On the Yuraygir coastal walk, you cannot fail to notice the presence of the coastal Pandanus tectorius – also called the Screw Pine or Palm. It grows slowly along the dunes of many of the 43 beaches encountered on this walk, as well as along the headlands and hind dune tracks traversed by walkers. It can be almost mistaken for a hardy tussock grass when very young, but is unmistakeable in its shrubby and tree forms up to 6 m tall.
The tree is typically supported by aerial roots around the base of its spiny trunk. It has spirally arranged long leaves (up to 150 cm), which resemble a pineapple in form, and leave a distinctive spiral scarring of the trunk when the leaves fall. Occasionally you can find dark, mysterious groves of pandanus.
This hardy tree is abundant along much of the Yuraygir coast because that coast is largely unmodified by human practices. While almost emblematic of the Yuraygir coastal region (but that title must surely go to the coastal Emu?), Pandanus can also be found on much of east coast Australia, north from Port Macquarie. Pandanus tectorius is also found in parts of Indonesia, Polynesia and the Pacific Islands where it is sometimes cultivated for its many uses.
There are many Pandanus species known, of which over 20 can be found in Australia. The genus is dioecious – ie having different male and female plants. The male flowers are spikes formed by fused stamens, while the more familiar female flowers, which occur on different trees, are fused, forming a cylindrical body that becomes a more spherical and globular aggregate fruit, initially green, then ripening and loosening into individual seeds when orange. These fall to the base of the tree and can be washed away during storm events. They are buoyant enough to travel some distance from parent trees, and can survive several months to readily reproduce elsewhere.
Pandanus have many uses and continue to be economically important in a number of regions. Interestingly, another common name for Pandanus is breadfruit. When ripe, Pandanus fruits contain an oily, protein rich, nutty tasting seed which can be eaten raw or cooked (usually roasted). This was an important food for coastal Aboriginals. The fruit pulp can be eaten after cooking and is a key food source in parts of Micronesia. Aboriginal people baked it in hot sand or ash, removing an irritant to the mouth if eaten raw.
Seeds are also used in creation of jewellery in some parts of Micronesia while branches and the trunk are sometimes used in construction. It is therefore an extremely useful coastal plant and it has been cultivated in many places within its range.
Pandanus fruits are also useful providers of food for fruit bats and wide range of other native animals including marine turtles, fish and parrots. It has been observed at least since the arrival of Europeans, that north Australian Aboriginal people were known to have made a mild alcoholic drink from Pandanus fruits as well.
The young, inner leaf shoots are also edible, while older leaves have found many uses in a wide range of communities where it grows or is cultivated, including basket and mat weaving, skirts, sails on outrigger canoes and roof thatching. Leaves are used in Sri Lanka as flavouring in some curries and are regarded to have medicinal properties in some places as well.
These days on the Yuraygir coastal walk, the Pandanus is regarded as mostly just a beautiful, if unruly plant that can take many aesthetically interesting forms. It is a fantastic provider of shade, and on hot days you can find beachgoers dotted along the Yuraygir coast lying gratefully underneath them. It goes without saying that when the massive, heavy and sharp pineapple sized fruits fall, you would probably want not to be lying directly below…
I have to confess a ‘guilty pleasure’. When I find that a fruit has fallen and split open on the beach, I like to grab handfuls of the individual fruits and scatter-throw them in a methodically random sort of way up into the dunes behind the parent – one here, one there. I leave some on the ground to be eaten by other wild animals, including the crabs, but I figure this might promote a slightly wider distribution of possible future Pandanus plants than nature might have calculated for. I also figure that there is probably no one that would really mind that outcome…