Monday, May 25, 2009

Eugenia- A Search for Royalty

Someone commented in an earlier post of mine about a tree called agatelang (Eugenia palumbis). That comment sent me off on a search to find more about this tree that they say is endemic to the Marianas and whose wood is hard and strong making it preferable for tool handles and coconut husking stakes.

The pretty name Eugenia means “well-born” or “royalty” in Greek. They belong to the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) of which the guava (Psidium guajava) is a familiar member. Other members are mountain apples or locally, macopa (Syzygium sp.) and gum trees (Eucaluptus sp.). From my readings, it appears that there are at least four species of trees that are of the agatelang genus in the CNMI: Eugenia palumbis, E. reinwardtiana, E. bryanii and E. uniflora. The first three are supposedly native trees and the last one is introduced.

Agatelang (Eugenia palumbis)
A couple of the locals I’ve talked to say that the agatelang is a very hard wood making it useful for ax and machete handles. I've seen the plant as a small shrub or a small tree up to 2-3 m tall. It grows in the limestone forest or on exposed cliff lines and terraces close to the sea. It is easy to spot once you are familiar with its small opposite growing, elliptic-ovate leaves that are narrow in the ends, thick, and 3.5-6 cm long. It is even easier to spot them when they are flowering. Their tiny white flowers are about 2-5 mm in diameter and resemble other flowers in their family having four round petals and multiple, almost fuzzy looking stamens. Fruits are 1 cm in diameter and they mature into a bright red color. One of the books I read says that E. bryanii is a close relative and “perhaps a variety and not really a species.” With no further clues to the difference, I am not able to tell the difference between the two.

I found an agatelang at Boy Scout Beach in June 2006 that was flowering.
I remember that I shared this excursion with Vincene A., John S. and Monica C. We originally went there to collect the bones of a shore bird called a whimbrel, locally named, kalalang (Numenius phaeopus) that I spotted a few weeks prior.

They were not flowering yet in February of this year. I took DJ hiking at Laderan Tanke Trail and found some in the limestone forest.
They were not flowering early March neither as you can see from these pictures from Old Man by the Sea trail.
Hiking buds: Janice, Joy-Joy, Tali, Laurie, and Noah.I hiked the Nanasu shoreline recently with Laurina to see San Juan Beach and what my friend Sean calls Barbara’s Beach (Hidden Beach) and saw some agatelang flowering, so it seems like the flowering season includes the months of May and June. I'll have to come back in a couple of weeks to see if they bear fruits!
A month later, the agatelang were fruiting! Check out this update and see their attractive red berries.

A’abang (Eugenia reainwardtiana)
These trees are more convincing to me to be the “agatelang” that the natives must have used for coconut husking stakes, rice pounding pestles, walking sticks and posts since I' find them to be taller and easier to visualize as a workable wood. They are medium sized trees (3-8 m). They are understory trees found in both interior and coastal limestone forests.

I had the pleasure of seeing nice examples at the Rota Bird Sanctuary recently during the Easter holiday weekend with my friend, Robyn. Can you see the similarities between the agetelang and a’abang?

Look how beautiful these a’abang trees are in this path. I’m sold! We need to push for more native tree plantings in Saipan that includes the a’abang. Aren't the fruits nice looking? They are supposed to mature from yellow to red like the agatelang's fruit. They look like small guavas to me but tasted a tad bland.
Try them for yourself but watch out for holes like this.

There could be an inch worm inside.

These are Strawberry guavas (Psidium cattleianum) from Honolulu. Don’t they resemble the fruits of the a’abang? These guavas have more pulp than the a'abang, have only one seed and are not as tasty as regular guavas.

A’abang like agatelang is an important wildlife food and it depends on fruit eating birds for seed dispersal. The seeds look like these:

During my recent hike to San Juan and Hidden Beach with my best friend, Laurina, we spotted the nest of a Ruffous fantail or locally, a na’abak (Rhipidura rufifrons saipanensis), evidence of the tree’s importance to the local birds.

The a’abang can grow into thick patches that can make navigating through them exceptionally difficult.

Surinam Cherry or pitanga (Eugenia uniflora)
Lastly, the Surinam Cherry is an introduced fruit tree to the CNMI and it is native to Brazil. The locals call them pitanga and they produce a sweet to spicy-tart red fruit that is longitudinally grooved much like a miniature Chinese lantern.

It was approximately a year ago that the Brownies invited me to talk to them about plants at the Saipan Botanical Garden. Judith accompanied along with the girls and their parents. Between the two of us, we managed to get this blurry picture of a pitanga.

My search for royalty has ended with very satisfying results. Thank you for letting me share and hope we can talk stories again soon.
Ti napu.

The Beachcomber

Want to read more? Look up Plants of Guam (1979, Moore & McMakin), Common Flora and Fauna of the Mariana Islands (2004, Vogt & Williams), Trees and Shrubs of the Northern Mariana Islands (1991, Raulerson and Rinehart), Tropical Trees of Hawai’i (2004, Wood), Trees of Hawai’i (1990, Kepler)HaH, and


Sean said...

At last.

I always hoped you'd return and indeed you are back, rich with lore as always.

Good to see you again, my friend.

I'm thinking Forbidden this weekend or next (ack! I'm running out of weekends!)

Mai said...

The Beachcomber is back!!! After chatting with you today I thought to myself.... "I miss all his lore and reading his blog...." But lo and behold, you're back!!! This makes me happy :)

The Beachcomber said...

Thanks, Sean & Mai. Miss you both and hope that you are doing well. Let's continue to share and talk stories.