Dr Terry Mabbett delves into the extensive history of a tree found throughout the tropics.

SAMAN trees stand out from the rest, but not in a ‘head and shoulders’ way. One essential difference is in the sheer spread of the foliar canopy which makes this tropical evergreen tree inherently wider than it is high when in its natural uncut form. Most evergreen trees of the hot, wet and humid tropics are from the rainforest, but this is a tree of the tropical savanna where it thrives in a full-light environment with space to spread out.

In structure, form and habitat, a first sighting of a Saman tree with its broad, billowing canopy may remind you of native oaks, cemented for centuries in the meadows of lowland England. But as invariably happens with these complex creatures called trees, first impressions are invariably wrong.

My first encounter with Saman trees was on the expansive, savanna-grass lawn at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies on the truly tropical island of Trinidad in the southern Caribbean. These huge trees grow throughout Trinidad and its much smaller sister island of Tobago, as centrepiece amenity and landscape specimens or shade trees for cattle, sheep, horses and goats on the farming landscape.

Forestry Journal: Allowed to spread in full light the Saman tree assumes its ‘natural’ dome-shaped canopy.Allowed to spread in full light the Saman tree assumes its ‘natural’ dome-shaped canopy.

Samanea saman appears to be well at home in West Indian soil, although it is not native to Trinidad and Tobago or other islands in the Caribbean Sea. The tree was introduced some time between 1818 and 1824 by David Lockhart, curator of the Botanic Gardens in the capital city of Port of Spain. The Botanic Gardens are still there, although early 19th-century Trinidad was clearly a very different place, in all respects, to what it is today. Trinidad was seized from Spain in 1797 during the Napoleonic Wars and by 1820 had experienced two decades as a slave-owning, sugar-based British Crown Colony. Slavery was abolished in the 1830s. The islands of Trinidad and Tobago were unified in 1889 and became an independent country within the Commonwealth on 31st August 1962.

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When I touched down in Trinidad in September 1970 to study tropical agriculture, the country was still in turmoil after an abortive military and civil uprising. The so-called Black Power Revolution was fomented by the people of Trinidad and Tobago who perceived no change in attitude to skin colour by the established order even after eight years of independence.

Forestry Journal: Saman is a leguminous tree (family Fabaceae) and in the clade ‘Mimosoideae’ with inflorescences resembling pink powder puffs rather than pea-like flowers.Saman is a leguminous tree (family Fabaceae) and in the clade ‘Mimosoideae’ with inflorescences resembling pink powder puffs rather than pea-like flowers.

The university, with its biggest and best-positioned Saman tree, was at the very centre of simmering unrest. Every afternoon hundreds of university students and staff would gather under the broad, shady canopy to hear speeches castigating the current situation and British colonialism which they perceived to have brought them there.

Looking back, I wonder what the old British colonials who introduced the Saman tree to Trinidad and Tobago would have thought about this insurrection from a population which had been subjugated for 150 years, and also the thoughts of those who had planted the tree when St Augustine was the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA). The ICTA was established during the early years of the 20th century as a centre for research into tropical agriculture and forestry, and from where thousands of British colonial agriculturalists and foresters promptly went forth to service agriculture and forestry throughout the British Empire.

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When native oaks put down roots in lowland England you can reasonably expect the resulting trees to outlive those who plant them, but this is not necessarily the case for equivalent hardwoods in the humid tropics, which grow faster but expire much earlier than comparative temperate trees. And so it was for this Saman tree, which would have grown at the phenomenal rate of 1.5 m per year to achieve a canopy height of 25 m, but a canopy width of 50 m with clearly much more biomass than any meadow oak tree. But when I returned in 1976, the standing tree was gone, reduced to a small stack of vine-covered and rotten logs behind one of the nearby buildings.

Forestry Journal: Grown in a light-restricted area and/or managed, the Saman tree canopy assumes a vase-like shape and form.Grown in a light-restricted area and/or managed, the Saman tree canopy assumes a vase-like shape and form.

