Whenever I take a closer look at the natural world, I almost always step back from it again with a fresh perspective on my role within society. Mangroves in particular are a species we humans can learn a lot from.
The mangrove demonstrates a tenacious ability to adapt to environmental conditions and tremendous resilience in the face of natural and man-made headwinds. And although most trees don’t lend themselves to such adjectives, mangroves can be aptly described as “hospitable,” “generous,” even “maternal” when you consider their capacity for nurturing multifarious life-forms.
The mangrove biomes, or “mangals,” create unique ecosystems that serve as nature’s incubators for developing marine life. The waters they inhabit, in the intertidal zones of tropical and sub-tropical coastlines and estuaries, vary from 100% salt-saturated to freshwater mixed with seawater to salt-free.
Twelve of the more-than-60 mangrove species worldwide are found in the western hemisphere. In the Caribbean, they usually grow in communal groups of three to four species. The black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) is a flowering plant of the acanthus family, often found in company of red (Rhizophora mangle) and white mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa). White mangroves grow further inland from black, which themselves grow inland from red, being less tolerant of saline conditions.
Black mangroves are identified by their distinctive, pencil-like breathing tubes, called pneumatophores, which grow vertically from the mud to just above the highest water level. Like the red mangrove‘s prop roots, these pneumatophores provide air to the underground and underwater roots. The trees grow up to 50 feet in the tropics.
The name of the black mangrove derives from the dark brown, almost-black heartwood, which sloughs off to reveal orange-red sapwood. Unusually, the heartwood is less dense than the sapwood, which sinks in water while the heartwood floats. The wood is strong, heavy, hard, and difficult to work due to its interlocking grain and oily texture. The dark green leaves are narrow and oval with pointed ends. Unlike the red mangrove, which expels salt (a natural and vital survival tactic) through its roots, the black mangrove does so through its leaves, which appear whitish due to crystallization and encrustation.
The white flowers of black mangroves bloom in June and July, and their nectar is used to produce high-quality “mangrove honey.” Like other species, reproduction is viviparous. Seeds, encased in the egg-shaped fruit capsule, germinate in midsummer and fall into the water. Saplings also produce seeds. Unlike the pencil-shaped propagules of the red mangrove, the black mangrove’s seeds are small and oval, and can survive for up to one year before the sapling takes root.
Did You Know?
The nation of Belize boasts the highest overall percentage of forest cover of any of the Central American countries.
A 2010 study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) found that Belize’s mangrove cover, including scrubs and savannas, extended over 84,548 acres or 3.4% of Belize’s territory.
Countless Blessings and Benefits
The mangrove ecosystem is a sustainable resource that benefits and supports coastal human, marine and botanical populations. All species within these coastal forests work in tandem. They filter upland run-offs and ensnare tidal debris and detritus in their convoluted root systems. They stabilize the shoreline against erosion, provide protection for property and lives, minimizing the impact of storms, tidal fluctuations and hurricanes by acting as a buffer against the winds and waves.
Mangrove mangals are a godsend, especially in the developing world, where millions are dependent on them for significant daily needs. The wood is utilized for fuel, building boats and furniture; the bark for dye and medicine; the leaves for tea and animal feed, the fruit as a food source.
A huge variety of bird and marine life, including many threatened and endangered species, would not survive without the beneficence of the mangrove shelter in which they thrive. The wetlands provide safe harbor, feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for a great variety of fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife.