The next crop of sylvan champions
300-year-old Gardens stalwart in the running, writes SHEREE BEGA
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.