In celebration of Arbor Week (1-7 September), we take a look at some of the remarkable trees that grace our landscapes.
Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus)
A visit to the Knysna forest is a magical experience. Sunlight filters through the leaves to create a soft, beautiful light while the busy sounds of the outside world are muted to a hush. A walk among the forest’s magnificent trees is undoubtedly good for the soul. And among these forest dwellers there is none more impressive than the Outeniqua yellowwood.
South Africa’s tallest indigenous forest tree can reach up to 50m in height and live for over 2 000 years. The species is nationally protected and in 2018 the Outeniqua yellowwood and some of its forest cousins, the Henkel and real yellowwoods, were crowned the tree of the year. This tall evergreen tree is prized for its beautiful wood while the dense canopy makes an ideal nesting site for various birds.
Although any mature yellowwood will tower above you, there are four forest giants in Garden Route National Park that will give you renewed respect for these trees. The Woodville Big Tree stands 31m tall and is believed to be over 800 years old. The Big Tree in Tsitsikamma Forest is more than 36m tall and measures 9m around the trunk. At 40m tall, the Dalene Matthee Big Tree is nudging 900 years in age.
But most famous of all is the King Edward VII Big Tree, situated at the Diepwalle Forest Station outside Knysna. While many of the large yellowwoods in Knysna were felled in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this tree survived because it was too big to tackle. There is something very special about standing at the foot of this tree and following its trunk up into the sky. Be warned, you’ll get a crick in your neck!
Good to know: A 450m circular boardwalk leads to this remarkable tree. There are picnic tables and bush toilets available. At the same time you can visit the fascinating Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle.
Baobab (Adansonia digitata)
During winter when its branches are bare, the many-fingered twigs and branchlets of the baobab tree look like a root system reaching up into the bright blue sky. It’s easy to see why it’s also known as the upside-down tree. What you may be surprised to learn is that it’s not strictly considered a tree. Instead the baobab is the largest succulent plant in the world. So large, in fact, that one enormous specimen in Modjadjiskloof hosted a bar inside the trunk. The stem of impressive specimens can measure upwards of 10m in diameter – it would take several people holding hands to reach around it.
In the Kruger National Park, the sight of baobabs is a sign that you’re moving from the busy south of the park to the more secluded north. Gorgeous Shimuwini Bush Camp on the Letaba River takes its name from a Shangaan word that means Place of the Baobab Tree. And in Mopani Camp there is a well-preserved baobab that allows for a close inspection. These trees have smooth grey-brown trunks and are completely transformed in early summer when large green leaves and sweet, white flowers appear.
Large baobabs are believed to be many hundreds, even thousands of years old. To fully appreciate the age of these trees, visit the Thulamela Ruins in Kruger. Here low stone walls weave in between venerable specimens. To sit at the foot of a baobab as you listen to the guide is to be transported back many centuries ago to a time when people and wild animals lived side by side.
Good to know: To visit Thulamela, you must book a guided trip through Punda Maria Rest Camp. Children must be 12 or older to participate. Price R240 a person. Minimum 2, maximum 8 to a tour group.
Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cederbergensis)
“The old men of the mountain” is how Patrick Lane, CapeNature’s conservation manager for the Cederberg Wilderness Area, describes these large gnarled trees found only in the Cederberg mountains. “Their size is phenomenal, they have wonderful shapes. Standing beneath them, you are in awe.”
Clanwilliam cedars have been known to grow as tall as 20m and as wide as 11. Unfortunately, their massive size and beautiful, durable wood made them a target of early settlers. The trees were chopped down for floorboards, window frames, doors and furniture. Where once these trees were abundant in the Cederberg, by 1883 nearly all commercially viable trees had been felled.
These days you’d have to hike to deep into the mountains in the hope of seeing a Clanwilliam cedar. But not all is lost. A joint initiative by CapeNature and Bushmans Kloof is planting cedar tree saplings so that this iconic tree may one day thrive again. Every year children at nearby Elizabethfontein Primary School plant around 1 000 seeds to contribute to the efforts. There is hope that these seeds and saplings will grow into statuesque trees.
If you want to spend more time in nature enjoying forest walks or picnicking in the shade of trees, you’ll love having a Wild Card. An annual membership gives you a year’s unlimited access to more than 80 parks and reserves across South Africa. Visit Wild Card to find out more.