I CAN for Conservation

It has been calculated that to replace the wood and paper we use in a year, each and every one of us needs to plant at least one new tree every year. So when did you plant your last tree? For many of us the answer would be never. The sad reality is that while most of us are good at taking from the planet, very few really put back.

Thankfully Michele Hofmeyr and the Skukuza Indigenous Nursery are making it easier for everyone to give a little back to the planet this year and what's more in the process there will be some recycling too! It all started with a question. What could be done with the old tins found in an old dusty Kruger storeroom that had been condemned for food use? The answer the Joint Initiative team from Scientific Services and Conservation Management came up with was to use them to inspire kids to get planting.

The team came up with "I Can for Conservation" - a philosophy that everyone can do something for conservation. Even if it is a small gesture like planting a seed and helping a tree to grow makes a difference. The team filled each tin with everything you need to grow five new trees. The seeds, potting material, instructions and information about the tree you are about to grow.

"We started with Arbour week with the idea that it's better for a child to grow their own tree and plant it themselves than for 100 children to watch a tree being planted as they usually do at a conventional tree planting Arbour Day thing" explains Kruger Park botanist Michele Hofmyer.

The fever trees seeds were the first to be used. "We chose fever trees for a number of reasons. Fever trees are one of the species selected to be 'tree of the year' this year and are also native to the Kruger National Park", Michele explains, "It is important that we choose plants from the Park, as you should always choose plants endemic to the area you are planting in. This way you ensure your plants are suitable to those habitat conditions. We have a big problem with invasive alien plant species in South Africa.

These often out-compete our native varieties, especially when it comes to water usage. But the most important characteristic of the fever tree is that it's an Acacia, and therefore they are fast and easy to grow from seed. This is essential as the 'I Can for Conservation' scheme was aimed at inspiring children to plant and grow a tree. Kids easily lose interest if they have to wait too long to see results, so we needed to choose a tree that they could see growing in front of their eyes and the fever tree was a perfect choice".

The first cans made were to be distributed to children from local schools as part of a greening campaign. "They were a real success, the children loved them. It is a great way of getting children involved and excited about the world around them. Looking after a plant, making sure it grows, is a responsibility the children relish". But it is not just children that are enjoying the 'tree in a can' scheme.

The concept has quickly caught on and Michele and her team have found themselves making thousands of cans. "So many people have asked for cans, from school greening projects, to the Honorary Rangers. They have even been used in SANParks functions. We sell the cans for R10 and people can pick them up at the Skukuza Nursery, but if people do need a large order we ask people to phone ahead because it's a very labour intensive process."

The 'I Can for Conservation" scheme has been a real success story and is proof that with a little bit of imagination almost anything can be recycled.

There is something quite inspiring about taking something that was once unusable and giving it a new breath of life, especially if it makes growing a tree suddenly accessible to everyone. "So the next time you're in the Park and want to do something really wonderful, grab a can and plant a tree."

The Fever Tree, 
Tree of the Year 2010

The fever tree may be 'Tree of the Year' in 2010, but then so are three others. In fact there is always more that one 'Tree of the Year". The campaign is part of a larger Arbour Day celebration, where two trees are usually selected, one common and one rare to highlight indigenous South African trees. These trees then become the "poster-boys" for all indigenous trees, raising awareness about the wealth of tree species we have in South Africa.

For 2010 four species were selected. One common variety, the fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea) known in Afrikaans as the koorsboom and three rare species: Cladostemon kirkii - the butterfly tree or tonga-kierie, Rothmannia globosa - September bells or klokkies-valskatjiepiering and Rothmannia capensis - wild gardenia or wildekatjiepiering.

The hope is that by making these species 'Tree of the Year' for 2010, people will be encouraged to plant them. Although the selection of inoffensive sounding butterfly tree could backfire if you start opening the fruits! Spread sparsely over a huge geographical range, from Kenya to Kwazulu Natal, it only grows in restricted habitats in South Africa so is unsuitable for many gardens.

However it can be found in the Kruger National Park and Skukuza nursery always has some in stock. Interestingly it is an important ceremonial plant in some Mozambican burial rituals and despite the smell of its seed it is an unusually attractive plant.

Thankfully the other two rare trees species selected, the September bells and wild gardenia, repay gardeners with a bouquet of pleasant aromas. Both trees are part of the Rothmannia genus and found in Limpopo. Wild gardenia is also found all the way down to the Western Cape and September bells ranges along the East Coast. Both plants produce stunning bell-shaped floral displays, with vivid splashes of pink and purple in the flower's tube. They make a stunning addition to any garden as the strong sweet scent of their flowers lingers long after they have gone. While they don't naturally occur in the Kruger National Park and so cannot be found in the Skukuza Nursery, they can be found at most specialist horticultural suppliers.

The main difference between the two species is the size to which they will grow. Wild gardenia can grow to a towering 20m in some forests but is much more likely to reach 12-15m, where as September bells are more slender growing to around 5-7m in height. Both have interesting uses in the muti world as cures for leprosy, and in the case of wild gardenia rheumatism.

The juice of wild gardenia fruits is also traditionally applied to burns and wounds to speed up the healing process and men of the Mpondo tribe use the shells from the September bell as clothing. But for me, nothing rivals the ethereal magnificence of a fever tree. With its shimmering semi-luminous lime green bark coated in a sulphurous fine yellow powder and feather-like canopy, the fever tree is one of the most easily recognised in Kruger.

Found predominantly in depressions or shallow pans where underground water is present or surface water collects, fever trees are abundant along river banks, the margins of lakes and in most swampy areas. It is due to their proximity to often-stagnant water bodies that the fever tree got its name.

Early pioneers noticed how bouts of fever often coincided with living near, or traveling through, fever tree forests. Putting one and two together and coming up with eight, they blamed the trees rather than the mosquitoes and other biting insects that also dwelled in these wet areas and gave the tree its name.

Found across the African continent from Kenya to Kwazulu Natal, the fever tree has become a favourite with South African gardeners looking for a quick result. Being an Acacia the fever tree grows incredibly quickly, up to 1.5m a year. This makes it an ideal tree to plant if you want to give the impression of an established garden in a short period of time. It is also good for the garden, enriching the soil thanks to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria found amidst its root nodules.

By Dr Katy Johnson

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