Heritage trees of Cape Town: beacons of local history and culture

The early European settlers of the Cape voraciously denuded the region’s small patches of native forest. To meet their needs for timber, shade, fruit, aesthetic beauty and even defence from cattle raiders, the settlers also planted trees —primarily non-native trees—extensively. Consequently, many of the heritage trees found in Cape Town today have been introduced, typically from Europe or other distant parts of the world with historical trade links to the city. Yet even nonnative trees can have significant value, especially in terms of “cultural ecosystem services”. One need only ask: why do they stand where they do and what history occurred beneath their branches? Were battles waged? Was power brokered? Were treaties signed and enterprises born? Were slaves sold and convicts hung? Was sweet love made and violated?
Here follows a small selection of Cape Town’s heritage trees, that speaks of the city’s colourful culture and rich if brutal history.

Remarkable old trees can be found in almost any city. They may have led extraordinary lives, witnessing profound landscape transformations, events of historical significance, great suffering and elation. Over time, these ‘heritage trees’ can develop distinctive personalities, reflected in the various anecdotes that we attach to them. They can shed light on the cultural value systems and economic priorities of bygone generations. If approached with an inquisitive mind, they can also provide excellent starting points for journeys of learning about a city – journeys that have no fixed route or endpoint.

Cape Town—South Africa’s legislative capital and second most populated city—lies sprawling beneath the majestic Table Mountain in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, famous for its tremendous diversity and endemicity of plant species. Despite the obvious ecological stressors resulting from the city’s high metabolism and rapid expansion (c. 1.4% per annum), a spectacular richness of biodiversity survives within and around the city limits.

The Money Tree in Kalk Bay
Money may not grow on trees, but it often changes hands beneath their branches. In the sleepy fishing village of Kalk Bay in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, the Money Tree (Cupressus macrocarpa) is said to have sheltered countless transactions.
From the late 1600s to 1850s, Kalk Bay—as its name would suggest—supported a lime industry which burnt locally abundant seashells in kilns. With the demise of that industry, fishing emerged as the village’s economic staple. After each day at sea, it was under the Money Tree, safe from driving rain or blistering heat, that fishing boat skippers would dispense wages to their crews. So too, traders known as ‘langgannas’—a Malay word reflecting Capetonian ancestry—would gather around the Money Tree to purchase cartloads of fish. These they would lug some 30 kilometres north to Table Bay, blowing traditional fish horns at way stations to announce the arrival of their commerce.

Many of Kalk Bay’s ‘coloured’ residents survived the abhorrent Group Areas Act of 1966, receiving dispensation from forced removal. As such, Kalk Bay enjoys a cultural continuity unknown to other parts of Cape Town. However, decades of overfishing have dramatically reduced the size of the fishing fleet and the Money Tree now hangs rotting by the roadside, devoid of leaves, a skeleton of its former glory.

The Treaty Tree in Woodstock
On Treaty Road, in the post-industrial suburb of Woodstock, just east of Cape Town’s city center, there stands an ancient milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme), known as ‘The Treaty Tree’, which is well over 500 years old.
It was here on Cape Town’s original beachfront, that in 1510, the famous Portuguese explorer, Dom Francisco de Almeida, and 64 of his finest men met a gruesome end. A band of enraged Khoekhoe (local indigenous people) armed with only spears and stones slaughtered the Portuguese, revenging cattle raids, abductions and extortion.In later centuries, the tree became known as the Old Slave Tree. Under its shady breadth, slave masters bartered away humans like livestock, and from its gnarled branches, numerous ‘disobedient’ slaves were hung.

In the early 19th Century the tree was renamed, the Treaty Tree, to commemorate the start of the second British occupation of the Cape. For it was here, following the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806, that the victorious British Forces regrouped and the defeated commander of the Dutch (Batavian) Forces signed capitulation conditions, effectively ceding control of the territory. The Treaty Tree prevails in good health, now protected as a National Monument.

European Oak in Groot Constantia
This European oak tree (Quercus robur) is several centuries old and exceptionally hollow. Presumably, it suffered from a fungal disease, perhaps after being struck by lightning or split by a violent wind. Appearing at odds with gravity, its thick heavy branches hang precariously on the trunk’s thin, empty exoskeleton.

This oak is one of many found on Groot Constantia, South Africa’s oldest wine estate. In 1685, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) granted the land to Simon van der Stel, the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope and an avid wine-lover. Van der Stel recruited French winemakers to the colony, who with the assistance of slaves, established vineyards in Constantia Valley, now suburban Cape Town. Rows of oak trees were planted to shield the vineyards from the beating winds of the ‘Cape Doctor’ and to provide wood for making wine barrels. This latter function would have been limited, because oaks tend to grow quickly in the Cape, rendering only low-quality, porous wood. In any case, the wine of Constantia soon became widely admired, especially the wine from the desert, Vin de Constance, famously a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte when in exile on the island of St Helena.
Saffron Pear in the Company’s Garden
Brought to the Cape from Holland during the time of Jan van Riebeeck (the founder of Cape Town) some 350 years ago, the saffron pear tree (Pyrus communis) in the Company’s Garden is probably the eldest living cultivated tree in South Africa. Three suckers radiate from the main trunk which died back many years ago. The rot has been scraped away and special sealant applied. Metal crutches and cables now hold the tree in place. Astonishingly, it still produces clusters of white flowers every spring and a bounty of edible fruit every autumn. It must be a surreal experience to taste the fruit of the same tree that the traveller, Valentyn, recorded eating from in 1714!

