SPRING: ERYTHRINA CAFFRA

There are no beautiful bulbs peeping through the ground and, so far, no pastel pinks of peach blossoms or the delicate white of flowers on the plum tree. The prolonged drought has meant that once again the arrival of spring has not been heralded by an array of pretty flowers appearing among the last of the winter grass. These will all have to wait until we finally receive a soaking spring rain. Not all is lost though, for at the end of winter and well into spring we are blessed with the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina caffra.

This is a relatively young tree growing just around the corner from where we live. If one walks to the top of Hill 60 and looks down on the town stretching out below, there are spots of red all over as these trees bloom profusely before putting out their new leaves. We have ancient, giant trees, in our garden that are far too large to fit into a photograph. The best I can do is use the opportunity to show you a closer view of these blossoms that brighten the post-winter landscape.

These flowers are low down on the tree and can easily be seen from our back gate.

I also have a delightful view of the tree in our neighbour’s garden and can observe the birds visiting it every day: Black-eyed blackcaps, Olive thrushes, Black-headed orioles, Common starlings, Red-winged starlings, Cape Weavers, Village weavers, Greater double-collared sunbirds, Amethyst sunbirds, Laughing doves, Red-eyed doves, Speckled pigeons, Fork-tailed drongos … and so many more.

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.

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.