALIA OBTUSIFOLIA).

Under the she-oaks young coral trees have sprung up, but the red flowers are of the past, and so also have the gold and white of the Calophyllums disappeared. But in the evening the breeze brings whiffs of a singular savour, pleasant yet not sweet, which comes from the acre or two of native hops a few yards back. The bruised leaves thereof give off anything but an attractive odour, yet the faint natural exhalations from the plant are sniffed eagerly and to the revivification of pleasant recollections.

Among a crowd of massive shrubs sprawls a plant of loose habit known as CAESALPINA BONDUCELLA, the long clinging branches and the pods of which are armed with hooked prickles. It is a plant of wide range, for the bluish-grey seeds are said to be used in Arabia for necklets. In the idle days of the past the blacks were wont to enclose a single seed in a miniature basket woven of strips of cane for the amusement of infants — probably the first of rattles. It has seized for support some of the branches of a rare tree (CERBERA ODOLLAM) which bears long, glossy, lanceolate leaves, large, pink-centred, white flowers, delicately fragrant, and compressed oval fruit, brilliantly scarlet. The tempting appearance of the fruit is all that may be said in its favour, for it is hard and bitter, and said to be vicious in its effects on the human system; hence the generic title, after the three-headed dog, guardian of the portals of the infernal regions.

Grouped here and there are pale green, big-leaved shrubs (PREMNA OBTUSIFOLIA,) bearing flowers and fruit calling to mind the elder of the old country. The wood is deep yellow in colour, but apparently of no practical use.

Another small tree, suggesting in its regular and well-balanced shape the use of the pruning-knife, is GUETTARDIA SPECIOSA, the flowers of which are white with a tinge of pink in the centre and highly fragrant. The fruit is a hard, woody drupe, containing small seeds. TIMONIUS RUMPHII, belonging to the same Family, but of more frequent occurrence, bears small white flowers and globular fruit. The white, finely grained wood is said to resemble English sycamore. Though harsh and flaky, the surface of the bark seems to retain moisture, making it attractive to several species of fungi and epiphytal ferns, the most conspicuous of the latter being the stag’s-horn. Few of the trees near the beach are free from such encumbrances.

To unaccustomed eyes the Pandanus palm is chief among the noticeable features of the flora of the coast of tropical Queensland. Two species are represented on these accommodating sands, each suffering no ill, from imbibing salt water, each exhibiting the peculiarity whence the genus derives its common name — the screw palm, the arrangement of the long, narrow, prickle-edged leaves displaying in the most regular and demonstrative style the perfect spiral. The single stem of youth frequently deteriorates and occasionally disappears altogether, adventitious roots, descending from various heights, forming an elaborate and sure and ever-developing support. The huge, bright orange-tinted fruit of the species known as Odoratissimus is highly attractive in appearance, and to the uninitiated offers pleasing hopes and delicious expectations. It is, however, delusive, being constituted of woody drupes in close clusters collected into a globular head, with meagre yellow pulp at the base of each group, the pulp having an aromatic and unsatisfactory flavour. Each drupe contains an oblong oval kernel, pleasant to the taste, but so trivial in size as to be hardly worth the trouble of extraction unless there is little else to occupy attention save the pangs of hunger. These defects do not detract from the parade of the tree — picturesque, singular, and replete with interest to the observer of the infinite variety of the vegetation of the tropics.

The cockatoo apple (CAREYA AUSTRALIS), which has several useful qualities, flourishes exceedingly. The ripe fruit, green and insipid, was wont to be eaten by the blacks, bark from the branches was twisted into fishing-lines, that of the roots used for poisoning fish, while the leaves, heated over the fire until the oil exuded, were applied to bruised and aching parts of the body. Extraordinary tenacity of life distinguished the tree, the axe, fire, and poison failing under some circumstances to vanquish it.

Another and closely related member of the same Family (Myrtaceae) is BARRINGTONIA SPECIOSA, which, so far as local experience is to be trusted, is restricted to the beaches, growing lustily in pure sand at the very verge of high-water mark. The glossy leaves of this many-branched tree often exceed a foot in length; the flowers, too, are large and singular in style, the petals being comparatively insignificant, while the numerous stamens attain a length of four inches and are of a lovely shade of red. Like its relative, the cockatoo apple, the flowers of the Barringtonia have a meaty smell, which seems to attract many species of insects. In keeping with other characteristics, the fruit is large, consisting of a thick, woody covering, as if Nature designed that the single seeds should be adequately protected during a protracted oceanic drift. It is often cast up on the sand, but the seed does not germinate as consistently as that of the cannon-ball-tree; but when it does it rarely fails to become established.

