REMOVING THE LAST CYPRESS

It was such a sad spectacle to witness that it has taken me six years to record it in a blog post: the removal of the last of the row of six cypress trees that separated the back garden from the front. They were already mature trees when we came to live here: their thick foliage and wide columnar growth gave the impression of tall green pyramids. These hardy trees with their needle-like, evergreen foliage and acorn-like seed cones did well for they clearly didn’t mind either the clay soil or the periods of drought. I suspect they were Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii). One died, then another; one began leaning in a precarious fashion … each space thus created allowed the remaining trees to spread their branches ever wider, until there was a single tree left. It was the one growing the closest to our house.

There it grew for many more years until we experienced a drought so severe that there was a real danger of fire. We had already experienced a raging fire over the road and seen trees ignite and flare up as the flames licked at their feet. We witnessed sheets of flames carried across the open and start a new ring of fire where they landed. It was time to take stock: we cleared the garden of dried leaves and heaps of garden refuse; the indigenous trees were not a problem – the cypress was. Not only was there the danger of the branches ripping tiles off the roof during the strong Berg winds, but should the tree catch fire, so would our house. It had to go. I apologised to it profusely throughout its ordeal – which began when the tree fellers brought their weapons of destruction.

They carefully assessed their approach to its removal.

First to go were the branches growing over the roof of the house.

The lower limbs were removed next.

Until only the top was left.

The whole tree was chipped and I like to think its nutrients have lived on in our garden.

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VACHELLIA KARROO II

Among the indigenous trees in bloom at the moment is the Vachellia karroo (I will always think of it as Acacia karroo!), commonly called Sweet thorn, which grows almost everywhere in South Africa as well as in the rest of Africa. It is interesting to note that the common name is derived from the edible gum which is exuded from wounds in the bark, rather than from the fragrance of the flowers.

Its growth varies in size and habit depending on the climate. Those growing around where I live in the Eastern Cape tend to be fairly small and compact, while some of the ones growing along dry water courses in the Mountain Zebra National Park are tall trees. I have noticed several Vachellia karroo trees in this park hosting a type of hemi-parasite known as Agelanthus sp. on their branches.

The trees are fast growing and drought-resistant, with branching usually occurring close to the ground. They have a distinctive round crown and are covered with tiny golden yellow puff-ball / pompon type flower heads during the summer, which are delightfully sweet-scented.

The bark can be rough and fissured, while the long, straight white thorns formed in pairs are characteristic of these trees. Funnily enough, it is these thorns that I miss whenever I have been out of the country for a while.

Pods produced after flowering are initially green, but turn a rusty to dark brown colour when mature.  They vary in shape from almost straight to sickle-shaped. Animals eat the leaves, pods and flowers. The latter produce large quantities of nectar and pollen which attracts a variety of insects. The presence of these trees in the veld is an indicator of sweet veld – prized for good grazing and fertile soils.

Birds build their nests in these trees too. This rather untidy one belongs to a White-browed Sparrow-weaver.

 

YESTERDAY-TODAY-AND-TOMORROW

I wish I could convey to you the wonderfully sweet fragrance emanating from the Yesterday-Today-and-Tomorrow shrubs growing in my garden – especially now as the day cools down towards evening after a day peaking at 30°C. Their fragrance seems so much better after a hot day. In Afrikaans it is known as Verbleikblom (bleaching flower) and you might know it better by its scientific designation of Brunsfelsia pauciflora.

These evergreen to deciduous shrubs have been popular in South African gardens ever since I can remember. Originally from Brazil, they thrive best is warm, humid conditions and prefer semi-shade. The first one I planted many years ago in semi-shade has grown tall in its search for light as the trees around it have left it in deep shade: I very seldom see it in bloom. The other two receive bright sunshine in the morning and in the afternoon respectively and are filled with blossoms, especially after rain during spring and summer.

Why the lengthy common name? The flowers are a deep violet to purple colour on opening and fade daily to a pale lavender and then to white.

The leaves are elliptical and leathery with a waxy sheen.

It is a real joy to walk around the garden in the dying light of the day with the wonderful fragrance from these trees wafting in the warm air.

