The tree that stands “just on the spot where the land becomes sand” is an ironwood, a tree that comes from Australia and the warm islands of the South Pacific. Ironwoods are hardy and can survive in harsh conditions. They can grow in salty, sandy, or dry soil. They can brave bad storms and burning sunshine. For this reason, many ironwoods are planted along shorelines in places like Hawai‘i, where they keep the land from washing away. Ironwood trees can grow as tall as 150 feet, so Hawaiians also use them as windbreaks along fields of papaya or coffee.
The ironwood has long, slender, drooping needles and one-inch spiky cones that look like tiny brown pineapples. Its wood is red like beef and hard like oak. In the old days, the wood was used to beat bark into tapa cloth or carved into war clubs. Today it is used for making fences.
Scientists call the tree Casuarina equisetifolia [cazz-you-a-reena eck-wee-settee-folee-ah]. In English it is also known as “common ironwood,” “beefwood,” and “sheoak,” because of the sh-sh-sh sound the wind makes as it blows through the shaggy needles. The ironwood looks like a pine tree from far away, so Hawaiians named it paina [pie-nuh]. Other Polynesians call it toa [to-uh], which means “warrior tree” or “brave tree.”
Legends about the Ironwood
The ironwood grows throughout Australia and the islands known collectively as Oceania. Different Polynesian cultures have different stories about this unusual tree.
In Fiji, legend tells of the sky child whose ironwood staff grew in one night into a tree that reached heaven. He climbed to the sky and helped his father beat his enemies, then returned to earth and married the serpent god’s daughter.
Tongan legend says that only one chief dared trying to chop down the ironwood. His men spat blood the color of its inner wood, died, and were left in the tall ferns as the tree sprouted anew. Finally, Ono heard of their failure and came with his magic spade. He dug carefully, cutting the taproot in two with a mighty blow. Out popped the head of a demon. With another huge blow, he split the skull of the demon. Tongans say that groves of ironwood sprang from the chips made by Ono’s spade.
Tahitians believed that ironwoods came from the bodies of fallen warriors, whose blood turned into red sap and hair into long needles. The tree’s ironlike wood was carved into weapons, which were believed to possess mana, or magical powers.
In Hawai‘i, the tree became a symbol of faithfulness. Japanese people who came to work in the sugar cane fields used ironwood branches as gateway decorations in their New Year’s festival remembering Matsue and Teoya, whose love under the pines increased with the years. Other islanders say the ironwood has mysterious powers, and that in the shadow of the tree at full moon, secrets of the future can be heard.