Tree of the year: Everything you need to know about the humble Spekboom
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The popular Spekboom has been selected as one of South Africa’s three trees of the year – part of the celebration of Arbor Week which is marked annually in the first week of September.
The other two are the sweet thorn and the pepper bark tree.
As the custodian of forestry in South Africa, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development is responsible for Arbor Week, which aims to encourage the planting and conservation of trees, particularly indigenous and threatened tree species.
“Arbor” is derived from the mid-17th century French word “arbre” meaning tree, and is also associated with the Latin word for tree.
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Each year since 1996, two tree species have been chosen as “tree of the year”, one common and one rare, but this year the department selected three trees instead of two.
The Dendrological Society of South Africa, which promotes knowledge, protection and propagation of trees and their ecosystems, explained: “The extended list of trees of the year now consists of a common tree, a tree for promotion and a tree for appreciation.”
The society described the common tree as one found widely and easy to grow, the tree for promotion as less common, and the tree for appreciation being one whose habitat was more restricted
• The common tree is the sweet thorn – Vachellia karroo. It is a deciduous tree in areas with cold, dry winters, and can be evergreen in areas with regular rainfall. They can grow up to 12m tall and need full sun. They should be planted well away from walls as they have strong, invasive roots.
Once established, they are frost and drought resistant.
Sweet thorns are excellent shade trees with a stunning canopy. The flowers produce an abundance of nectar and pollen for beekeepers.
Ten species of caterpillar rely on the sweet thorn as a source of food while the tree provides ideal protection for nesting birds.
The thorns of this tree were historically used as sewing needles and pins, while the wood is used to build fences around royal Zulu households. The tree also used to be a welcome sight for thirsty travellers as it indicated that water could be found close by.
• The promotional tree is the Spekboom – Portulacaria afra. The SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) lists several names – which include porkbush or elephant's food; Spekboom or olifantskos; iNtelezi, isiDondwane, isAmbilane, iNdibili, isiCococo in isiZulu.
The common name of Spekboom translates to “bacon tree” because of its plump round leaves which can be eaten raw.
SANBI says the tree is a soil binder for preventing soil erosion in arid areas making it vital for habitat conservation and restoration.
Traditional uses include increasing milk production in breastfeeding mothers. Eating the leaves can quench thirst, treat exhaustion and heatstroke. Crushed leaves can be rubbed on blisters and corns on the feet.
The leaves can be chewed as a treatment for sore throat and mouth infections while the juice can be used on the skin to treat pimples, rashes and insect stings. The juice is also used as an antiseptic and as a treatment for sunburn.
Spekboom is an evergreen succulent shrub that likes full sun or semi-shade and will grow to around 2m in a suburban garden. It can withstand moderate frost and needs very little water. Small, pink flowers cover the plant from late winter to early summer.
• The tree for appreciation is the pepper bark tree – Warburgiasalutaris. It is an attractive, evergreen and slender tree that loves the sun but will tolerate semi-shaded areas as well too.
They can grow up to 7.5m, needing moderate amounts of water. It produces a small, greenish-white flower from mid-autumn to early winter, fruiting leathery berries from mid-winter to early summer.
The pepper bark tree has been chosen because it is now an endangered species, due to its overharvesting for medicinal purposes in the wild.
The tree's bark and roots have been used for centuries to treat ailments including malaria, sinusitis, burns and diarrhoea.
In 2019, a small bundle of peppery tasting bark sold for around R20 in urban areas, less in the countryside. This means that a large amount is usually harvested to generate an adequate income.
Dr Jenny Botha, People in Conservation programme manager with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, says: “Traditionally, medicinal plants were protected through careful harvesting techniques handed down over the generations.
“But now plant material is often harvested by non-specialist gatherers. While trees can withstand a controlled amount of harvesting of bark, if too much bark is harvested from an individual, or it is ring barked, the tree is likely to die.”
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