 

OBSERVATIONS WHILST INVIGILATING AN EXAMINATION

It was on 2nd November seven years ago that I found myself ensconced in a tiny room adjacent to a school hall. The room was only large enough to hold a single school desk and two chairs. This is where a Grade 11 pupil was in the throes of writing a Life Orientation examination. I had read the question paper to her – her concession required her to have a reader and so I doubled up as her invigilator. I had reread several questions at her request and she had finally reached the last question which required an answer in the form of an essay. This gave me a brief respite in which to observe my surroundings.

Apart from keeping an eye on the time, I was now more or less left to my own devices until the end of the examination. By turning my chair slightly, I could see the 1820 Settler’s Monument brooding above the bush-covered Signal Hill that overlooks the town.

In the late afternoon its sombre brick exterior looked foreboding against the heavy grey sky above it. Bulges of dark clouds moved slowly across the hilly horizon before merging with the steely mass above.

The wind whistled and howled, sounding at times like a banshee and at others like waves curling and crashing in a stormy sea. Raindrops began to fall solidly. The heavy streaks of rain fell at an oblique angle that formed silvery slivers against the moisture-darkened trunks of the oak trees in the foreground.

The lighter branches of a wild olive tree swayed and shook as the wind picked up speed and roared past as if in a rush to move on. Only the deep red clusters of huilboerboon flowers provided colourful relief in the grim, wet, cold landscape I could see from the narrow doorway.

As the wind abated, these flowers were visited by redwinged starlings and green woodhoopoes feeding on their rich source of nourishing nectar. Almost unnoticed, growing as it was at the base of a wild olive tree, a yellow dandelion nodded in the wind.

It seemed to be greeting a damp speckled pigeon strutting passed it along the wet brick pathway where blades of bright green grass, too short to bow to the wind, poked between the cracks.

At last the wind died down to a low hum that barely caressed the leaves of the trees growing outside the examination venue. Patches of blue sky appeared as the grey clouds turned paler before dissipating. The late afternoon sunlight highlighted remnants of the distant towers of cumulus clouds. It briefly turned their tops into a brilliant white, while shadows lower down emphasised still boiling bulges in the clouds.

For a moment the Monument donned a more benign mantle, its walls looked brighter and is west-facing windows winked in the golden sunlight. The grass and bushes on Signal Hill appeared to glow from within as the sun lowered towards the horizon.

The sun had won the battle against the clouds. Its mellowing light enhanced the hues of green, enriched the colour of the crimson flowers and made the tiny dandelion appear larger than it was. Raindrops sparkled on the grass. Hadeda ibises rejoiced raucously as they flew across the valley and a village weaver emerged from its temporary shelter to inspect the huilboerboon flowers.

The examination was over and we were both free to leave.

CAPE CHESTNUT II

This is the time of year when we revel in the beautiful blossoms of the Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense) trees that are popular street trees in our town. These are ones growing along the extension of the street where we live. They are not as tall as one would expect them to be in their natural environment.

There is a magnificent specimen in our garden, which has had to compete with the other trees for light and space and so has grown beautifully tall over the years.

Apart from the elegant shape of these trees, it is their large heads of beautiful pink flowers that attract attention.

The flowers have five characteristic light red sterile stamens that resemble petals, with purplish gland dots.

These trees grow naturally in forests from the south-western Cape, along the eastern coast and through to parts of Mpumalanga. They are lovely shade trees as, here anyway, they are evergreen. The slightly glossy leaves have a clearly defined mid-rib and the veins can be clearly seen on the underside of the leaves. Another characteristic is the presence of oil glands on the leaves, visible as tiny translucent dots when held up to the light. When crushed, the leaves exude a faint lemony smell.

The bark is an attractive mottled streaky grey. In our garden it is also covered with lichen.

References:

https://pza.sanbi.org/calodendrum-capense

Pienaar Kristo. Gardening with Indigenous Plants. Struik Timmins Publishers. Cape Town 1991.

Van der Spuy Una. South African Shrubs & Trees for the Garden. Hugh Keartland Publishers. Johannesburg 1976.

Van Wyk Braam and Van Wyk Piet. Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa. Struik Nature. Cape Town 2013.