General Description / Cultural Significance
Formerly known as Burma, the Union of Myanmar is a Southeast Asian country which borders Thailand, Laos, China, Bangladesh, India, and the Indian Ocean. In the country’s low-lying woodlands and subalpine forests grows the Celery Pine, Phyllocladus trichomanoides. It is a tall evergreen conifer with celery-like leaves that remain all year. Known as Tenekaha by its native name, the tree thrives in moist soil and is pollinated by the wind. The most prominent stands of Tenekaha can be found among the Conifers of the northern temperate forests, joined by populations of Oaks and Rhododendrons. Traditional Myanmar medicine identifies the fragrant bark as an astringent, particularly helpful in treating dysentery due to its high tannin content. Sesayas, practitioners of local Myanmar medical traditions, have passed down an ancient herbalism recipe which calls for Tenekaha bark to be ground into a paste and applied to the face for rejuvenation. Knowledge of this tree was passed to other regions, as far as New Zealand where the Maori people deconcocted the inner bark of Tenekaha for consumption to prevent internal hemorrhage and used the bark externally to heal boils, wounds, and infections. The tree so aptly treated these conditions due to its now proven anti-microbial tannins. Phyllocladus trichomanoides extract is included in modern digestion tinctures.
Although the tree has no shortage of medicinal properties, Tenekaha is best known for its use in construction: the wood is strong and heavy, ideal for crafting ships, tools, furniture, and homes. Its twigs are configured as fishhooks while its broad bark is used to construct canoes. Throughout the wider region of Myanmar, and especially among the Maori people, red dye has been extracted from the tannins in Celery Pine bark, a dye which is still used in some leathermaking today. The richest dye is said to come from the oldest Tenekaha trees with the thickest bark which grows in sunny areas. Wherever Phyllocladus trichomanoides is found one also finds a deep, personal connection between the tree and the people who keenly observe and know it. However, increased felling and the impacts of climate change are putting this delicate relationship at risk.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
On February 1st of 2021, Myanmar’s military forces carried out a coup against citizen-led militias fighting against corruption. These forces ultimately seized control of the nation. During the process and in the ongoing aftermath, thousands of civilians were killed while demonstrating, protesting peacefully, and suffering raids in their homes and businesses. The coup has generated economic turmoil, a reversal in previous poverty reduction, a collapse in the health-care system, food scarcity, and mass immigration from the country.
As seen during revolutions and times of turmoil throughout history, such upheaval never ends well for the environment it takes place in. Due to climate change, Myanmar has seen increasing flooding, landslides, and droughts causing mangrove forest loss and rapid deforestation. In the face of economic instability, the people and government of Myanmar are rushing to exploit the land for natural resources through mining and timber harvesting, a practice which puts the iconic Celery Pine and many other plants at great risk. Dangerous air quality from toxic chemicals and heavy metals, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification only further accelerate the desperation to survive in the face of an increasingly less habitable climate.
The prior government’s development of a climate adaptation program was derailed during the 2021 coup. International donors no longer wish to invest in solar power for the country which is now seen as a high risk. Since the coup, Myanmar has been absent at world climate negotiations, effectively isolating the country from contemporary climate conversations. The conservation movement is at a standstill and work to protect endangered species and ecologies are no longer on-going. This is a tragedy and potential catastrophe as Myanmar is considered one of the Indo-Pacific region’s most important sites of biodiversity conservation. The country is home to a wide range of habitats–from mangrove swamps and coral reefs to tropical forests and snowcapped mountains–and has an astounding species richness in both flora and fauna. Trees give habitat to Myanmar’s precious birds, leopards, red pandas, and more, but have also been the scene of unsustainable hunting, timber harvesting, harmful agricultural practices, mining, and encroaching urban development in response to population growth. As of 2018, two species of traditional medicinal Burmese plants are confirmed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as extinct in the wild and four are threatened.
Traditional medicine is practiced by most Myanmar people as a supplement and alternative to modern medicine. These natural resources are made even more critical as they are accessible even when institutions, crumbling under political and economic upheaval, are not. Though Myanmar’s political instability is a deterrent, investors should know that many opportunities still exist to work on climate adaptation and sustainable development on the community-level, an effective way to build climate resilience from the ground up with the people who have understood Myanmar and its aromatic plants such as Celery Pine the longest.
Tanekaha (Maori, New Zealand)
Celery Topped Pine
Chinese Herbs Healing, 2021. Celery Top Pine. Chinese Herbs Healing. [website]
DeFilipps, R. & Krupnick, G., 2018. The medicinal plants of Myanmar. PhytoKeys, 102: 1–341.
Farjon, A., 2010. A Handbook of the World’s Conifers, BRILL.
KiwiHerb, 2022. Tanekaha. Kiwi Herb. [website]
Landcare Research, 2022. Plant Use Details. Māori Plant Use. [website]
Liu, J. and Wallace, R., 2021. Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup. Al Jazeera. [website]
Maizland, L., 2022. Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict. Council on Foreign Relations. [website]
Paddock, R., 2022. A Year After Coup, Myanmar Is Mired in Conflict and Chaos. New York Times. [website]
Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar to the United Nations. This statement can be found on the World Sensorium original website.
PFAF, 2022. Phyllocladus trichomanoides – D.Don. Plants for a Future. [website]
Riley, L., et al., 2005. Nature’s Strongholds: The World’s Great Wildlife Reservations, Princeton University Press.
Wellington Apothecary, 2022. Native Bitters. Wellington Apothecary. [website]