The Ironwood

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.”