Bark is a popular traditional medicinal product harvested from a range of trees growing in natural forests in this country. Sustainable bark collection is one thing – it is quite another if a tree is over-harvested or becomes ring-barked as it will die. Unless the bark is harvested in small quantities and with care, the injury caused to trees leads to wood deterioration as a result of insect damage and fungal infection.
It was while walking through the patch of natural forest tucked into the side of the mountain along the Dassiekrans Trail the other day that we came across these examples of bark harvesting:
A slice of bark has been carefully removed from one side of this tree trunk.
Although the gashes on this tree trunk look horrendous to me, the botanists accompanying us on the walk assured us that this too is a mark of sustainable bark collection and that it has not harmed the tree in terms of its longevity.
This is an example of of what was identified as unsustainable bark stripping.
One can already see signs of rot and the deterioration of the trunk.
Having walked down the Dassiekrans path from the top of Mountain Drive, we ascended through the forest.
Apart from the sweet dampness and the shadows cast by the trees, I was struck by the variety of mosses covering the tree trunks, creating an atmosphere of magical beauty.
There was lichen too.
Instead of the crunching of dry leaves underfoot, which is what we generally experience during this drought, we walked on a beautifully damp, soft carpet of variegated hues made by the leaf litter.
It is through this mulch that a young cussonia tree has started its journey towards the light.
This is not going to be about the painful bite of a real bee. The shrub Azima tetrancantha is commonly known as Bee Sting or Fire Bush. A close look at it will reveal why:
The spiky plant is found not only in the Eastern Cape, but in the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal as well as in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Asia. It generally occurs on hillsides or in shrub savanna and is fairly common in the Addo Elephant National Park. I came across it on a recent walk along the Dassiekrans path that leads off Mountain Drive on the Rietberge on the outskirts of Grahamstown.
It is a much-branched, scrambling, spiny, evergreen shrub which grows to a height of about 3 meters. The fruit ripens from green to a yellowish-white.
Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) grows primarily in the dry areas of the Eastern Cape.
Recent research has shown Spekboom to be an excellent ‘carbon sponge’ with the ability to sequestrate (absorb) free carbon from the atmosphere which is used to make plant tissue. It does so particularly efficiently, which means that a stand of Spekboom has the ability to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest. Spekboom is unique in that it stores solar energy to photosynthesise at night. This makes it ten times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than a tropical rain forest. Each hectare of Spekboom can capture 4,2 tons of carbon every year.
Note the thicket of Spekboom behind this Cape buffalo.
You can see the shape of the leaves of the Spekboom in this picture of a Cape Weaver.
Because of its ability to capture carbon, Spekboom is being replanted in degraded thicket areas in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, the Addo Elephant National Park, and in the Great Fish Nature Reserve. These projects not only help to restore natural ecosystems, but as they are labour-intensive, they provide a source of income for rural communities and thereby help to alleviate poverty. The picture below illustrates an area of the Great Fish River Nature Reserve where cuttings of Spekboom have been planted.
Here you can see how other cuttings have bushed out over time.
Small star-shaped pink flowers are borne en masse from late winter to spring, usually after the first rains. They are a rich source of nectar for many insects, which in turn attract insectivorous birds.
This dragonfly is resting on a sprig of Spekboom.
Here a Cape Sparrow perches on Spekboom.
The ubiquitous dense stands of succulent Spekboom form an important part of the diet of the elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park. Their top-down browsing habits apparently help the plants to spread and thrive by promoting the natural umbrella-shaped canopy. Spekboom regenerates quickly, ensuring a regular food supply. Note the baby elephant feeding on Spekboom in the picture below.
While it grows all in many of the more arid areas of South Africa as well as in Botswana and Namibia, I most readily associate the evergreen Shepherd’s Bush (Boscia albitrunca) with the Eastern Cape. The bare whitish-grey trunk and dense rounded crown are both attractive and distinctive, making this tree easily recognisable in the bush. If you look at the picture below, taken in the Great Fish Nature Reserve, you should notice the white trunk standing out from the rest of the trees.
One generally comes across a single Shepherd’s Bush as they tend not occur in groups. Their neat, seemingly ‘clipped’, crowns are the result of herbivores browsing the leaves.
The genus name Boscia is in honour of a French professor of agriculture, Louis A.G. Bosc (1777-1850), while the specific name is a combination of albi (white) and trunca (trunk), and refers to the whitish trunk of the species. Sometimes the trunk appears very white, such as this specimen.
As you can tell, not all Shepherd’s Bush trees have a single stem.
They are often referred to as the ‘tree of life’, as nearly every part of the Shepherd’s Bush can be used by humans and animals. The fruit is consumed by people and animals; the leaves are particularly nutritious for animals; the wood is used to make utensils; and various parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. The dried roots can be pounded to form a powder that is used to make a drink said to be a suitable substitute for coffee. The Boers commonly called this ‘kommetjie gat’ (cup of coffee) when they were unable to source proper coffee during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). A kommetjie refers to a small basin, bowl or mug. Due to the high regard for its nutrition as well as the many cultural beliefs relating to it, Shepherd’s Bush trees are rarely felled outside of protected areas except to provide feed for domestic livestock during times of drought. This practice may, however, have a detrimental effect on the trees in the long run.
The road up Mountain Drive is narrow and rocky.
In places it is very rocky.
Yet, it so worth the trip for the magnificent views across town from the top!
There were butterflies aplenty skimming the top of the grass, chasing each other, or landing briefly on flowers, trees or even on the stones – where I photographed this orange beauty.
Other insects were burrowed into some of the flowers waving in the wind.
Several termite mounds show signs of repair – note the different coloured mud.
The Cussonia spicata (Cabbage) trees are in bloom, their greenish-yellow terminal double umbels of 8-12 spikes per unit dominant on the skyline.
Other interesting flowers are the bright red Burchellia bubaline (Wild pomegranate)
As well as the beautiful orange of Leonatis leonurus (Wild dagga / Lion’s tail)
National tree number 292, Sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum), has been used as fence posts on farms all over the Eastern Cape for centuries. During that time they have survived the onslaught of sun, wind, decay, fungi and even termites and continue to hold up fences. This is a typical example of a Sneezewood fence post on a local farm.
Sneezewood has also been used for railway sleepers. It is believed that Sneezewood sawdust can be used as an insect repellent. With so many of the original farm fences having been uprooted over the years to make way for larger lands or for game reserves, Sneezewood fence posts have been collected to make benches, for garden steps and to make decorative fences around homes and lodges. The weathered patterns of the wood – and its longevity – suggest a knowledge of the many changes that have taken place where they have stood steadfastly through time.