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Trees tell the rich history of Joburg

Satellite pictures of Johannesburg closely resemble a rambling rainforest, yet savannah grassland scattered with shrubs was endemic to the area. How did the forest begin, and who planted those first trees?

It all started with a small shanty-town in 1886. In 1888 the Braamfontein Cemetery was opened, followed by Joubert Park, and by 1903 Johannesburg had 10 parks and one cemetery.

Before gold was discovered in the area in 1886, there were several farmers on the Witwatersrand. These early farmers brought seeds from the Cape and planted oak and walnut trees.

The Bezuidenhout family were among the first white settlers in the area and built their farmhouse in 1863 on the farm Doornfontein. They planted fruit trees in Judith's Paarl and Cyrildene, east of the city centre, but the trees no longer exist.

The farm had a "walnut walk", an avenue of walnut trees leading to the present-day bowling green. Walnut trees only last about 50 years, so the walk and trees are long gone. A curved row of around six glorious large oak trees remain in front of the house, probably offspring of the original oak trees.

On the other side of town was the farm Braamfontein, owned by Louw Geldenhuys, who built his farmhouse against the Melville Koppies ridge. His wife, Emmarentia, planted an oak tree and five palm trees in front of the house. These trees still exist, as does the house.

When the suburb of Emmarentia was laid out in 1937, the town planners wanted to cut down the oak tree because it was in the path of a road. Emmarentia put her foot down – the oak was to stay. The tree is now on the pavement.

More recently, former mayor Amos Masondo issued a directive to Johannesburg City Parks to plant 300 000 trees to bridge the green divide.

Tree planting commenced in areas such as Soweto, Orange Farm, Alexandra, Lenasia and Eldorado in earnest and over 240 000 trees have been planted as part of this process.

First public park

The first early park laid out for the rapidly growing city was Joubert Park, in 1887. Early photographs of the park show a neatly planned Victorian parkland, with a variety of conifers.

A stroll through the Braamfontein and Brixton cemeteries (laid out in1887 and 1912 respectively), north-west of the city centre, will reveal many majestic old trees, among them oaks, pines, cork oaks, and blue gums.

As the demand for trees grew, plants were imported from KwaZulu-Natal, but also from overseas. By 1904 a parks department had been established to care for the city's four major parks: Joubert Park, End Street Park in Doornfontein, Oval Park in Parktown and Jeppe Park.

By 1934 the number of parks had increased to 67, and there was an active tree-planting policy by the council, with 8 000 trees being planted each year.

The first residential suburb of the wealthy Randlords was Doornfontein, east of the city. But there were not enough trees in the basin below the Hillbrow ridge and when the wind blew, Doornfontein became a dustbowl.

At the time, Geldenhuys started selling the western portions of his farm Braamfontein, which became the early northern suburbs of the city: Parktown, Parkview and Forest Town.

Parktown became the suburb of the Randlords, who actively started planting trees, so that within a short time it became known as the "garden suburb". Large plane trees can still be seen in Parkview. Parktown has some large pepper trees which were originally planted near the stables to ward off fleas.

Mine props

One of the demands of deep level mining was wooden props to line the underground tunnels. Over a million trees were planted in what are now known as Zoo Lake and the Johannesburg Zoo, in what is now Saxonwold, an area of 1 300 acres.

They were blue and red gum trees, quick-growing and ideal for use as mine props.

Oaks, pines and wattles were also planted. Picnic spots with benches were created in the forest, and it became a favourite picnic and riding area.

Remnants of the forest can still be seen and suburbs subsequently established in the area reflect this history in their names.

Johannesburg is now an urban forest with about 10-million trees, over 2 343 parks and 36 cemeteries.

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