Mangrove: Symbol of Strength and Support

The genus name for mangrove is Rhizophorais, which comes from the Greek word rhiza meaning “root” and phoros meaning “bearing,” a reference to its stilt-like roots. The trees are highly adaptable, being the only ones that are salt-tolerant. They literally breathe through their roots, which take up the salt water and excreate it throught thick waxy leaves.  

Mangroves are located along river and ocean coastlines in tropical and subtropical locations. Their roots and branches rise from the mud, sand and water like long and sturdy fingers that  support the trees against the battering of the sea and changing tide. Higher up, thick waxy leaves filter out and excrete the salt from the water. Worldwide, there are between 50 and 100 different species of mangroves, the most common being black mangroves, buttonwood mangroves, white mangroves and red mangroves. They can grow as small shrubs or reach heights of 40 feet, depending on species.

Indonesia and Brazil have the greatest number of mangrove forests, and Australia comes in third with nearly 18% of its coastline (14,000 square kilometers) covered in mangrove. In the United States, mangrove cover about 2,500 square kilometers (about 1,500 square miles), most of them in southern Florida.

Mangrove forests provide many benefits. It’s estimated that two-thirds of the fish we eat spend part of their life in mangroves. This is because the underwater roots provide an ideal protected environment for young fish. Because their roots hold the soil in place, they prevent erosion and degradation of the coastline during hurricanes and storm surges. They store 10 times more carbon in the mud than land-based ecosystems, which is a major defense against rapid climate change. And they reduce ocean acidification, which helps to prevent coral bleaching. A case has been made by some researches that mangroves do more for humanity than any other ecosystem on Earth.

Increasingly, mangroves are being threatened by rising sea-level, water pollution and in some cases being cut down to provide better ocean views. They’re battered by wave-strewn trash, goats eat them and barnacles choke them. Of native mangrove around the world, 35% have been destroyed, mostly due to shrimp farming. Once gone, the land erodes and tides and currents reshape the coastline, making it nearly impossible for them to grow back. After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines’ coastal communities the government planted a million mangroves, but because the trees were planted without regard to locating the right species in the right places, many of them died.

I saw first-hand what I’d read about the method of mangrove propagation. After touring Cerros, a Preclassic Maya site in Belize, my guide took me a few miles down the New River to show me an enormous lake covered in lilypads—so beautiful I’ll never forget it. Coming back, he cut the boat’s engine and steered into the treeline where there wasn’t an inch of land. I helped him push several branches aside and we entered a tiny lagoon where we were surrounded by thin and very tall trees—red mangrove—that converged overhead like the dome of a cathedral. 

I was in awe of the place. So quiet, only the sound of birds.

All around, bobbing on the water like upright string beans, were many dozens of 10-12 inch long seed-pods. Researchers refer to them as “propagules” because they grow high up on the parent tree. The guide pulled one of the pods out of the water and explained that they fall and float some distance to disburse, “looking” for water of suitable depth. Eventually, they become waterlogged and sink to the bottom where they germinate the roots of another mangrove tree. He explained that over many years of growth and decay, the mangrove forest expands and actually creates new land. The water in the lagoon was crystal clear, three-to- five feet deep and there were hundreds of tiny fish swimming around the roots. The experience was so moving, I made it the setting for an important scene in my novel Jaguar Rising: A Novel of the Preclassic Maya.

My guide backing the boat out of the mangrove temple

Mangrove trees symbolize strength and support. The image of their intertwined roots evokes several questions relevant to the human situation. For instance, who and what anchors us in the ebb and flow of everyday living, including the emotional storms that threaten to topple our dreams,  desires or decisons? Who comes to mind as the person or persons who provide regular and ongoing acknowledgment, encouragement or inspiration? Who can we count on when the going gets tough? What can I myself do to stay grounded in purpose? And how can I support the people in my circle?  

In a world moving at hyper-speed, where so many of us are anxious because of the rate of change, the soulful move is the move toward contemplating the source of things deeply rooted in eternity, the things that always are.

Phil Cousineau

One of the privileges of having close connections to family members is that they’re usually the first responders when we’re in need of serious support physically and emotionally. I specify these only to suggest that they’re the bottom-line supporters in times of a crisis, and to note that  there are different kinds of support and people differ in the kinds and frequency of support they can offer. For instance, a close family member or loved one may not be able to offer substantial support to someone whose career or interest is highly technical or top secret; their support comes in the form of caring and empathy. So support can be physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual in nature. Whether it comes from a person, group or institution, we always appreciate it because it builds confidence. And it suggests that “We’re in this together.” 

Like mangrove trees, we can’t grow alone. Individual trees and people need the support of others, particularly those in close proximity. The roots (a metaphor for purpose) of those in our circle are intertwined with ours, each making the other stronger, more stable and secure in who we are and what we’re doing. In times of crisis, such as Covid-19 pandemic, there’s strength in numbers, in particular the people who wear masks and practice frequent hand washing and social distancing. In the tree world, whatever the species, trees that have been infected by a virus or insect sound the alarm throughout the forest so the other trees can protect themselves. And they collaborate in healing the infected tree(s) through the secretion of helpful fungi at the roots. Always, their ultimate concern is for the health of the forest. Offering support to others is not only comforting and confidence building, but it also has survival value and improves the health (quality of life) of those involved.    

A new experience of being, a new rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community — these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

Vaclav Havel   

On the other side of the coin is the consideration of how we support others. At the very least we can acknowledge them whenever they express the joy of accomplishment, no matter how small it may seem to us. It recognizes them as a success in achieving a goal, and minor successes, when acknowledged, snowball into huge successes because of the confidence they build. In my experience, it was commonplace for academics (not so much business professionals) to pass on resources such as books, articles and websites to others, even when the information was outside their interest area. There was a constant and frequent sharing of information, not to gain points or reciprocity, but to support someone’s interest. 

Bottom line: The message of the mangrove is to build our strength by establishing roots that go deep and anchor us in purpose, to support others and show our appreciation for the support we receive, to spread the energies of courage and confidence by standing firm against the headwinds and hold the health of “forest” (society and planet) as the ultimate consideration.     

The roots of violence:

Wealth without work, 

Pleasure without conscience, 

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality,

Science without humanity,

Worship without sacrifice, 

Politics without principles.

Mahatma Gandhi



NOTICE: The 2nd edition of my novel, Soul Train, is now available on It’s about the family life and happenings off and on the train, particularly conversations with passengers, that constitute a black man’s journey of spiritual inquiry.

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