By Karen Watkins
Cape Town - Silver trees once formed beautiful silvery swathes on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. From Lion’s Head south they were so plentiful that they were used as firewood by early settlers. Now this member of the protea family is considered endangered because of its limited natural habitat. Silver trees grow on granitic soil below Table Mountain sandstone on cool southerly slopes. Because of development, afforestation and alien invasive plants this habitat has shrunk by at least 60 percent.
Recently, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and the Botanical Society of South Africa planted thousands of silver tree seedlings as part of their centenary celebrations. They teamed up with partners to launch the Silver Tree Restoration Project.
The plan is to create a 4km shaded Silver Tree Avenue between the historic cork oak grove where Southern Cross Drive intersects Rhodes Drive, winding along the lower slopes of the mountain to the Rycroft Gate in Kirstenbosch.
But you don’t have to wait that long to be able to walk in the shade of these iconic trees. Nearby, on the slopes of Vlakkenberg, above the Witteboom station and Silverhurst (“hurst” means wooded hill), is a dense forest of silver trees.
To get there, start from the top of Price Drive, off Constantia Main Road, just past the turn-off to Groot Constantia Wine Estate. At the end of the road there is parking for about three cars. There is another parking area, just below the end of Price Drive, where there is a Table Mountain National Park signboard. If starting from here, follow the footpath to where steep logged steps ascend to a boom and the upper car park to the right.
For both hikes, from the boom, follow the dirt track to where it bends to the right, north. Take a narrow footpath to the left and follow this, gradually ascending, stopping to read labels on plants.
A little higher is a memorial plaque to Alf Morris (1923-2010). He began hacking aliens in the late 1970s when alien pine, stinkbean and long-leaved acacia formed an impenetrable curtain with no access to the peak.
Alf pioneered a monthly hack group in 1985 and these volunteers cleared aliens and replaced them with indigenous plants. They are also responsible for the labels and for building and maintaining paths.
Then came the widespread fires of 2000 that ravaged the Peninsula mountains. The fire on Vlakkenberg was particularly fierce, burning several houses and a fire engine. Recalling that night, volunteer hacker Jos DeGendt said the fire was so hot that the roots of the pine trees burned into holes a metre deep. The dead stumps of pine trees stand as a reminder.
Although the mountain looked like a disaster area, the fire provided an opportunity to clear the whole slope of aliens and plant silver trees, DeGendt says.
But the alien seed load was enormous and produced millions of seedlings that had to be cleared.
Once these were removed, silver tree cones were obtained from Kirstenbosch and later harvested on site, with volunteers germinating the seeds at home and, after a year, planting the seedlings on Vlakkenberg. As if this were not enough, the volunteers then carried bottles and tanks to water the seedlings throughout their first summer. This has led to the spectacle of thousands of silver trees that can be seen from across the Constantia Valley.
Continue ascending past the memorial plaque, ignoring two paths going off to the left. These lead into a ravine and are worth exploring on another day. For now, continue ascending and enjoying the silver tree forest. On reaching the open and a dead tree, this is where the rock changes from granitic soil to Table Mountain sandstone.
The path becomes steep before reaching the plateau. If you have had enough, return the way you came. If not, keep ascending to the top. You must take careful note of this point because you need to find it on your return.
Continue along the path to a junction. From here you can go left, which is easier, or continue, which requires route-finding skills.
Go left, in the direction of the Constantiaberg television transmitter, following a clear, undulating path to reach the trig beacon marked VL-RG 73.
Clamber up to the trig beacon and continue on the path on the opposite side, descending to a clear path. This eventually reaches the main path which is part of the Hoerikwaggo Trail.
Go right for about five minutes and look for a path and rock beacon to the left. An optional extra is to take this path and ascend to the trig beacon 193 VL-R6 N, where there are views over Hout Bay.
Back on the Hoerikwaggo Trail, continue descending on the footpath, which crosses a stream. At the lowest point of this path take another path to the right, marked by a cairn (rocks erected as a marker). Ascend this path, which becomes bushy higher up and tends to go left. This path leads to the main path traversing parallel and above the Constantia Valley.
Go left for about five minutes while looking for the footpath to the right, just before a trig beacon. Go to the right where it appears that you are walking over the edge. This is the point you had to take note of and where you ascended the mountain. From here retrace steps to the start. Go there soon because the area needs to be burnt. Fynbos, and particularly proteas, need fire every 12 to 20 years to germinate.
Vlakkenberg is looking fantastic, but any disturbance of the soil leads to aliens shooting up out of the ground. This shows the quantity of alien seeds that remains buried. The Friends of Vlakkenberg hack every third Saturday of the month. To join them, call Jos DeGendt at 021 712 7506. - Cape Times
l See www.proteaatlas.org.za/silver.htm Watkins is the author of Off the Beaten Track and Adventure Hikes in the Cape Peninsula.
The silver tree, Leucadendron argenteum or witteboom, is an evergreen tree growing up to 7m, with separate male and female plants. The fruit is a heavy woody cone containing numerous seeds; each seed is a small nut with a silky-haired helicopter-like parachute, enabling it to disperse by wind. Swedish scientist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus describes the species as “the most shining and splendid of all trees”. Today they remain one of the Cape’s most elegant. The tree was originally named Protea argentea by Linnaeus in 1753 but was renamed because of the conebushes being a genus of the Protea family. Argenteus is Latin for “silvery”.