SYRINGAS

There was a time when Syringa (Melia azedarach) trees – also known as Persian Lilac (not a name I am familiar with) were planted as attractive shade trees in gardens and as street trees.

The Syringa is the large tree on the right, spreading across the street.

The origin of these trees is said to be in India and the Far East, from where they were largely imported for ornamental purposes. Apparently they were already well established in Natal gardens by 1894 and in the Lowveld in the early 1900s. Our municipality removed the indigenous trees we had planted on our verge and replaced them with syringa trees – what a scourge they are proving to be!

Their popularity as street and garden trees stems from them being both fast-growing and look attractive year-round. Their glossy green leaves provide deep shade and in spring the trees are covered in delicately scented lilac-coloured flowers, favoured by bees for their pollen.  This fragrance is especially noticeable in the late afternoons and early evenings after a warm day. The flowers are followed by clusters of golden berries which remain even after the trees are bare of leaves. My parents exhorted us from an early age not to eat syringa berries as they are highly toxic!

Given that each tree produces a significant number of berries, it is not surprising that that there are syringa trees all over the country, except for the driest regions. Syringas are invasive trees that are known to have choked streams and formed dense thickets that displace indigenous vegetation.

I have noticed that, among other birds, the Speckled Mousebirds and Knysna Turacos enjoy eating the ripe berries. Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves settle on the streets to eat the fallen seeds that have been crushed by passing vehicles. Seeds are also dispersed by water. A look at the neglected watercourses that run through the town show how easily the trees propagate along the edges and clog up the flow of the water.

A CROWNED SURPRISE

I would frequently see Crowned Hornbills (Lophoceros alboterminatus) flying across the school campus while I was teaching. My upstairs classroom gave me a good view of their slow flight with the characteristic agile, pronounced dip after every few wing beats. Their arrival during July and August heralded the longed for winter break. How I wished then that I could see them in my garden too.

These seasonal winter visitors began to appear in our garden more often from about 2016 – I had retired by then and probably had more opportunities to observe them in the garden. Given that they mainly forage in trees, where they eat insects, seeds and fruit, they tend to be difficult to spot – and even more difficult to photograph!

My best views of them have been while they have been feeding on the flowers in the Erythrina caffra – probably because these trees are bare of leaves at this time of the year. One surprised me yesterday by posing on the telephone cable.

I had been watching birds in the garden and was just about to leave when I saw a longer than usual tail showing through the tangle of dead creepers and shrivelled Tecomaria capensis leaves. Anything out of the ordinary requires a closer look, so I retreated indoors – from where I could see it was a Crowned Hornbill. What a co-operative bird it was to remain in place while I raced upstairs for my camera and tried to focus on it through the window. The angle was very awkward indeed and so I have done my best through the none-too-clean window panes of my study. You can clearly see its dark brown plumage, white belly and orange bill with a casque on the upper mandible. Its yellow eye glints in the light.

The Crowned Hornbill then had a good scratch before flying away.

EUCALYPTS

Human beings are impatient creatures: we lack the patience to wait. There is an English proverb that reminds us that if you want to be happy for a year, plant a garden; if you want to be happy for life, plant a tree.  ‘Happy for life’ is a long time – and one has to wait for several years before you can truly enjoy the beauty / the shade / the fruit of the saplings you have planted – and even longer if you started the process from seed. It has taken some trees thirty years to grow into the shade trees we imagined when this garden first became ours – we only planted indigenous trees, and they have taken their time. An African proverb informs us that the tree breaks that takes all the force of the wind, and that brings me to the Eucalypts and the lack of patience we practice.

Eucalypts – often called gum trees here – are fast growing and have been planted in this country since the 1800s. They proved to be a quick source of timber – particularly for the mining and paper industries – but have also been planted as shade trees. I imagine these ones, growing next to the ruins of a farm house in the Free State, may have performed that function.

Their usefulness extends to providing nectar and pollen for bees, as well as providing wind breaks on farms. You would be surprised to see the number of short straight lines of Eucalypts and pines growing on farms throughout South Africa –a windbreak is needed now so plant these imports and get one growing quickly! These trees are a remnant from a windbreak planted out in the country decades ago.

The trees in this photograph grow not far from our home and were possibly meant to form a windbreak for the first houses to be built on the side of this hill.

Another example of a possible windbreak are these gigantic trees growing along the edge of our botanical gardens.

As is the nature of trees, there are many escapees from the timber plantations and farms and the downside of this is that these trees consume more water than indigenous species do – not a good attribute in a country that is short of water even in the best of rainy seasons. We used to have a stand of Eucalypts growing on our farm. Once they had been removed, it was amazing to see how quickly the little dam filled up!

There is no denying that apart from being useful – and invasive – Eucalypts can be beautiful too. The bark of some of them peels away in papery slices to reveal a lighter under bark, creating an attractive contrast of colours.

Traffic was held up recently when a Eucalypt fell across a road on the outskirts of town during a particularly windy period – not my own photograph.

A similar row of trees used to line the entrance to our town on the way in from Bedford. These were removed many years ago and some indigenous trees planted in their wake (since either chomped by the Urban Herd or died through lack of water) and this is all that is left of what had been tall, stately trees that shielded drivers from the piercing sunlight in the late afternoons.