Two species of Ficus deserve to be mentioned, though this catalogue does not claim to be exhaustive. FICUS FASCICULATA, as the title implies, bears its inedible fruit in bundles, branches, trunk, and exposed roots, being alike fertile, and is almost as retentive of life as the cockatoo apple. Opposita is remarkable for varied form of foliage, referred to particularly elsewhere, and for the sweetness of its fruit.

One of the loveliest and most remarkable plants of the beach is the seacoast laburnum (SOPHORA TOMENTOSA), with its pinnate leaves of sage green, hoary with silvery fur as soft as seal-skin, and bearing terminal spikes of golden flowers with scent invoking slight comparison with mignonette. The thick, silky leaves, the yellow flowers, and the strange pods, are distinctive qualities, which atone for the absence of the special sweetness of the garden favourite. The pods begin as slender, silvery, dangling threads, which speedily lengthen and become constricted. When the breeze flusters the shrubs, revealing the undersides of the leaves at a reflective angle and shaking the tasselled pods, and the splashes of gold sway hither and thither, the character of the shrub as one of the most attractive ornaments of the beach is so truly displayed that it might be likened to the tree of the sun described by Marco Polo — green on one side, but white when perceived on the other.

This quality, however, is not special or peculiar. The brown kurrajong (COMMERSONIA ECHINATA) exhibits it even more conspicuously, and, when the dusty white flowers — displayed in almost horizontal planes — are buffeted by the winds and the white undersides of the leaves are revealed, the whole style of the tree is transformed as a demure damsel is by tempestuous petticoats.

With the grey-green of the Sophora is often intertwined the leafless creeper CASSYTHA FILIFORMIS, which in the days of the past the blacks were wont to use with other beach plants in the composition of a crude seine net. The long-reaching, white-flowered CLERODENDRON INERME and the tough, sprawling BLAINVILLEA LATIFOLIA, with its small, harsh flowers, yellow as buttercups but resembling a daisy in form, were also embodied in the net.

The Poonga oil-tree, the new and old leaves the colour of new copper, and the mature the darkest of green, bears spikes of pale lavender flowers, and makes a decided blotch among the light green succulent leaves of the native cabbage (SCAEVOLA KOENIGII), with its strange white flowers and milk-white fruit. All parts of the plant are said to be emetic.

Two varieties of VITEX TRIFOLIA, each bearing pretty lavender flowers, but in other respects sharply contrasted, are among the commonest of denizens of the beach. The one is a prostrate plant with sage-coloured and sage-scented leaves; the other a shrub or small tree with light green foliage, the underside of which is mealy-white, and flowers paler than those of its lowly kin. Each is pretty, and the creeping variety (known in Egypt as the “Hand of Mary”) decidedly one of the most eager lovers of the sand, to which it keeps strictly.

Almost within reach from high water are representatives of a tall, shining-leaved shrub known as MORINDA CITRIFOLIA, the flower-heads of which merge into a berry which has a most disagreeable odour and a still more objectionable flavour. It is related that when La Perouse was cast away on one of the islands of the South Pacific, a native undertook to ward off the pangs of hunger by converting the fruit into an edible dish. But his manipulation seemed but to intensify original nauseousness, and the brave Frenchman and his companions found semi-starvation more endurable than the repugnant mess.

Magnificent representatives of the umbrella-tree (BRASSAIA ACTINOPHYLLA), unique among the many novelties of the tropical coast, are massed in groups or stand in solitary grace close to the sea. Queensland has a monopoly over this handsome and remarkable tree, the genus to which it belongs being limited to a single species occurring nowhere else in a native state. Discovered by Banks and Solander at Cooktown in 1770, the second record of its existence, it is believed, was made from specimens obtained on this island by Macgillivray and Huxley in 1848. Possibly the very trees which attracted their attention still crown their rayed and glossy leaflets with long, radiating rods thickly set with red, stud-like flowers. Such foliage and such flowers would appeal gloriously to an enthusiastic botanist, and to so devoted, indefatigable, and successful a searcher after the wonders and the higher truths of the world as Huxley.

Few of the ornaments of the beach are more noticeable than that known commonly as the sunflower-tree and by the natives as Gingee (DIPLANTHERA TETRAPHYLLA), with its big leaves, soft of surface when young, but harsh and coarse at maturity. The golden flowers, grouped in huge heads, are rich in nectar, attracting birds and butterflies by day and flying foxes at night. The fruit, enclosed in a crisp capsule, is tough and leathery, in shape a flattened oval, and is entirely covered with silken seeds lying close and dense as the feathers of the grebe. When numbers of the capsules open simultaneously, the seeds float earthwards like a silvery mantle or stream before the wind like a veil. Rarely the capsule falls to the ground complete, and then the parting of the valves reveals the fruit, in form not unlike a small fish covered with glistening scales. The soft white wood is generally condemned, but duly seasoned it becomes tough, and is durable when not exposed to the weather. Like other quick-growing trees, the Gin-gee takes no long time in arriving at maturity, and its life is comparatively brief. Often big trees die from no apparent cause, and the wood becoming dry and tindery, the limbs crash to the ground suddenly, and in a few months the whole substance disappears in dust and mould.

