SPEKBOOM

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.

SHEPHERD’S BUSH

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.

MOUNTAIN DRIVE

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)

 

SNEEZEWOOD POST

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.

TREES TAKE A LONG TIME TO GROW

Trees take a long time to grow.

I remember being astonished when neighbours, who had purchased a house nearby, announced that they had at last had the tall trees in their garden cut down because they ‘were sick and tired of the weavers building their nests there and making a mess.’ It wasn’t long after that they complained of the heat from the sun that shone into their living room all afternoon during the summer months!

Trees take a long time to grow.

A few years later a friend lamented that their new neighbours had removed the large Erythrina tree from their garden to deter the Hadeda Ibises from roosting in it at night and  ‘making such a noise’ which woke them ‘so early in the mornings.’ We had a good laugh, for she later reported that the Hadedas had simply moved to perch in another tree across the road!

Mary Lisle’s poem springs to mind:

They have cut down the pines where they stood;

The wind will miss them – the rain,

When its silver blind is down.

Not only do trees take a long time to grow, but they support and shelter a variety of life forms as well as being intrinsically beautiful. I have often mentioned the myriad birds visiting the Natal Fig in our garden and how pleasant it is to sit in the forested shade on our lawn.

Trees take a long time to grow.

A matter of only weeks ago I visited a site close to the CBD to observe Sacred Ibises and Cattle Egrets coming to roost in three tall trees growing next to a block of flats at the end of the day. Some of the latter had fledglings in their nests, while others were flapping their wings whilst firmly gripping the slim branches in the afternoon breeze.

Letters of complaint have appeared in the local press from time to time about the noise these birds make. The number of Cattle Egrets have probably increased with the influx of cattle grazing all over town – I passed seven of them sleeping on the pavement outside one of the schools this evening.

Gerard Manley Hopkins decried the loss of the avenue of Binsey Poplars:

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,

Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,

All felled, felled, are all felled.

Trees take a long time to grow to maturity; to extend their branches; to put out their leaves, their flowers and their fruit.

I drove past that roosting site a few days ago. A single Sacred Ibis was perched atop the skeletal remains of a single tree. Someone had cut down the other two and prepared the third for removal!

Trees take a long time to grow; yet as Hopkins points out, it only takes

Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve

Strokes of havoc [to] unselve

The sweet especial scene.

All three trees have now been felled – I hope the residents of those flats roast once summer returns!

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  – William Blake

AUTUMN

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
– John Keats

Seeds of the Erythrina caffra

These are not the kind of fruits Keats would have had in mind when he penned his ode To Autumn, but as we do not have well-defined seasons in the Eastern Cape, a definite sign of autumn comes in the form of the dry, rustling leaves of the Erythrina caffra settling on the ground, followed by the black seed pods that burst open to reveal the scarlet seeds – often called lucky beans – within.

 

FLOWERS AFTER THE RAIN

It has rained a little in the Eastern Cape – enough to transform the countryside into a verdant green dotted with some magnificent wild flowers. During a recent trip to Fort Beaufort and Post Retief, I couldn’t resist the beauty of these Common Gazanias growing next to the road:

common gazania

The Gazania krebsiana has an attractive centre pattern:

Gazania krebsiana

These pretty white flowers are blooming all over the veld – I haven’t been able to identify them:

white flowers

Purple patches of Wild Verbena (Pentanisia prunelloides) hug the road verges and are scattered throughout the veld.

wild verbena

This Plumbago is growing against the shoulder of Victoria Bridge in Fort Beaufort:

plumbago

Lastly, the lovely Acacia karroo (now known as Vachellia karroo) or sweethorn brightens the countryside with its yellow puffball-like flowers.

Cachellia karroo