It’s hard to believe when you stand on one of Johannesburg’s ridges and look out over the virtual forest that makes up the northern suburbs that the city used to be a barren rocky veld dotted with an odd shrub and several streams.
Joburg has the distinction of being the largest man-made urban forest, with six million trees in public parks, private gardens, and on pavements. On satellite pictures, the suburbs are a green splodge of colour, closely resembling a rain forest.
The highveld is a typical savannah/grassland system, which means that besides grassland and scattered scrubs, there are no naturally occurring trees. So how did this forest begin, and who planted those first trees?
Before gold was discovered in the area in 1886, there were several farmers on the Witwatersrand. These early farmers brought seeds from the Cape and planted acorn, oak and walnut trees. The Bezuidenhout family, among the first white settlers in the area, built their farmhouse in 1863 on the farm Doornfontein. They planted fruit trees in Judith's Paarl and Cyrildene, east of the city centre, but they no longer exist.
The farm had a "walnut walk", an avenue of walnut trees leading to the present-day bowling green. Walnuts only last about 50 years, so the walk and trees are long gone. But what still remains is a curved row of around six glorious large oak trees in front of the house, probably offspring of the original oak trees on the farm which were planted at the same time as the house was built.
On the other side of town was the farm Braamfontein, owned by the Geldenhuys family. Louw Geldenhuys built his farmhouse against the Melville Koppies ridge, and his wife, Emmarentia, planted an oak tree and five palm trees in front of the house. These trees still exist, as does the house, gracing the suburb in an old-world splendour.
When the suburb of Emmarentia was laid out in 1937 the town planners wanted to cut down the oak tree as it was in the path of the road being laid out. But Emmarentia put her foot down - the oak was to stay. The tree is now on the pavement, the road kinking around it slightly.
Geldenhuys planted orchards of fruit trees running from his house in Greenhill Road right down to the Emmarentia Dam, an area of several hectares, but of course these no longer exist, having been cut down to build houses in the suburb of Emmarentia.
First public park
The first early park laid out for the rapidly growing city was Joubert Park, planned in 1887. Early photographs of the Park show a neatly planned Victorian parkland, with a variety of conifers doing well.
A stroll through the Braamfontein and Brixton Cemeteries, north-west of the city centre, will reveal many majestic old trees, among them oaks, pines, cork oaks, and blue gums. Braamfontein Cemetery was laid out in 1887, and Brixton Cemetery in 1912.
Trees were imported from KwaZulu-Natal as the demand for trees grew, but also from overseas. Researcher and chief librarian of the city in the 60s and 70s, Anna Smith, writes in the 1972 Trees in South Africa magazine: “Letters were exchanged with nurseries in Europe, the East and Australia.”
By 1904 a parks department had been established, and by that time the city had four major parks: Joubert Park (17.5 acres), End Street Park in Doornfontein (4.5 acres), Oval Park in Parktown (3.5 acres) and Jeppe Park (2.5 acres).
By 1934 the number of parks had increased to 67, and there was an active tree-planting policy by the council, with 8 000 trees being planted each year.
The first residential suburb of the wealthy Randlords was Doornfontein, east of the city. But there were not enough trees in the basin below the Hillbrow ridge, and when the wind blew, Doornfontein became a dustbowl. A solution was sought.
Geldenhuys started selling the western portions of his farm Braamfontein. These portions became the early northern suburbs of the city: Parktown, Parkview and Forest Town. Parktown became the suburb of the Randlords, where several of their grand mansions still stand. And they actively started planting trees, so that within a short time the suburb became known as the “garden suburb”. Large plane trees can still be seen in Parkview. Parktown has some large pepper trees in the grounds of the mansions, in particular North Lodge, having been planted near the stables to ward off fleas.
In the meantime, after the initial rush for alluvial gold, one of the biggest mining houses, the Corner House, was established, providing the capital needed to extract gold below the surface. But one of the demands of deep level mining was wooden props to line the underground tunnels.