Though the flowering season of the Calophyllum is of the past, the tree which bestows on the beaches the deepest shade and is handsome in all its parts must not be disregarded, for does it not, ever and anon, strive after a higher purpose than the production of goodly leaves, white flowers, and nuts “harsh and crude”? On rare occasions the external covering of the nut turns yellow on the tree, and is then found to enclose a thin envelope of pulp of aromatic and rather gratifying flavour. Such a phenomenon seems to manifest inherent excellencies, a laudable effort towards self-improvement, a plea for assistance on the part of some approving and patient man, an indication of the lines on which he might co-operate. The tree does not need gloss for its perfect leaves or fragrance for its flowers, nor need the qualities of its pink wood of wavering figure be extolled. With the exception of the stamens, all parts of the inflorescence, inclusive of the long pedicles, are milk-white, and the perfume is as sweet and refreshing as an English spring posy. Chemists tell us that the oil from the kernels contains a green pigment which changes to yellow on saponification, and that the resin is emetic and purgative, and healing when applied as plaster. If botanical science can develop the meritorious tendencies the fruit occasionally exhibits, the Calophyllum would certainly rank as one of the most wonderful of all tropical fruits. And may it not be wise to indulge the highest hopes when it is borne in mind that at the head of the Family to which the Calophyllum belongs stands that queen of fruits — the mangosteen? Faith in the probable idealisation of the Calophyllum is justified by reference to the “Prefatory and Other Notes” to the late F. M. Bailey’s great work, the “Comprehensive Catalogue of Queensland Plants,” where is to be found these encouraging words: “When any particular plant is said to furnish a useful fruit, it must not be imagined that the fruit equals the apple, pear, or peach of the present day, but all so marked are superior to the fruits known to our far-back forefathers.”

Two eucalypts — bloodwood and Moreton Bay ash (CORYMBOSA and TESSELLARIS respectively)— and two acacias are represented, the former developing into great trees of economic value, the latter being comparatively short-lived and ornamental. The young shoots of Acacia flavescens are covered as with golden fleece, and its globular flowers are pale yellow. The wood resembles in tint and texture its ally, the raspberry-jam wood of Western Australia, though lacking its significant and remarkable aroma. ACACIA AULACOCARPA displays in pendant masses golden tassels rich in fragrance.

The yellow-flowered hibiscus (cotton-tree) overhangs the tide, and the small-leaved shrub the blacks name Tee-bee (WIKSTRAEMIA INDICA), the pink, semi-transparent fruit of which is eaten in times of stress, springs from pure sand.

A tall, almost branchless shrub (MACARANGA TANARIUS), the Toogantoogan of the natives, grows in close clumps conducive to the production of light, straight, slim stems used as fish-spears. The bark peels readily in long strands, easily convertible into lines, and the sap from incised stems, which crystallises with a reddish tint, is a fast cement. Huge platter-shaped leaves are supported on long stalks from nearly the centre, whence radiate prominent nerves of pale green. Some plants exhibit leaf-stalks of ruby red, with central leaf-spot and nerves like in hue, producing the most beautiful effect. If the growth of the plant could be kept within bounds it would be gladly admitted as a garden shrub. The stems and the base of the leaf-stalk are coated with, glaucous bloom, like that of a ripe plum. The bloom, easily to be rubbed off, is said to derive its title from that Glaucus who took part in the Trojan War and had the simplicity, or the wisdom, to exchange his suit of golden armour for one of iron.

The length of the beach thus casually examined is not more than a quarter of a mile long, and no plant mentioned is more than a few yards from high-water mark, the soil being almost pure sand. Imagine some three square miles of country varied by hills and flats of rich soil, with creeks and ravines, precipices and bluffs, dense jungle and thick forest, hollows wherein water lodges in the wet season, and granite ridges, and then endeavour to comprehend the botany of one small island of the tropical coast!

