Caring about trees

You can change your mind about any other plant by simply replacing it with something else. But changing your mind about an unsuitable tree planted in the wrong place causes heartache… Being near beautiful trees, and knowing stories about them, will inspire more people to collectively plant more of them and take care of them, because all trees ever do is give.

Being locked up for months because of COVID has taught us just how much we appreciate the wide outdoors of our beautiful country, filled with so many trees, indigenous as well as exotic. They are treasures that generate oxygen, store carbon, stabilise the soil and give shade, food and shelter to man and wildlife. For sheer impact and ethereal quality, no living organism can weigh up to a mighty tree. Go visit our heritage Here in Southern Africa we are lucky to have some of the most iconic trees in the world, and you can become one of the trendy tree lover’s family by taking yourself on a tree safari in 2021 to visit some of them.

The Baobab

Baobabs slowly grow into giants that live for hundreds to thousands of years. They sometimes look as though they’ve been planted upside-down, and their trunks are of such wide girth that some hollowed-out trees became used as prisons, pubs, bus shelters and water reservoirs. For the thirsty the thick side branches store rainwater in their deep clefts. This tree is called the world’s largest succulent and is steeped in mystique, legend and superstition, and is considered sacred as it supplies food, shelter, water and relief from sickness.

  • The egg-shaped fruit’s hard outer shell is used to make castanets or calabashes.
  • The dry fruit pulp is highly nutritious, containing more vitamin C than oranges. Soaked in water it tastes a little like lemonade and is used to treat fevers and other ailments.
  • The black seeds can be pressed for their oil, roasted as a coffee substitute, or used in cosmetics.
  • The bark is pounded to make rope, mats, baskets, paper and cloth
  • Leaves and roots are boiled and eaten.
  • The pollen of the flowers, which only last for 24 hours and attract bats from afar at night for pollination, can be used to make glue.

Tree thought: Can this ‘tree of life’ (the commonest species is Adansonia digitata) survive extinction? A lot of them are apparently dying due to many factors. Will grafting them vegetatively onto other fruit trees help to save them and fast track fruit production? Where to see them locally North of the Soutpansberg mountain range in Limpopo province.

The Mopane

Colophospermum mopane has distinctive winged leaves that give off a turpentine smell when crushed. It is semi-deciduous to deciduous and annually paints the veld in lovely autumn and spring colours.

  • The mopane hosts a sap-sucking insect known as the mopane psyllid, which in the juvenile stage produces a sweet-tasting waxy cover. This is known as mopane manna and is picked off the leaves by humans and baboons.
  • Mopane worms that appear in summer are very rich in protein. A favourite and important food source, these worms are dried and roasted and have become a delicacy in upmarket restaurants.
  • The hard, reddish heartwood timber is termite resistant and was used to make railway sleepers and fencing poles. The gonometa moth (African wild silkworm) is another that is hosted by the mopane, and it spins silken cocoons that are harvested as wild silk to make cloth.

Tree thought: It is said that mopane wood is one of the best wood types for heating.

Where to see them locally This is a widespread species in South Africa’s Northern lowveld areas.

The Marula

The marriage tree with bark that determines the gender of an unborn baby…

Sclerocarya birrea (marula) is deciduous and dioecious, which means male and female flowers are on separate trees, with the female flowers producing the fruit. In the Zulu culture it is believed that a marriage ceremony conducted under its branches will bless the couple with lifelong vigour and fertility. Venda women used powdered bark to determine the gender of their babies – male tree bark, male child; female tree bark, girl child. If the newborn defies the bark’s powers, it is regarded as a special child, as the spirits were also defied.

  • The marula’s bark is medicinally valued and used to treat many digestive ailments as well as rheumatism. It contains antihistamines as well.
  • The abundant fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked into jelly or jam, and is exceptionally high in vitamin C.
  • The kernels are known as ‘the food of kings’, and can be eaten raw or roasted.
  • They are also pressed to create marula oil, which is used in cosmetics as it is rich in antioxidants.
    The leaves are browsed by all kinds of wildlife, especially elephants.
    Fruit farmers often plant marula trees in their orchards to attract pollinators.

Tree thought: Is it not great to know that the marula fruit is also the origin of a proudly South African export, the famous Amarula Cream Liqueur?

Where to see them locally Marula trees are widespread in KwaZulu-Natal and prominent in BaPhalaborwa in Limpopo.

The three trees mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, as South Africa is home to many interesting indigenous tree species (although not all are cultivated or suitable for ordinary suburban gardens).

Small trees for small gardens

Small trees are no less spectacular than remarkable giants, and no less giving either.

7 desirable trees for small gardens

Bolusanthus speciosus (tree wisteria) This is a deciduous tree with thick outer branches graced with shiny, pendant wisteria-shaped leaves. The bark is rough and fissured, and the main trunk has great character when the tree reaches maturity. It is frost-hardy but young trees must be protected initially. The growth rate is slow, but well-draining soil and regular watering and feeding can speed things up. It has a non-invasive taproot system and a mature size of about 7 x 6m. Key attraction: Large bunches of showy, pea-like purple flowers in spring and early summer. They bear a striking resemblance to wisteria flowers.