Over a million trees were planted in the present-day Zoo Lake and the Johannesburg Zoo areas, in what was called Sachsenwald (later Anglicised to Saxonwold and now a suburb of Johannesburg), an area of 1 300 acres. They were blue and red gum trees, quick-growing and ideal for use as mine props. Oaks, pines and wattles were also planted. Picnic spots with benches were created in the forest, and it became a favourite picnic and riding area for Randlords and their families in nearby Parktown.
Remnants of the forest can still be seen in the zoo and in the parkland around Zoo Lake. Suburbs in the area reflect this history in their names: Forest Town, Parkview and Parktown.
Nearby suburbs like Doornfontein and Jeppe on the east, and Fordsburg on the west, were also planted with blue gums.
But this plantation of trees was not the first in Joburg. Smith says that The Star of January 1892 states that the first plantation was planted on the Struben’s farm, Waterfall, near Roodepoort, in 1888. Fred and Harry Struben found gold there in 1874, calling their find Confidence Reef. The gold lasted for barely a year but in the meantime numerous trees were planted in the area: wild acacia, teak, olive, tambotie, beech, ebony, syringa, mimosa and quince.
Smith indicates that the first jacaranda to be planted in the city was in Charlton Terrace, Doornfontein. There is a jacaranda in this street still which could be this original tree.
Smith quotes from The Star of 1945, in which it is recorded that the Transvaal Horticultural Society took a film of early trees that were planted around the city. Two blue spruces were growing in Joubert Park (1887), together with a “smooth-leaved holly bush, a golden cypress, a deodar, a magnificent lime, well-known to the European countryside, and one of the finest oaks in the city, 65 feet high”. Some of these trees are still growing in Joubert Park.
There was more, seen from the top of Munro Drive in Houghton: a Chinese Maple in Oxford Road, originally imported from Paris; poplars along Houghton Drive; a cork oak, an “enormous jacaranda with a huge, pink flowered pride of India in front of it”; birches and huge palms in private gardens; and a “magnificent clump of camphor trees in the garden of Onderkoppies in Oxford Road”.
The filmmaker also found unusual trees: a tea plant, a ban oak, copper beeches, a maidenhair tree in Killarney, and a Kentucky coffee bean tree in Greenside.
Tree entrepreneur William Nelson, according to Smith, had nurseries in Turffontein, where “by 1896 he grew some 30 million trees, shrubs and plants for general distribution”. His business was known as Nelsonia Nurseries. He apparently planted “66 miles (106km) of trees along the streets of the newly established suburb of Kensington”. The task took six months to complete. She says it’s believed to be the first time street trees were planted in South Africa on such a large scale.
In fact, in 1897 some concern was expressed that “the million of trees near Johannesburg may themselves have been a factor in causing the drought that prevailed a little earlier. The blue gums were particularly singled out as ‘absolutely dessicating the soil in which they grow’, and the question asked why such a ‘useless’ tree should have been so extensively planted as all kinds of trees flourish luxuriantly in Johannesburg”.
These days Johannesburg boasts some wonderful parks, filled with hundreds of trees. Although most of them are exotics, they live happily alongside indigenous trees. But there are parklands that are planted only with indigenous trees, plants and shrubs – The Wilds in Parktown is a beautiful public garden, but only safe to visit in groups. The wonderful Wits Botanical Garden in Roodepoort consists of around 300 hectares of landscaped and natural veld areas, planted with only indigenous trees, plants and shrubs. And Melville Koppies, which also contains small fauna and an iron-age furnace left behind by Johannesburg’s early black peoples.
Some of these early trees are still growing: the magnificent huge oak in Greenhill Road, Emmarentia [a heavy storm in 2004 caused it to fall over, and the remainder was removed; only a faint circle of trunk remains in the grass]; wonderful tall gum trees in Beyers Naude Road in Melville; large gums in Kingsway Road in Auckland Park; five jacaranda trees, probably 80 or 90 years old, in front of Hymany House, an old farmhouse in Randpark Ridge; old planes in Dundalk Avenue in Parkview, and in the two cemeteries, Braamfontein and Brixton. And of course, all those wonderful exotics planted in Joubert Park are still there, thriving since they were planted over 100 years ago.