Salt tolerant plants


The casuarina tree lines many of the beaches of Phuket, and holds many in place.


Beach bums of the plant world

“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,

Oh I do like to be beside the sea,

Oh I do like to troll along the prom, prom, prom,

Where the brass band plays tiddly om, pom, pom…”

I haven’t lost the plot – honestly. Though I have to admit that there are likely to be a few puzzled faces around the island. At least three or four of the half-dozen readers of this column, anyway. The bottom line is that anyone not from England won’t have the faintest idea what I’m prattling on about.

Those that are familiar with the ditty may well already be singing the next line of this bizarrely familiar song, written in 1907 by a dead bloke called John A. Glover-Kind. Brits or their visitors might have heard it played by a dodgy brass band full of bored pensioners trying to bring some degree of cheer to a typical English so-called ‘summer’, or by one of those old, re-electronic Wurlitzer organ things.

I should explain. The British are a bit odd. I should know; I’m one of them. We actually like to stroll aimlessly along the ‘promenade’, or footpath that seems to run along the dry side of every British seaside beach.

We somehow derive a sense of perverse pleasure from the realization that we’re making the most of our summer, despite the fact that we’re wrapped up in several layers of clothing to try and keep warm, and it’s teeming down with rain. “I’m at the seaside, and I’m going to enjoy it”, etc. That’s before the hypothermia sets in, of course.

On the odd occasion that the air temperature does rise above 20 degrees, you’ll even find adventurous souls who feel that the murky depths of seaside beaches are tempting enough to want to go in for a dip. This noble intention goes pear-shaped within seconds when they realize that the water temperature has a long way to go before it catches up. You can always tell English sea bathers by their various shades of blue.

Let’s face it – English seaside towns don’t have a great deal in common with the beach resort areas of Phuket, apart from sand and salty water. Missing here are an old pier with a crumbling theater perched on the end, bingo, beach huts (what are they all about, by the way?), game arcades and gypsy fortune tellers.

How about those ridiculous cheap black hats that English seaside visitors insist on wearing? The ones that, for some unfathomable reason, invite passers by to ‘kiss me quick”? Perhaps not. Or the saucy postcards that may well have been a bit raunchy when they were created in the fifties but today have just become a bit sad.

Then there’s the food. Not good. Candy floss (basically sugar on a stick), pickled cockles and whelks that were well past their sell-by date several months before they reached their unsuspecting customers, and fish and chips. Hang on; come to think of it I could actually murder a cod and chips wrapped in that delicious-smelling, vinegar-sodden newspaper.

Anyway, back to sunny Phuket – more specifically, our seaside, and the plants that grow here. There are plenty of plants here that will thrive forever in regular soil with the odd drop of rain every now and then to keep them looking chirpy, but what about plants that are in areas directly exposed to the sea and all it produces?

The main thing to consider is how close these plants will be to ocean wind and spray.  Weirdly, wind often puts greater stress on plants than salt spray. Direct exposure on the beach is obviously the most difficult for plants to tolerate.  Even here we can get some days of fairly relentless wind and sea-spray. There aren’t that many plants that can cope with that kind of stress, but the ones that do are impressive in their own way.

The sea lettuce is one. It’s not the most inspiring plant in the world, as all it really does is sits there in the sand and grows. Yes, I know that cynics would question what else we could expect from a plant, but this one is possibly the chartered accountant of the plant world – nobody really notices it’s there.

It’s a survivor though – you only need to see how many of these thrive in nothing but sand at places like Karon beach to realize how little they need to keep them alive.

Come to think of it, Karon has a few survivors. There are a couple of ground dwellers there that you could even confuse as being one and the same from a distance. The sea morning glory and the sea bean. Both trail themselves along the sand and produce vivid purple flowers, and both survive quite happily in 100% sand.

The bottom line is that native seaside plants are by far the best choices as far as what to put in your garden-by-the-sea. If you travel to any beachside areas on the island, you’ll see an abundance of plant life. Actually, you’ll probably see very few beaches that are all-sand – that’s not the way it works.

Nature tends to use various ground-cover plants to hold sand in place, preventing beach erosion which in turn prevents the plants from disappearing too. Exactly what the sea beans, lettuces and morning glories are doing in their own unassuming fashion.

All over the island, you’ll probably see different patches of plant varieties and a fair bit of mixture. It seems to work, anyway – this ‘nature’ thing seems to know what it’s doing.

The Madagascar periwinkle is another ground cover that does well here. It’s a weird little shrub, with shiny oval leaves and distinctive five-lobed flowers that are either white or purple – nothing in between, for some inexplicable reason. You’ll see them spring up without warning all over the place where you least expect them. Not a plant you need to work particularly hard to nurture – it almost does all the work for you.

Then there are the trees. There would be little point in looking at salt-tolerant plants and ignoring a few obvious ones – the coconut palm, the pandanus (‘screw pine’) and the casuarina. Again, these sand-dwellers are a familiar sight on our beaches. If they’re happy there, they’ll do just as well in your garden at home.

So cheat. Who cares. Have a look at what nature has done, and copy it – I won’t tell a soul, as long as you promise not to whistle “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” or wear a hat inviting me to kiss you quick. By the way, does anyone know a good spot in Phuket for vinegar-sodden, newspaper-wrapped fish and chips?



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