Arborisation: the planet's oldest living things

To plant a tree, it is said, is an act of faith; faith in a future beyond one’s own imagining; faith in the fact that the tree will grow to feed and shelter generations yet undreamed of.

This is the ideal behind National Arbour Week (Iviki Lezihlahla), held every year from September 1 to 7.

Arbour Day, which originated in the United States in 1854, was first celebrated in South Africa in 1983, with the aim of raising awareness of the value of trees in our communities.
So popular was this event that, in 1997, it was extended to the seven-day Arbour Week, with the continued aim of motivating schools, businesses and communities not only to protect our diverse natural tree heritage, but also to sponsor and plant new trees.

South Africa, after all, has a proud heritage of tree planting and preservation. The City of Johannesburg, for instance, is the largest cultivated forest in the world, with over 10 million trees having been planted there since its gold-rush beginnings in 1886. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted in greening initiatives over the past three years alone, focusing on areas such as Soweto and Orange Farm, south of the city.

In other parts of the country, rare Afro-montaine habitats are carefully protected by local businesses and communities, botanical gardens are well supported by the public and botanical societies, greening initiatives are embraced enthusiastically and the special place of trees in traditional culture is always honoured.

Champion Trees campaign
The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is at the forefront of tree preservation, a focus spearheaded by its Champion Trees project. The project identifies trees worthy of special protection throughout South Africa and is the only one of its kind on the continent.

The first tree to be given protected status—in 2003—was an historic English oak, the only remnant of old Sophiatown, which was razed to the ground in terms of the Group Areas Act in the 1950s. Since then, many other historic trees have been identified for special protection, and the department reviews further applications from environmental organisations and the public every year in August.

Million Trees campaign
In a complementary initiative, President Thabo Mbeki and the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Lindiwe Hendricks, launched the Million Trees Campaign during Arbour Week last year, aligning to the United Nations’ Billion Trees Campaign, launched in 2006. 

In her budget vote speech this year, Hendricks announced that 501 000 fruit trees and 145 000 ornamental indigenous trees were planted countrywide since the launch of the campaign, and assured South Africans that this was just the beginning. “We will continue with our campaign to plant more trees throughout the year,” she said, “and are cooperating with the private sector, municipalities and other community-based organisations in this initiative.

“The Million Trees Campaign is expected to contribute to sustainable livelihoods by providing people with food, and will initially be concentrated in the integrated sustainable rural development programme nodal areas.”

The department is again calling on South Africans to celebrate Arbour Week by planting trees in their communities, not only to provide food and beautify the environment, but also to mitigate against the effects of climate change.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, South Africa’s economy is between five and 10 times more carbon-intense than that of the US in terms of tons of CO2 produced per dollar of gross domestic product, and the average South African produces three times more carbon emissions than the average Chinese. Our carbon footprint, then, is a disturbingly heavy one, and the need to plant trees to offset this is pressing.

Food and Trees for Africa
The department’s call, as always, is supported by a founder member of Arbour Week, Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA), the first non-profit, civil society-based greening and food gardening organisation in South Africa.

FTFA was established in 1990 by a group of concerned citizens representing the country’s major greening organisations and initiatives, recognising that the only way to ensure a sustainable future for all of the country’s people was to focus on greening both the urban and the rural environment, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

By 1994 its work had been endorsed by both the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Education, and in that year alone the fledgling organisation planted 62 000 trees. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, launching such successful initiatives as the National Tree Distribution Programme, EduPlant, the Permaculture Network, Trees for Homes, the Carbon Standard and the Urban Greening Fund, as well as becoming the sub-Saharan partner of Global ReLeaf.

Receiving the UN Environmental Programme Sasakwa Prize with co-winner Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha last year, founder and chief executive Jeunesse Park reiterated: “FTFA aims for sustainability and replication and, in the past few years, it has been encouraging to see the government and the private sector in South Africa approach us for assistance in addressing greening and climate change. We feel that over the past 18 years we have sown the seeds of awareness and they are now germinating and growing to ensure sustainable development for our emerging democracy.”

