Mangroves: Marvelous Muck Masters

Red Mangrove cigar-like seed pod

I did an unknown favor years ago that may stump some stuffy botanist in the near or distant future, and a mangrove helped me.

Mangroves are coastal trees that don’t mind wet salty feet. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. They tolerate salt. The Red Mangrove is found at or in the water, and endures flooding.  The Black Mangrove is found just above the water and can take occasional flooding well.  The White Mangrove likes the highest ground and can tolerate flooding once in a great while. Their associate, the Buttonwood, is not a mangrove but lumped in with them because they are companion plants.

Many years ago I lived in the center of the state (Florida) in an apartment complex that had swales. One particular swale always flooded and what ever bush the complex planted there died. On one of my foraging trips I brought back a Black Mangrove seedling, raised it a bit on my balcony then planted it with a stake in the wet spot. When last I checked it was still happily growing some 21 years later. Mangroves used to grow inland in ancient times but have been coastal plants for eons. I can’t help but wonder if some day some researcher will find that tree, or its remains, and wonder how it got so far inland.

All four shrubs/trees mentioned have some use, grow near each other, and together create a resource, should you ever be stranded on a warm deserted island.

The Red Mangrove is Rhizophora mangle (rye-ZOFF-for-ruh MAN-glee.) When one mentions costal bushes walking on water it’s the Red Mangrove that comes to mind. Their seed pods litter the beaches at certain times of the year. In central Florida they are bushes but the farther south one goes towards the equator the larger they become eventually reaching tree status.  Its dried leaves make a nice tea with tannin. The same leaves have also been used as tobacco and make wine, as can young fruit.  Further, its fruit is actually not a fruit at all but a hypocotyl, an embryonic root. It starts out as a bud but grows somewhat like a curved, thin-ringed cigar and when dry can be smoked like one, if you snip off each end. You can also make a whistle out of it. The bitter inner portion of the same hypocotyl when green can be eaten as an emergency food cooked well in a lot of water. By the way, they can float for a year in salt water before rooting. Recent research shows extracts made from the bark of the Red Mangrove can reduce gastric ulcers, is antimicrobial and contains antioxidants. Red Mangrove twigs can be used to clean teeth.

Making tea from the leaves is quaint, wine’s adventurous, and a whistle fun. Smoking and eating the seed pods, however, suggests your life isn’t going the way it should. And if you are cleaning your teeth with a mangrove twig perhaps your life has fallen on hard times.

Its botanical name, Rhizophora mangle, is in part from Greek and part Taino. Rhizo means root; phora, from pherein, means to bear. Mangle (via Potuguese) comes from the word, mangue, which is what the Taino Indians called the Red Manrove. The word “mangrove” also comes from mangue.

Black Mangrove lime-bean like seeds

The sprouting seeds of the Black Mangrove, Avicennia germinans, (av-ih-SEN-ee-uh JER-min-ans) can also be used as a famine food, if cooked. They are toxic raw and resemble huge pointed lima beans. Seedlings are also edible cooked. The Black Mangrove’s leaves are often coated with salt, which makes collecting convenient should you be needing salt on your hot, equatorial  island. Avicennia means “of Avicenna.” Avinenna was an Arabian physician in the tenth century AD. The genus was named after him. Germinans is germinating, starting to root while on the tree.

Traditionally nothing is edible on the White Mangrove, Laguncularia racemosa, la-gun-koo-LAY-ree-uh ray-sem-OH-sa.) Its bark has a long herbal history for treating various ailments. The shurb’s high tannin content makes it astringent. It was used as a fever tonic to treat scurvy, dysentery, and skin ulcers. It is reported to have anti-tumor activity.  Enthobotanical studies do not show native Indians eating the leaves of the White Mangrove in the Northern Hemisphere. There is a report (Hocking 1997) that the leaves (right) are boiled for greens in Scandinavia and Great Britain. Since they do not grow there they must be imported.  Laguncuiaria means like a Lagunculo, for its flask-shaped seed.  Racemosa is racime-like, think of a flower spike shaped like a tail.

And the poor Buttonwood, Conocarpus erectus, (kawn-oh-KAR-pus ee-RECK-tus)  never viewed on its own. The Buttonwood makes a nice landscape tree, is high in tannin and can be used to make a smokeless, high grade charcoal. The wood of the C. erectus and C. erectus var. sericeus can be used to smoke fish and meat.  Conocarpus means cone shaped fruit and erectus, upright. Sericeus (suh-REE-see-uhs) means silky.

Warning: In Australia there is a white mangrove (Excoecaria agallocha) the sap of which can make you blind.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: The Red Mangrove has cigar-like fruit and ovate to lanceolate leaves slightly wider at the end. The  Black Mangrove, also called the Honey Mangrove, has seeds that resemble gigantic lima beans and small ovate leaves. The White Mangrove has roundish leaves with little two little bumps on the stem and flask shaped fruit.  The Buttonwood is buttons that go from green to red

TIME OF YEAR: All three mangroves can seed all year but they favor spring. As evergreens the leaves are available year round.  The Buttonwood is showy year round.

ENVIRONMENT: If you’re not standing in smelly tidal muck with all kinds of insects bothering you you are not in the right environment. Salty coastal areas of salt and brackish water, and nearby higher dry spots for the White Mangrove and Buttonwood.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Red: leaves for tea, smoking or wine, fruit for wine, smoking, inner starchy core for survival food. Black: Sprouting seeds boiled, salt off leaves. White: Reportedly boiled leaves edible. I have not tried said. Buttonwood is not edible.


{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Josh Yingling May 3, 2012, 8:05 pm

    Another lil tidbit iwas wade fishing and like always, looking at different plants for my primitive ways addiction. I was wondering how to get fire in an area surrounded by water and a red mangrove made sense since the branches die and dry over the water they are incredibly tight grained and very hard to cut, I did not get a friction fire started with it but to me it was amazing how this wood gets so hard hanging over the water! It was very good to burn though burned go quite awhile. I’d like to give the wood another chance at starting fire but it is brittle and I kept breaking my spindle.

  • Kisi Lee March 18, 2014, 9:54 pm

    Hello I was wondering if you know what the “mangrove flowers” a friend said was made into a sauce with peanuts on Fadiouth island, Senegal are the same flowers as the red/black/or white mangrove spoken of here?

    Could it be another estuary plant?

  • Amber December 12, 2014, 10:45 pm

    The conocarpus erectus has apparently been introduced extensively in karachi, Pakistan. But it never seems to flower or bear fruit? Why is that?

    • Green Deane December 13, 2014, 6:35 am

      Too hot or too cold or too humid or too dry… could be many reasons.

  • Ahmed April 3, 2015, 3:32 am

    Which of the mangroves contains oil and in the leaves or seeds.? Thanks

    • Green Deane April 3, 2015, 6:57 am

      I would think very little in either. The “seeds” are actually small plants.

  • Ahmed April 3, 2015, 3:34 am

    Does any of these plants mentioned contains vegetable oil? And in the shoot or seed?

  • Nessie June 18, 2015, 9:05 pm

    How do you make tea from the leaves? Do you just use fresh leaves? Do they need to be dried first? Do the leaves need to be processed first like true tea leaves do?

  • Amber July 23, 2016, 9:38 pm

    How do you make the whistle?

  • everet presley December 9, 2017, 9:43 pm

    how to make a whistle from red mangrove wood ?

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