Celebrating Indigenous Trees in Your Garden

In honor of Arbour Month in South Africa, Greenpop’s Matthew Koehorst has provided us with some lovely tips for growing indigenous trees in our very own gardens. Whether big or small, these remarkable plants can make a great addition to your home while helping to sustain healthy, functional ecosystems.

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By Matthew Koehorst- Head of Department of Planting and Sustainability at Greenpop, a Cape Town based Tree Planting and Environmental Education organisation.

September is Arbour Month in South Africa and a great opportunity for us to reflect on the massive diversity of beautiful indigenous trees that our country is lucky enough to have. Southern Africa is home to around 1700 different species of trees, all of which are adapted and suited to their local conditions, and all of which have a valuable role to play in their native ecosystems. Many indigenous trees are also fantastic for landscaping and can add a lot of value to your green spaces at home.

Trees serve as a great addition to gardens and landscapes for a variety of reasons. They provide edible fruits and medicine, fix nitrogen into the soil, attract beneficial pollinators, stabilise soils, provide shade, act as windbreaks and add beautiful form to your landscape.

Planting a tree should be considered a long term investment on your property as they typically take several years before being of substantial size and presence. Most plant nurseries stock indigenous trees. However, specialists in the field are more able to provide good advice for your tree requirements and to recommend the right trees for you needs. It’s a good idea to think through the following factors when considering the purchase of indigenous trees:

  1. Space available- How much space do you have and how big would you like your tree to be? Indigenous trees can range in size from 3-5 meters all the way to 20 meters plus. It’s important to consider the habits of the roots of your tree and whether you are planting near any piping, drains or power lines.
  2. Purpose of planting—Why do you want to plant a tree? Is it for shade, a windbreak, to attract birds, to provide a screen from your neighbours, for its natural beauty or perhaps something else?
  3. Soil type and water availability- What is the soil like where you want to plant and will you be able to meet the water demands of the tree? Some trees prefer sandy soils, other clayey soils, and many are well adapted to a range of soil types. Similarly, some trees require small amounts of water and are relatively able to look after themselves, while others require larger amounts and may need more care and attention in getting established.
  4. Budget- How much money do you have to spend? The prices of indigenous trees can vary from R20 for a young and small tree, all the way to R5000 and above for large, well established landscaping trees. Deciding how much you want to spend on your tree will effect the size, type, and quality of the tree you can purchase.

Types of indigenous trees

There are many species and families of indigenous trees, each with their own characteristics, benefits, and habits. When purchasing a tree, understanding what personality you want your tree to have will go a long way in helping you make a decision. Here is a very short list of some popular trees for landscaping and garden use:

Yellowwoods- Afrocarpus species (previously Podocarpus)

A yellowwood tree stands in all its glory. Picture by: Matthew Koehorst.

A yellowwood tree stands in all its glory. Picture by: Matthew Koehorst.

These beautiful and substantial slow growing trees can grow massive, in nature up to 30m and more and are South Africa’s national tree. They provide great shade, have fruits that attract birds, and are very attractive trees. However, they do take around 10 years before they are of susbstantial size.

Wild Figs- Ficus species

Wild Figs

The Ficus family is massive with over 800 species worldwide. In South Africa there are several species including Ficus sur and Ficus natelensis which are great for larger gardens. These sprawling trees are beautiful and provide fruit for birds and great shade. However, they may have invasive roots so don’t plant them near buildings or sewerage systems. They are fast growing.

Acacias- Vachellia species

Acacia Tree

The Vachellia family (previously Acacias, but renamed recently) consists of tough and hardy nitrogen fixing trees, typically with thorns, that are well adapted to drier conditions like central and northern South Africa, though they grow well in many regions. They attract pollinators, fix nitrogen into the soil, provide shade, and can provide protection and security due to their thorny nature.

There are obviously a huge variety of other indigenous trees that may be suited to your specific region and area, whether you live on the coastline, in the mountains, or on the highlands of our beautiful country. For a very comprehensive list of indigenous trees and their characteristics to help in your decision making, visit www.plantzafrica.com for access to the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s amazing free resource.

We’re lucky enough to be spoilt for choice in the tree department in South Africa, so get out there and plant away.

Happy planting!