Mud, mosquitos, snakes, creepy-crawlies – and the world’s ugliest trees. But they’re fascinating, too.


Swamp thing

I have to start with an admission. I’m no Adonis. Brad Pitt and that Spanish bloke from Zorro – Antonio Something-or-other I think it is, the ladies seem to like him – have nothing to worry about.

At least I can say with a degree of confidence that my limited features have nothing on the hapless individuals featured on a website called – the name of the site alone makes it worth a visit. They proudly claim to be “the home of the facially inept”, and having seen some of the offerings on display, I can’t disagree. They have some howlers.

That’s how things have changed over the years – the Internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for those whose looks aren’t exactly classical. Maybe I’m in with a chance after all.

I’ve always wondered why you seldom see people who look like the back end of a bus in the media. Aliens tuning in to TV from space would be somewhat disappointed to land on this planet after watching our TV output during their travels here. They’d soon realize that not all women have Pamela Anderson’s profile. Unfortunately, very few do.

I remember a friend of mine, German as it happened, an enthusiastic fan of the TV series Dallas and Dynasty at the time, going over to the States for a visit. She was very much looking forward to it; after all, she knew exactly what to expect – she’d been watching Americans on the telly for years. She came back a little despondent, with only one thing to say on her return: “It’s not much like Dynasty – they’re all as ugly as we are”.

Am I the only person who actually wouldn’t complain about seeing more unattractive people on television? Perhaps that busty bird from Lost who always has problems with her top shirt buttons becoming mysteriously unfastened could be portrayed by a 50-year-old dragon from behind the counter at Woolworths. You know, the one with the mustache.

I’m not putting forward a particularly good argument here, on reflection. Television should obviously be a beautifully perfect place, where such common monstrosities as fat people, overbites, unfetching haircuts and cellulite are nowhere to be seen.

In the western world, if you want to see ugly people, just walk outside. Ugly people abound. The plant world tends to be a little more attractive, though. But there are exceptions. The rather hideous crown of thorns plant, with its insidious little thorns and silly little flowers perched on top is certainly up there in the ugly scheme of things.

Tree-wise, one single example stands out as being perhaps the ugliest tree on the planet – the mangrove. Known as mai chai laen in Thai, it’s an odd beast; decidedly weird. Initially, mangrove trees seem to have little going for them, with their twisted branches and confused root systems that look as if they can’t decide what they want to do.

For many people, mangrove swamps look like muddy, unpleasant places filled with mosquitoes, snakes and spiders. Well actually, they are. But if you’re willing to do some squelching around in the mud, you’ll find that hidden in the twisted vines and branches are plenty of reptiles, wild looking insects, crabs and other animals that make their homes in the mangroves.

If you do decide to brave the reptiles and creepy crawlies that make their home there, you may be surprised by the variety of odd sounds you will hear. The mangrove is about the only tree I know that causes so much noise. Go anywhere near these things at low tide, and the mud sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Snap, crackle and pop from all directions.

You’ll always find mangroves at or near the water’s edge in protected marine habitats, which means that while you are likely to find mangroves along the calm banks of the east coast of Phuket, you’re less likely to see them on the more wave-beaten west coast shores of the island. Having not scanned every inch of the west coast personally, I know that somebody will no doubt prove me wrong on that point.

So what makes a mangrove tree a mangrove tree? There are several features that all species of mangrove trees have in common: A tolerance to conditions of high soil salinity and being submerged in water or waterlogged soil, as well as a tolerance of low oxygen conditions.

Most plants produce seeds that don’t sprout until they are planted. Mangrove seeds are different because they actually start to grow into a new plant while they are still attached to the parent tree. These specialized seeds are called seedlings, and once they’re ready, they use the water around them to disperse themselves.

In the middle of a mangrove clump (known as a mangle, if you want to get technical), the amount of salt in the soil can be up to three times the amount found in seawater, believe it or not. Mangrove trees are adapted to survive in salty soils that would kill most other kinds of plants, which is the main reason why mangrove trees can thrive in areas too harsh for other vegetation.

One type of mangrove, the black mangrove, performs an impressive feat – it uses snorkels, called pneumatophores. These structures are covered with small holes that allow the roots to breathe in the same way a snorkel lets you breathe while underwater.

I know the mud in which these trees live isn’t exactly the most pleasant stuff in the world, if you were to scoop up just one teaspoon of mud from a mangrove forest and look at it under a very strong microscope, you’d find that it contains more than 10 billion bacteria which, I’m told, is among the highest concentrations found in marine mud anywhere.

This bacteria helps break down leaf litter and other bits of natural material, and probably a lot more less-natural debris that finds its way there, in turn producing sources of nutrition for plants and animals, making mangrove swamps an important coastal habitat.

The mangrove may not be the prettiest tree in the world, but at least it does a decent job. Facially inept humans, on the other hand, well, I’m not so sure. And if I ever suggest that generously cleavaged ladies with blouse button problems should be replaced on TV by women with mustaches, someone please shoot me. Then dump me in a mangrove swamp.



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