To obtain demonstration of the vitalising and nourishing principles in maritime sands under the effects of heat, light, and moisture, it is necessary to retrace our steps and walk round the sandspit to the transfigured and degenerate mouth of that once mangrove-creek known to the blacks by a name signifying that a boy once tethered in it a sucking fish (Remora). Obstructed by a bank, the creek is dead and dry save when the floods of the wet season co-operate with high tides and effect a breach, to be repaired on the cessation of the rains. No more than four years have passed since the formation of the bank began. It is now a shrubbery made by the incessant and tireless sea from materials hostile, insipid, and loose-sand, shells, and coral debris, with pumice from some far-away volcano. On this newly made, restricted strip one may peep and botanise without restraint, discovering that though it does not offer conditions at all favourable to the retention of moisture, plants of varied character crowd each other for space and flourish as if drawing nutriment from rich loam.

Several botanical Families are represented, the genera and species being:

Casuarina equisetifolia (she-oak) Avicennia officinalis (white mangrove). Clerodendron inerme. Premna obtusifolia. Vitex trifolia. Vitex trifolia, var. obovata. Carapa moluccensis (cannon-ball-tree). Erylhrina indica (coral-tree). Sophora tomentosa (sea-coast laburnum). Pongamia glabra (poonga oil-tree). Vigna luteola (yellow-flowered pea). Calophyllum inophyllum (Alexandrian laurel). Terminalia melanocarpa. Ximenia americana (yellow plum). Scoevola koenigii (native cabbage). Hibiscus tiliaceus (cotton-tree). Wikstroemia indica. Macaranga tanarius. Euphorbia eremophilla (caustic bush). Dodonaea viscosa (hop-bush). Passiflora foetida (stinking passion fruit). Ipomea pes caprae (goat-footed convolvulus). Ionidium suffruticosum, Form A. Ionidium suffruticosum, Form B (spade-flower). Blainvillea latifolia. Gnaphalium luteo-album (flannel-leaf or cud-weed). Vernonia cinerea (erect, fluffy-seeded weed). Remirea maritima (spiky sand-binder). Cyperus decompositus (giant sedge). Erigeron linifolius (cobbler’s pegs or rag-weed). Tribulus terrestris (caltrops). Triumfetta procumbens (burr). Salsola kali (prickly salt-wort). Mesembryanthemum aequilaterale (pig’s face). Anthistria ciliata (kangaroo-grass). Paspalum distichum (water couch-grass). Zoysia pungens (coast couch-grass). Lepturus repens (creeping wire-grass). Panicum leucophaeum (pasture-grass). Andropogon refractus (barbed wire-grass). Tragus racemosus (burr-grass). Eragrostis brownii, var. pubescens (love-grass).

With the exception of some of the grasses and two noxious weeds, this assemblage is representative of plants which grow just beyond the sweep of the waves, and are prosperously at home nowhere else. One, the cannonball-tree, is so highly specialised that its presence is but temporary, for it endures but a single set of conditions — saline mud and the shade of mangroves. The thick, leathery capsule contains several irregularly shaped seeds, somewhat similar to Brazil nuts, but larger in size and not to be reassembled readily after separation. When stranded, germination is prompt, but the young plants, lacking essential conditions, invariably perish. One of the trailers — the caltrops — has trilobed, saw-edged leaves (harsh on both sides), yellow flowers of unpleasant odour, and fruit which, perhaps, formed the model of the war weapon of the time of the Crusaders. In whatever position it rests on the ground it presents an array of spikes to the bare foot. Though all its superficial qualities are graceless, it performs the admirable office of binding sand, and thus prepares the way for benign and faultless vegetation.

That his garden might not only be instructive but profitable to mankind, Neptune heaved on to its verge three coco-nuts, the goose-barnacles on two of which bore testimony to a long drift. That which retained the germ of life fell into the hands of a visiting black boy, who split it open to feast on the pithy and insipid “apple” within its shell at the base of the sprout. This mischance ruined for the time being the prospect of a fine effect; but the perseverance and prodigality of Neptune none may estimate. He will certainly bring from distant domain another nut which may escape the observation of the never-to-be-satisfied black boys until the young plant itself has assimilated its concentrated food, and begins to spread its glossy fronds in the face of the sun. In the meantime the garden displays four weeds, two of the nature of pests, two of discomfort merely; ornamental, scented, and flowering shrubs, and trees promising to be conspicuous and picturesque, so that credit is to be divided — the sea made the site, the adjacent land provided all the becoming plants.

What are the elements in this primitive spot which afford nutriment to vegetation of such varied character? Probably there are few of the beaches of islands within the Great Barrier Reef on which the majority of the plants do not exist. It is typical, therefore, not of isolated experiments on the part of Nature, but of conditions and processes repeated in similitude wheresoever in the region raw sand heals the wounds inflicted by the sea or the grumbling sea retreats before the sibilant, incessant sand.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32