The next crop of syl­van cham­pi­ons

300-year-old Gar­dens stal­wart in the run­ning, writes SHEREE BEGA

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THE OLD­EST sur­viv­ing fruit tree in South Africa is a saf­fron pear tree brought from the Nether­lands as a seedling and planted in the Com­pany’s Gar­dens about 300 years ago.

This old stal­wart and 20 other awe-in­spir­ing trees are in line to of­fi­cially be de­clared South Africa’s next gen­er­a­tion of Cham­pion Trees.

The other con­tenders for Cham­pion Tree sta­tus are equally im­pres­sive.

The short­list in­cludes a newly dis­cov­ered baobab at Ga-Rat­jeke Vil­lage in Lim­popo, which ranks among the five big­gest trees of this species on record. Its mas­sive crown can cover a foot­ball field.

“Al­though the trunk splits at breast height, and three sep­a­rate mea­sure­ments had to be taken, the com­bined cir­cum­fer­ence at ground level is more than 30m. And the crown will cover a foot­ball field,” says Izak van der Merwe, co­or­di­na­tor of the Cham­pion Tree project at the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fisheries. “It’s a re­ally big tree, and fan­tas­tic.”

Once pro­claimed, the trees will be added to the ranks of 44 de­clared Cham­pion Trees, deemed of “ex­cep­tional im­por­tance” and de­serv­ing of na­tional pro­tec­tion be­cause of their out­stand­ing size, age, aes­thetic, cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal or tourism value.

Cal­i­for­nia red­woods taller than 60m, and planted a cen­tury ago in the Groot­vader­s­bos State For­est near Swellen­dam, have also made the list.

“Cal­i­for­nian red­woods grow ex­cep­tion­ally fast in this coun­try. At Groot­vader­s­bos, day hik­ers can go past a stand of red­woods of up to 66m, a height reached in the short space of only 80 years. To­gether with an­other grove of red­woods at Tokai on the slopes of Ta­ble Moun­tain, some Mon­terey pines have been short­listed for Cham­pion Tree sta­tus,” says Van der Merwe.

Tree climbers Leon Visser and Charles Green con­firmed th­ese were the tallest pine trees in Africa, with the tallest mea­sur­ing 53m.

In Novem­ber 2008, the two climbers mea­sured the tallest trees in Africa near Tza­neen – a stand of saligna gum trees up for Cham­pion Tree sta­tus. The tallest two of th­ese trees – re­spec­tively 79m and 78.5m – were dubbed the “Twin Giants of Ma­goe­baskloof ”, says Van der Merwe.

“A mon­key thorn of 37m was found in the Groot Marico area,” says Van der Merwe, of an­other can­di­date. “This could be the tallest thorn tree recorded in South Africa.”

Gaut­eng boasts the Wits Cam­pus Tree, a large eu­ca­lyp­tus planted more than 80 years ago. “The height is given as 35m, with a trunk cir­cum­fer­ence of 7.6m and crown size of 50m, mak­ing this the largest eu­ca­lyp­tus tree in Gaut­eng on over­all-size in­dex.”

He says var­i­ous eu­ca­lyp­tus species top the list for their size.

“Even over­seas forestry ex­perts are awed by the sizes th­ese trees reach in South Africa and by the speed of their growth. This is much faster than on any other con­ti­nent.”

Then there’s the pin oak in Rose­bank, Jo­han­nes­burg. Re­tired grand­mother Pat Lu­cas cher­ishes her child­hood mem­o­ries spent un­der its gi­ant canopy. As an adult, she loved the tree so much she and her hus­band had their wed­ding pho­tos taken be­neath it.

The 67-year-old is in awe of the tree and her pas­sion has led to it mak­ing the prized short­list.

“It’s such a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of a tree,” says Lu­cas of her nom­i­na­tion of the pin oak in Jel­li­coe Av­enue. Her mea­sure­ments in­di­cate the tree is 38m high and has a crown size of 40m.

“Our fam­ily home used to be on that prop­erty (where the tree stands). It’s a big tree and was al­ready big when we moved there in the 1950s. It must be more than 90 years old.

“The­o­ret­i­cally, some­one could build there and I’d hate to see that. It needs pro­tec­tion, be­cause it has grown so beau­ti­fully.”

Van der Merwe says a team will visit the Rose­bank pin oak and Wits Cam­pus Tree next week to de­ter­mine their mea­sure­ments. They are among the four trees pro­vi­sion­ally short­listed, al­though their data have not been ver­i­fied yet.

“I ex­pect the Wits tree to re­main on the list.

“The pin oak is also an im­pres­sive tree, but the nom­i­na­tor es­ti­mated its height and I think our mea­sure­ment with in­stru­ments may bring this down. But we’ll see.”

Tragedy struck two de­clared Cham­pion Trees last year.

The first was the “sad death” of a grove of his­toric cedar trees at the Old Gov­ern­ment Build­ings in Bloem­fontein.

The sec­ond-largest baobab on Glen­coe Farm near Hoed­spruit has also started to col­lapse. For now, it will not be delisted. “It is to be treated with fungi­cide to pre­vent fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. We think it will stay alive,” says Van der Merwe.

He ap­plauds the Den­dro­log­i­cal So­ci­ety for help­ing mon­i­tor Cham­pion Trees in re­mote ar­eas.

“Most of the best trees have been nom­i­nated by now. But the nom­i­na­tions will never end. Peo­ple will keep dis­cov­er­ing new trees and bring­ing them to our at­ten­tion.”

Visit the depart­ment’s web­site at www.daff.gov.za – un­der the ti­tle “Forestry” – for more in­for­ma­tion.

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