The first week of September will see school children and responsible adults from around the country hauling out their spades in celebration of National Arbor Week. A newspaper editor with a passion for trees started the tree-planting tradition of Arbor Day in 1872 in Nebraska, United States of America. His influence has now spread around the world and South Africa has been officially celebrating Arbor Day since 1983.
Every year the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry plays a prominent role in encouraging South Africans to green the country. Their emphasis has been focussing in recent years on planting trees in townships and poor rural areas. Every year two indigenous trees are chosen, one common and one rare, to be the 'trees of the year'.
This year the rare baobab tree (Adansonia digitata or kremetart) has been chosen. This distinctive tree can grow up to 20m tall, and is characterised by smooth, folded bark. It is regarded as a 'keystone species' in the Kruger National Park for its importance to many animal species. In keeping with its massive size, the tree produces flowers that can be up to 20cm in diameter.
The tree is pollinated by bats, and produces seedpods that can vary enormously in size. Seedpods provide pulp that contains tartaric acid, which makes "cream of tartar". In South Africa, its distribution is mainly limited to the Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces. Its distinctive silhouette is also featured on all Limpopo number plates in its role as the emblem of the province. The second, more common, tree of the year is the false cabbage tree or Schefflera umbellifera (basterkiepersol).
Like the baobab, this tree has leaves that grow from a stalk in sets of uneven numbers like an outspread hand, known as palmately compound. It is a medium to tall tree, with a straight stem and a rounded crown. It naturally occurs in coastal and montane forests, but will grow well as a container plant or a decorative shade tree. The fruits of the tree are beloved by birds.
Only after the seeds have passed through an animal's digestive tract can they germinate in nature. Its leaves and bark have medicinal properties, as do the baobab's. Arbor Week offers people a chance to put some of South Africa's biodiversity back into urban settings and improve people's knowledge of the indigenous treasures that grow in the veld. Even if your garden doesn't need any more trees, buy a tree this Arbor Week and donate it to an underprivileged school or institution.