Sandy’s Garden ... The Sala Tree

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One of the delights of travelling is to find fascinating sights, sounds and scents of which one had no prior experience.

I never imagined, in my wildest dreams when I was young, that I would enjoy countries which were totally foreign to me and completely unknown in reality to even my geography teacher; and I am full of admiration for the skill and enthusiasm with which he imbued his pupils with an interest in lands which he himself had only read about and had never seen … and remember, I am talking of the 1950s, before the days of television let alone the internet and world-wide web. Thank you, Mr. McAlpine.

Nowadays, cheap air travel … and yes, compared to past decades, air travel today is cheap … allied to affordable hotel accommodation and cruise liner fares make it possible for me, and millions like me, to visit far-flung parts of the world which I never dreamed I would see and experience. Speaking personally, I enjoy looking at strange plants; and one which I met recently in Cambodia intrigued me … the Sala tree.

The Sala tree is a remarkable survivor from the age of the dinosaurs. In an era when the discovery of the fossilised remains of dinosaurs excites us; when we love to speculate about what caused the dinosaurs to die out; and when we enjoy films featuring ‘dinosaurs’ as rendered by today’s image technology, we can actually find living examples of a type of tree which foliage-eating dinosaurs grazed! To be pedantic, the Sala tree is a tree fern and is the world’s oldest living fossil plant; and it boasts the botanical name Cyathea spinulosa.

Sala trees are native to a variety of habitats ranging from tropical rain forests to temperate woodlands in India and in many parts of Asia, including Thailand, China, Taiwan, and Japan. They resist being cultivated outside their natural habitats for some reason which is unknown to me and are very seldom found outside that their native continent. Happiest in a sheltered, moist position, it should come as no surprise … given its remarkable ability to survive … to learn that it has the ability to recover from maltreatment which would kill most plants and tolerates frost pretty well. Its trunk can grow up to eight metres in height … say 25 feet in old money … although the majority are content to reach six metres, or a little short of 20 feet. From the top of the trunk spring dark green fronds about three metres long … say, 10 feet … arching out gracefully rather in the manner of an umbrella and reminiscent of nothing so much as a fern, as one would expect. The Sala trees found in Cambodia are generally rather smaller than those found in China, seldom growing to more than 5 metres.

Now protected throughout China, the Sala tree is greatly valued in geological, geographical, soil and vegetation research as a living link with a world of aeons ago; and Sala trees now need some protection from the depredations of mankind, some felled as a consequence of the drying out of land from which other species of trees have been cleared in the interests of farming and some falling victim to climate change as rainfall patterns alter and they are denied the moist summers they enjoy. The stems of the fronds are used in traditional Chinese medicine to strengthen muscles and joints; and the pulp of the nasty-smelling fruit borne by the tree in the late summer is traditionally fed to chickens to protect them from a range of diseases. The Chinese also believe that this pulp inhibits mange in dogs.

Did I ever think I’d see a tree which was eaten by herbivorous dinosaurs? Dream on! Yet I have had that privilege; and I am delighted to report that Sala trees are alive and well.