A lot of bad and wrong things have been said about the trees in the Family Casuarinacea! It is an ancient and highly evolved family, with no close relatives. People often feel uncomfortable with something different, and to European eyes, these small trees were certainly strange. The family has at least ninety species which can be found in all Australian states and in south-east Asia. There are sixty-six species found in Australia and some, like our Black She-oak, only grow here.
The unique feature of these trees is that the leaves are very tiny, often only visible under a magnifying glass. The green bits are actually thin stems, with the leaves appearing as paler rings about one centimetre apart. On our casuarina, each ring has six-eight tiny leaf teeth.
Many early European settlers in Australia were scared of these trees. They did not like the way they looked with the foliage appearing to be black. They thought the sound made by the wind in the foliage was ghostly.
One writer said that they were only fit to be planted in cemeteries. A more practical reason to dislike the casuarinas was that their wood is very hard and difficult to work. The nick name ‘Iron wood’ was very popular. This uneasiness persisted even though many early houses had rooves made from casuarina shingles.
In Florida, America, our trees have a very bad reputation. In fact, they have been declared the number one noxious weed! In the 1880s, somebody thought casuarinas would be useful as windbreaks and their seeds were brought from Australia and sown in long rows. Being tough and adaptable Aussies, they soon spread everywhere and their dense litter excluded the local native plants. They now have a large price on their heads (or should that be trunks?).
These dark green trees have had many names, some of them very misleading. They are definitely not related to oak trees, although the dressed timber may have some resemblance to a European red oak. They are certainly not pines, although many people refer to them as Australian pines because their highly modified outer shoots look like pine needles.
The name Casuarina comes from a Malaysian word, ‘Kasuari’, which is their name for the Cassowary bird. Somebody thought the drooping foliage looked like this bird’s tail. Another peculiar attribute of most casuarinas is that they are dioecious. This means that the male and female flowers appear on different plants. In spite of the name She-oak, it is the male plants that are easiest to identify.
In spring, the tip of every shoot bears many small brown flowers and their pollen blows in the wind. The rarer small red female flowers on different plants wait to be dusted so that they can produce the familiar cylindrical cones, which contain many seeds. One species of black cockatoos dines exclusively on these seeds.
There are lots of these trees growing around here. They are not spooky… just genuine, strong Aussies who cope well with dry and windy conditions. To hear their shimmering music, visit the west end of Lake Conjola, near the boat ramp and jetty on a breezy day. It is wonderful.