Focus on indigenous trees
The focus of Arbour Week is on indigenous trees and every year two indigenous tree species, one common and one rare, are highlighted. This year, three species have been selected, the widely distributed Wild Plum, and two rare species, the Bladder Nut Tree and the Bell Bean Tree.

The Wild Plum (Harpephyllum caffrum) is an attractive evergreen that grows up to 15 metres in height and is usually planted as an ornamental tree in gardens to attract birds and butterflies. With its thick crown and drooping leaves, it is also an excellent shade tree, bearing whitish-green flowers throughout the summer months. In autumn it produces a tasty plum-like red fruit that is enjoyed by people, animals and birds alike.

The fruit of the wild plum is commonly used for making jams and jellies and, with its sour taste, also used in the making of rosé wine. The bark is a popular traditional medicine used to treat ailments as diverse as acne and bone fractures.

The first of the two rare species being featured this year, the Bladder Nut Tree (Diospyros whyteana), is a small multistemmed tree with a straight trunk that branches low down to form a dense crown. The shiny leaves have a characteristic fringe of ginger hairs and are dark green with a leathery texture. In the spring, the tree bears bell-shaped scented flowers that hang from hairy stalks, and in summer bears fleshy berries that turn scarlet when ripe. These are enclosed in inflated, bladder-like capsules that give the tree its unusual name.

The leaves of the Bladder Nut Tree are browsed by stock and game, and the fruit eaten by birds. The roasted seeds are also used as a coffee substitute. Bark extracts are administered as enemas for treating menstrual pain, impotence and infertility, and a leaf and root infusion is also used to treat rashes.

The Bell Bean Tree (Markhamia zanzibarica) is also a small tree, with slender, crooked branches and a soft green crown. It usually grows to about 3,5m in height, but has been known to reach up to 8m in some instances. The young branches have conspicuous lenticels (raised pores on the surface of the bark), while the leaves are compound and imparipinnate, meaning that the tree has leaflets on either side of the stalk, which end in a terminal leaflet.

The tree’s flowers are a striking yellow with maroon flecks, are bell-shaped with spreading lobes, and are 2mm to 3mm in length. They appear in summer, while the fruit, which is between 300mm and 500mm long and spirally twisted, appears in late summer. Dark brown when mature, these split open lengthwise to release numerous flat, winged seeds.

The wood of the Bell Bean Tree is fairly hard and durable, and is used to make tool handles and roof timbers, as well as for ornaments. In traditional medicine, the roots are used to treat backache.

Trees like these and the hundreds of other species occurring in South Africa supply the most basic elements of life—oxygen, water vapour, food, shelter and fuel—and are one of the most efficient means of offsetting the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Trees are the largest organisms on Earth and live the longest of any life form, and without them people could not survive.

Combating crime
There are other interesting incentives for greening. Contrary to popular belief, trees in urban areas do not provide cover for criminals. A series of scientific studies by the University of Illinois demonstrated that residents living in greener surroundings actually report lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities and less violent behaviour. The study also found that the greener a building’s surroundings, the fewer reported crimes.

This is because vegetation has been shown to alleviate mental fatigue, one of the precursors to violent behaviour. Also, because green spaces are used more, there are “more eyes on the street”, so to speak, which may deter would-be criminals from committing crimes.

Individuals and communities wishing to participate in Arbour Week should contact FTFA for further information. And those who simply cannot fit another tree into their own gardens can log on to the organisation’s web site www.trees.co.za to sponsor the planting of a tree in the name of a loved one, for around R85. FTFA will post a certificate to the sponsor or beneficiary confirming that the tree was planted, and that the world is a greener, safer, kinder, more beautiful place for it.

Take a leap of faith on Arbour Day. Plant or sponsor a tree—not only for us, but for generations to come.

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