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Durban's baobabs... the trees that stood the test of time

Jeremy Oddy with his book Where the Baobab Grows at Durban High School.

Jeremy Oddy with his book Where the Baobab Grows at Durban High School.

Published Jun 27, 2018


Durban - While some baobabs in arid habitats to the north are collapsing, possibly because of climate change, the handful that have been introduced to gardens in Durban seem alive and well.

“I often visit the ones I know of and all seem healthy,” said Lyle Ground, an ecologist for eThekwini Municipality.

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“They are, however, hundreds of years younger than the specimens referred to in recent news articles.”

Durban is not the natural habitat of Africa’s grand baobab trees that grow for hundreds, even thousands, of years. However, a number of the succulent trees have been introduced to the city and surrounds, probably by residents planting them over the ages for the sake of having something bigger and better, according to former city horticulturist Geoff Nicol. Legend has it that convalescing British soldiers brought the two baobabs that now stand tall in Sarnia, growing bigger as properties in the suburb become smaller with time as they are sub-divided.

Nicol said none of the Durban trees were old enough to have developed hollow trunks or features that encourage them to host colonies of bees, bats and birds as they did further north.

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“There is young fruit on the ones in Sarnia, so local bats have been doing their thing, pollinating,” he said.

Jeremy Oddy with his book Where the Baobab Grows at Durban High School.

Other trees are on the Berea at Musgrave Centre and on the Durban High School field next to Stephen Dlamini (formerly Essenwood) Road. Then the Durban Botanic Gardens has two, there is one in KwaMashu and the International Conference Centre has three trees.

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According to DHS archivist Jeremy Oddy, a local resident gave one of two saplings she had in paint tins to legendary teacher Bill Payn.

One evening after a rugby match against Maritzburg College, Payn and two other teachers, Vic Pellew and AA Bear, decided to plant it in the ground.

Oddy stressed that the tree-like Payn, who was a Springbok rugby player, was “big and strong”.

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DHS’s first rugby team has worked on scrum machines under the baobab and in 2008, the ashes of old boy, George Ridgeway, were brought back from Scotland to be scattered around it.

A book about the school’s history, written by Oddy, has the title: Where the Baobab Grows at Durban High School.

Meanwhile, the other baobab in a paint tin is a block away, at the entrance to

Musgrave Centre.

A baobab tree, dubbed ‘Africa’s wooden elephant’, stands beside a wire art elephant in the Durban Botanic Gardens. Pictures: Duncan Guy

Down the hill, a specimen in the Durban Botanic Gardens has more leaves than the others on the Berea, and has a wire art elephant at its base.

As well as being called “the upside down tree” after folklore that God inverted the boabab, putting its roots in the air, Adonsonia digitata, as the baobab is scientifically known, is also referred to as “Africa’s wooden elephant’’. Six years ago, Durban photographer Roger Jardine went about photographing them for a personal project. “It seemed unusual to me that they were growing in such a tropical climate,” said Jardine, who at the same time saw them in their real habitat in arid Limpopo while on a photographic shoot.

While climate change has not yet been known to affect Durban’s baobabs, humans have harmed them.

Tree remover Duncan Gillon recalled being called in to cut one up after it had collapsed in the area of Peter Mokaba (Ridge) Road about five years ago.

“Residents in the area had cut a platform in it and pushed soil on to the stem, making it unstable. It then collapsed,” Gillon recalled.

There are eight species of baobab: one indigenous to Africa, Arabia and Asia. Another is indigenous to Australia and six species are indigenous to Madagascar, which is only a couple of hundred kilometres away from Durban than Limpopo. But they are divided from mainland Africa by around 135 million years.

The Independent on Saturday

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