Mangrove, the magical tree


S Balakrishnan
Forests, we all have realized by now (though a bit late), are essential for the very survival of humankind. So, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March the International Day of Forests in 2012 to celebrate and raise awareness on the importance of all types of forests. UNO’s Forum on Forests and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) coordinate the ‘forest’ activities. The theme for 2023 is “Forests and Health.” No doubt the forests give so much to our health besides getting us rain, purifying the water & air, providing food and medicines, etc. But I am not here to lecture on this theme. Instead, this is about Mangrove Forests which are an integral and important part of the forest /coastal ecology. I can write only what I have experienced, not about alpine forests.
Mangrove trees and shrubs thrive along the coastline at tropical and subtropical coastal areas that are spread near the equator as the mangroves cannot survive in freezing temperatures.  They grow along tidal estuaries, in salt marshes, and on muddy coasts; there are said to be about 80 different mangrove species- from shrubs to trees - but they all grow in areas with low oxygen soil and high salinity where slow moving waters allow fine sediments to accumulate. The uniqueness of mangrove forests is their dense tangle of exposed supporting roots (prop roots) that make the trees look like standing on stilts above the water. This tangle of roots allows the trees to handle the daily rise and fall of tides, which means that most mangroves get flooded at least twice a day. The roots also slow the movement of tidal waters causing sediments to settle out of the water and build up the muddy bottom with nutrients. This makes the bottom a breeding haven for fishes and other organisms. Mangrove trees grow to a height of anywhere from 30 ft. to 70 ft., depending on the variety. Most mangrove species constantly produce adventitious roots from the trunk; this means the roots descend in arched fashion to strike at some distance from the parent stem, only to send up new trunks. It produces drumstick-like long pods that germinate while in the tree itself; and it is so devised that when it vertically falls off the three it gets stuck in the mud and starts growing up. These unique qualities make the mangroves magical.
The mangroves play an important role in reducing damage to the coast by wind, wave and floods; they also prevent coastal erosion. They capture and hold carbon; so it is crucial that we conserve mangrove forests that are facing threat due to prawn culture and other so-called developmental activities. Among all the countries, Indonesia has the largest area under mangrove.
The first time I saw mangrove was in Andamans in 1978. As I once travelled to North Andamans, the ferry travelled through wide creeks with such a lush growth of mangrove cover on either bank. The thick green leaves glistened in the sun as the ferry tore through the placid creek waters. As one travels to Baratang Island to watch the amazing limestone caves and mud volcano, one travels through the canopy of mangrove forests in the speedboat. It is an unforgettable experience! You get to watch the mangroves in close quarters and get to understand them better. You can also gingerly walk on the bamboo bridge built over the prop roots. The slender branches turn out to be strong wood. I cherish a few mangrove driftwood (collected in Andamans during 1978-80) that resemble animal/bird heads. I wonder if they now allow to ‘smuggle’ such things out of the Islands.
In India, we find mangrove forests in bits & pieces in all the States/UTs along our coastline, starting from Gujarat in the West to Bengal in the East, and also in A&N Islands. Bengal tops with 43% of India’s total mangrove forest area. The Sundarban in Bengal is the most well known mangrove area in India. In Tamil Nadu, the Pichavaram backwater is a wonderful mangrove spot. It is about 200 kms from Chennai but it has been eluding me to visit.
In Tamil, mangrove is appropriately called Alaiyathi (alai=wave, aathi=to reduce/lessen) tree, as mangrove reduces the force of waves. This was proved during the tsunami of 2004. The year 2023 calls for giving, not just taking, because healthy forests will bring healthy people, be it the mangrove forests down South in Andamans or the forests up North in the Himalayas.
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