Such is frequently the fate of even the biggest trees composed of the hardest of tropical hardwoods when growing in the steamy heat of the equatorial tropics. Texts on tropical botany and forestry regularly describe Samanea saman as a long-lived tree species which by tropical standards it is, but with an average life span of about 80 years Samanea saman is clearly no match for the five or more centuries which can be clocked up by Quercus robur growing in a damp meadow in lowland England. The history of the St Augustine site on Trinidad shows this particular Saman tree clocked up little more than 60 years before it expired. The tree may have outlived some of those who planted it, but only just.

Ancient and veteran trees are often used to put historical events into perspective. Such is the case for a Saman tree which once graced a leafy square in downtown Port of Spain. Inside Woodford Square was the stump of a Saman tree dubbed the hanging tree because it was claimed slaves were hung from its broad horizontal branches during the early years of British colonial rule.

The square was laid out during the governorship (1813–29) of Sir Ralph Woodward, during which time the Samanea saman was introduced to Trinidad as an exotic tree. Whether or not slaves were still being hung during Woodford’s tenure as governor is unclear, but clearly not from the Saman tree planted in the square, still a sapling at the time. Many enslaved people had been hung some 20 years earlier during the tenure of Sir Thomas Picton, the first British governor of Trinidad, called the ‘Trinidad tyrant’ because of his ruthless treatment of enslaved people.

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The tiny sister island of Tobago, though only 25 miles long by 6 miles wide, was ferociously fought over by a collection of colonial powers including Britain, France and the Netherlands. And accordingly a series of old forts still complete with cannon grace the island’s shores, including one called Fort King George, shrouded by a grove of mature Saman trees. I remember standing on the ramparts under the shade of these trees and imagining the cannon firing at a French frigate or a Dutch man-of-war out in the blue sea beyond. This would have been without a Saman tree in sight as it would have happened during the 17th and 18th centuries when Samaea saman was still safely ensconced in its native South and Central America.

Forestry Journal: The biggest and best Saman tree at St Augustine grew rapidly to a massive size in just 60 years but expired soon after. The tree was reduced to a ‘creeper-covered’ pile of well-rotten logs in a relatively short time after its removal.The biggest and best Saman tree at St Augustine grew rapidly to a massive size in just 60 years but expired soon after. The tree was reduced to a ‘creeper-covered’ pile of well-rotten logs in a relatively short time after its removal.

Samanea saman is now spread throughout the hot wet tropics from Trinidad to Tahiti and Harare to Honolulu, but the original specimens were probably introduced from the riparian forest corridors of northern South America, most likely Venezuela, just seven miles from Trinidad at the nearest point.

Botanists must be gritting their teeth having read thus far without learning exactly what type of tree we are talking about. Samanea saman is one of the many hundreds of different leguminous tree species which originate from within the tropics, now regarded as members of the plant family Fabaceae rather than the long outdated ‘Leguminosae’.

Like our own false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), the Saman tree bears compound pinnate leaves and pods, but don’t expect to see the same classical pea- or bean-like flowers, because Samanea saman is in the clade ‘Mimosoideae’ and bears flowers which look like powder puffs rather than pea flowers.

There is heaps more about the Saman tree including botany and the biodiversity which the species supports, and the huge spectrum of valuable uses and applications now harnessed throughout the tropics, but that will have to wait for the next instalment.


The name Thomas Picton stayed tucked away in history until June 2020, when the statue of Edward Colston, another notorious name from the days of slavery, was unceremoniously torn down and dumped in Bristol docks. During the aftermath, more notorious names were resurrected including Thomas Picton, the Tyrant of Trinidad.

Shortly after Colston’s statue was dumped in the dock, Cardiff City Council set about removing its statue of Thomas Picton who was born in Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Ironically, it was only last year when there were concerted calls for Picton Street in Port of Spain to be renamed.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that trees are safer than statues when it comes to commemorating people. Anyone thinking of visiting Trinidad and Tobago to admire the country’s Saman trees will have to wait a bit longer because the UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps recently added this beautiful Caribbean country to the UK’s Covid red list.

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