August 25, 2005
South Africa’s, and Joburg’s first champion tree, proclaimed in September 2004, has died. But Joburgers shouldn’t despair – acorns from the tree are to be planted nearby to ensure its continued lineage.
A champion tree is one that is of “exceptional importance, and deserves national protection”, according to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF).
A tree may qualify for champion status if it is of exceptional size or age; if it has aesthetic or landscape value; if it has cultural or historic value; or if it has tourism value. Once declared, the trees are protected under the National Forests Act of 1998, and a licence will have to be obtained before these trees can be cut or disturbed.
The tree in Sophiatown, an English Oak believed to be over 100 years old, survived the removals of the cosmopolitan community in the 1950s and ‘60s. Members of various gangs living in the ghetto suburb used to use the tree as a meeting place. Poet, writer and former gangster Don Mattera refers to the tree in his book Gone with the twilight’. Religious leaders and activists also used to rendezvous under the tree.
The tree also has a sad element to its history – it became known as “the hanging tree” when two people hanged themselves from its branches, one objecting to the forced removal from Sophiatown.
But what the tree didn’t survive is the very severe pruning it received in 2002, by the former owner of the house on whose property it grew. Under pressure from his neighbours - its leaves cluttered his and their gutters, and shaded the gardens, inhibiting growth of grass - Daniel Mulaudzi cut off the tall branches, leaving six sawn-off stumps. The tree was reduced to about a tenth of its original height, but last spring new, green shoots were visible.
It was this severe pruning that drew attention to the tree originally, and led to it being declared a champion tree.
But, although new shoots were visible last year, the pruning was too severe, says Mike Griffiths, senior manager of street trees for Johannesburg City Parks.
”There was not enough branch material for new sapling growth,” he says. Oak trees consist of a much harder wood than jacarandas and plane trees, and growth is therefore much slower. The bark of the tree has started to peel, a sure sign that the tree is dying, he says.
Once dead, the tree is likely to stand like it is for years, particularly as it contains no rot. The tree has a girth of around four metres and stands now at about four metres tall.
It is still to be decided where the acorns will be planted – a nearby park in Sophiatown may be the chosen location.
New champion tree
But there’s good news for Joburg’s tree lovers – another tree, in Auckland Park, has been identified by the DWAF as a champion tree. The tree, a Lombardy Poplar, has historical significance: it served as a safe house for political activists on the run from the security police in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The house, now a bookshop, belonged to South African Communist Party member and advocate Bram Fischer. His daughter, Ruth, offered refuge for activists when her father was convicted for violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiring to commit sabotage, for which he received life imprisonment. He spent nine years in jail, and was released in 1975 when it was discovered he had cancer. He died several weeks later.
The city has a number of other significant trees. On the corner of Oxford and Bolton roads is an unidentified South American tree, believed by city officials to be the only such tree in the country. The city also has three rare Copper Birch trees, one of which is in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens in Emmarentia.
24 champion trees
The department has just confirmed a list of 24 champion trees across the country. The oldest, a camphor tree, dates back 300 years and was planted by Dutch governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, in the early 1700s on his farm, Vergelegen in Somerset West.
The largest tree in the country, a baobab called the Sagole Tree, in Limpopo, is 22 metres tall, with a crown of 38.2m. Izak van der Merwe, forestry scientist of the DWAF, says that although it is difficult to ascertain exactly how old the tree is, it is estimated to be more than 500 years old. The second largest tree, also a baobab, is on a farm in Hoedspruit in Mpumalanga. It has a crown of 37 metres and soars 17 metres into the air.
Another baobab, in Duiwelskloof, Limpopo, is a well-known tourist attraction, standing at 19m, with a crown of 35,3 metres.
There are a number of Outeniqua Yellowwood trees in Knysna in the Western Cape, estimated to be between 600 and 1 000 years old. One of these trees, known as the King Edward VII tree, with a height of 39m, is accessible to visitors. Another yellowwood, in the Grootbosch State Forest in the Eastern Cape, is called the Tsitsikamma Big Tree and attracts 80 000 visitors a year.
A milkwood tree in Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, called the Post Office Tree, is believed to have been the tree in which messages were left for Portuguese seafarers in the 16th century.
South Africa has the distinction of having the tallest tree in Africa. A eucalyptus saligna, planted by forestry pioneer AJ O’Connor in 1906 in the Woodbush Plantation in Haenertsburg, Limpopo, is an impressive 81 metres tall.
In the coming months these trees will be promoted as part of the Champion Tree Project, and receive special status as tourism assets, in some cases enclosed in special fencing.
Each year the department will meet to consider additional trees to be added to the list. Some 40 trees are at present being investigated for champion tree status. The public is free to nominate trees by accessing nomination forms from the department’s website.