Heteropyxis natalensis (lavender tree) The lavender tree has a neat, small crown with shiny, dark-green leaves that turn yellow and later rusty-red in autumn before they fall. Although this tree is deciduous, it may be semi-deciduous in subtropical climates. The leaves have a subtle lavender scent when crushed, and small, scented, cream-coloured flowers appear in late summer towards autumn. It is frost-sensitive, but quite adaptable to mild areas. This small tree grows to about 5 x 6m and has a non-invasive root system. Key attraction: The bark of the lavender tree is biscuit-coloured with cream to tan flecks or ‘growths’. It peels off regularly and the trunks are twisted and bent.

Apodytes dimidiata (white pear) This is a bushy evergreen tree that can easily be shaped into a slender growth form that is well suited to a small garden. The leaves are glossy and bright green with a paler green and dull underside. The bark is smooth and pale grey, and there are a profusion of fragrant white flowers from September to April. Although the tree becomes covered with bunches of colourful black berry-like fruit with scarlet appendages (much-loved by birds), it is not a messy grower and can be planted close to swimming pools and other structures. This tree is suitable only for temperate climates, although it does tolerate light frost, wind and cold, wet winters. It grows to about 5 x 4m and has a non-invasive root system. Key attraction: Very neat, glossy foliage with dainty sprays of aromatic flowers.

Dais cotinifolia (pompom tree) This slender little tree is the perfect size and has the ideal growth habit for a small townhouse garden. It has a rounded crown, blue-green leaves and attractive greyish-brown bark. It can be evergreen or deciduous, depending on the climate. It is ideal as a specimen tree or for background planting in shrub beds. It grows in temperate climates in the summer- and winter-rainfall regions and can endure a reasonable amount of frost and cold. It needs sheltering from strong coastal winds. Size about 6 x 5m, with a non-invasive root system. Key attraction: The masses of spectacular, light, purplish-pink pompom flowers, which cover the little tree for 2 – 3 weeks in summer, are simply beautiful.

Dombeya rotundifolia (wild pear) The wild pear is a gem in any garden and grows rapidly – a key requirement for the impatient among us. It is a heart-warming sight when decked out in its masses of white or baby-pink blossoms in late winter or early spring. It is spectacular with its gnarled branches, with the off-black bark still bare, showing no sign of the roughly textured pelargonium-like leaves that will appear later. This tree will grow in the winter rainfall areas of the warm Boland region right to the coast, as well as in the arid interior, in the subtropics, in the moderate regions of the Highveld and deep into the eastern parts of Southern Africa – probably everywhere if it is properly tended and protected from heavy frost at a young stage. Key attraction: It gives us the promise of spring, when the masses of lightly scented, pear-like blossoms appear and it is still freezing outside. In summer, enjoy the sight of the twisted trunk and the cooling shade of a really brave, big-hearted little tree. It grows to about 6 x 4m with a non-invasive taproot system.

Loxostylis alata (tarwood) This evergreen tree has ornamental foliage. New growth is ruddy-brown and bronze at first, later changing to a soft green. Male and female flowers appear on different trees. Male flowers are white and aromatic. Female flowers, which are pale green or white, are initially insignificant but the calyxes become bright pink or dusky red when the fruit forms. This tree grows everywhere except in the coldest, frostiest and most exposed gardens. Fast-growing, it reaches a mature height of about 5m and has a non-invasive taproot system. Key attraction: Pretty, deeply grooved grey bark that also has a reddish appearance if it is scarred. The attractive foliage makes it suitable to grow in large containers as a specimen plant.

Jaboticaba (Myrcaria cauliflora) is a superfood tree from Brazil that produces marble-sized berries in summer right on its trunk (if treated well with ample water and fertiliser and grown in a subtropical climate). The fruit is packed with vitamins and minerals and tastes like a mix of grape, litchi and cherry. It can be eaten fresh or used to make jam and wine.

Trees for indoors

Nobody needs to feel left out as there are ‘novelty’ trees that can be successfully grown indoors.

Ficus. If you visit any stockist of indoor plants, you will come across small potted trees called Ficus ‘Ginseng’ or Banyan bonsai. Although these trees, which are native to Malaysia, Taiwan and other Asian countries, grow into evergreen giants with huge root systems in their natural habitat, novelty growers have found a way to dwarf them into pseudo-bonsai’s ideal for patio or indoor decoration. They are extremely tough and easy to care for.

Coffee tree. Coffea arabica is one of the species grown to supply coffee beans, which are roasted to produce coffee. This rapidly growing small tree is, however, also a pretty indoor plant with its dark green glossy leaves. Although it is a vigorous grower that will probably need some pruning now and again, it might take quite a few years before flowering in spring and then producing its green berries that slowly turn black, each containing two coffee beans. If you can manage a cool spot (not draughty) with bright indoor light, slightly acidic soil, regular watering (the soil must never dry out completely), high humidity (like a daily misting in hot weather) and frequent feeding with a soluble fertiliser, you will be able to grow this pretty plant in your home. Be aware that all parts of this plant other than the mature beans are toxic.

Money tree. Many plants are given the common name of ‘money trees’, but Feng Shui followers believe that a well-placed Pachira aquatica, also known as the Guiana chestnut, will bring prosperity and good fortune to a business or household. When cultivated as a houseplant, this tree usually has braided stems to form a main trunk topped by long, five-lobed, pointed leaves. As it is a native to wetlands and swamps, over-watering will probably not kill it as long as the plant’s roots are not kept constantly in standing water. The soil should always be moist, but good drainage is what it basically needs, as well as a dose of water-soluble fertiliser about four times a year. Keep it in bright light shining through a window and turn it around every time it is watered to ensure a straight tree with even growth.

The Gardener