Established by the VOC in 1652, when indigenous hunter-gatherers and migratory pastoralists still roamed the land, the Company’s Garden is a foundation stone of the Western colonisation of Africa. The Dutch needed a victualing station to supply fresh provisions to ships that were plying the spice trade or engaged in foreign wars. To this end, the Company’s Garden was designed primarily to produce food. One can still see evidence of the original irrigation furrows and wells.
Today, the Company’s Garden serves as a refuge, a green oasis brimming with botanical curiosities, statues and monuments. The pear tree is receiving a new lease of life: in a bid to preserve the tree’s genetic material, city officials have begun to propagate cuttings.

Black Mulberry in the Company’s Garden
One can also find a contorted black mulberry tree (Morus nigra) in the Company’s Garden. This species, which is native to Persia, was cultivated across much of the old world, partly for its sweet fruit and partly for its leaves which are eaten by silkworms (Bombyx mon)—a clue to the story of the tree in question.
In 1704, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, who succeeded his father, Simon, to become Governor of the Cape, sought to establish a local silk industry. ‘Die Oude Spinnery’ (the old spinning factory) was constructed on present-day Spin Street, next to the Company’s Garden. Imported silkworms fed on the leaves of black mulberry trees cultivated in the garden, and slave children were tasked with unspinning their cocoons. The black mulberry tree in the garden dates to 1800 and is probably the offspring of one planted earlier in support of the silk industry.

The industry failed to prosper and was soon abandoned. One account suggests that the eggs of the imported silkworms did not survive well in the Cape, perhaps owing to the harsh climate. Another possible explanation is that silkworms survive poorly on black mulberry, and actually favour white mulberry (Morus alba). Sensing a threat to their commerce, could Eastern silk producers have deliberately provided the Dutch with seeds of the less suitable species?
Many years later in 1753, the Frenchman, Francois Guillaumet, unsuccessfully sought to re-establish silk production. Thereafter, the old spinning factory was converted into a grain depot before it burnt down in 1792, leaving only the street name and black mulberry as evidence of Cape Town’s short-lived silk industry.

The Old Slave Tree on Spin Street
Silk aside, Spin Street has a deeply sinister history. An old fir tree, the exact species of which could not be determined, stood here for hundreds of years until 1916 when it was cut down. Under this tree, tens of thousands of souls were sold into slavery.
Today, in the absence of that tree, a raised octagonal plaque lies wedged on a traffic island. It is faintly inscribed with the words, “On this spot stood the old slave tree”, which are only legible when the sun hangs low. Pedestrians seem largely unaware of the historical significance of this marker, and sometimes walk directly over it when crossing the street.
Slaves were brought to the Cape from other parts of Africa, India and Indonesia from 1658 onwards. They were named by their masters after months of the year, or characters from the Bible and classical mythology. Their surnames were replaced by their country of origin.
Near to the slave tree plaque is the Slave Lodge, which was built in 1679 and eventually housed around 600 slaves. Having served temporarily as the Supreme Court, the building is a now a museum providing a tear-jerking account of slavery in the region. Visitors can still see the squalid, inhumane conditions in which the slaves were kept. It was not until the 1830s, almost two centuries later, that slaves were finally emancipated.

The inconspicuousness of the slave tree plaque is partially compensated by ‘The Cape Town Memorial to the Enslaved’, unveiled in 2008, in the adjacent Church Square. The memorial comprises a sombre arrangement of eleven blocks of black granite. Each block is engraved with evocative words depicting the names and experiences of slaves.

The Stone Pines of Groote Schuur Estate
On the southern side of the highway into Cape Town, zebra and black wildebeest graze in grassy paddocks interspersed with massive stone pines (Pinus pinea). The scene is of Groote Schuur Estate and contrasts strikingly with the concrete jungle on the northern side of the highway.
Stone pines are native to the Mediterranean region and have long, branchless trunks terminating in umbrella-shaped crowns. In Cape Town, the trees often grow at an angle owing to the harsh south-easterly wind. Their cones produce large edible kernels known locally as ‘dennepitjies’ (pronounced denna-pye-kees).

Many are over 150 years old and have become regarded as an important part of Cape Town’s landscape and heritage, popular for recreational activities and family ‘braais’ (barbeques). However, the pines are extremely water thirsty and corrode native biodiversity. As such, conservation authorities are at pains to remove them and prevent their regeneration, often in the face of strong public opposition.

The stone pines were originally planted by the Dutch in the 1700s, in response to escalating demand for timber. Later, in the 1890s another wave of planting was conducted, this time at the behest of the controversial British imperialist and owner of Groote Schuur Estate, Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902). It is these pines that can be seen from the highway today.
Rhodes actually introduced many alien species to the Cape, some of which have become invasive, wreaking ecological havoc. He augmented the diverse stock of African animals kept on Groote Schuur Estate, with llama from Peru and emu, wallaby, and kangaroo from Australia. This folly of nature resulted in overgrazing and land degradation, for which Rhodes has been criticised. However, he has also been rightly credited for preventing this expanse of prime land from being consumed by urbanisation.
In his will, Rhodes bequeathed Groote Schuur Estate to the nation under strict conditions: that it would be used exclusively for public purposes; that any new buildings would be in architectural harmony with the existing buildings; and that the land would not be sold or developed into a residential area. The conditions have been interpreted flexibly over the ensuing years, allowing for two landmark constructions—namely the University of Cape Town in 1920 and the Groote Schuur Hospital in 1938 (made famous by Dr Christiaan Barnard who conducted world’s first heart transplant there in 1967) as well as the aforementioned freeway to infringe on the Estate.

New life in old trees
This article has highlighted only a small selection of Cape Town’s many heritage trees, having unfairly omitted such treasures as the wind-sculpted milkwoods of Sea Point promenade, the precarious silver trees of Table Mountain, the giant figs by the Baxter Theatre, the wild almond of Riebeeck’s hedge, and the namesake of the Palm Tree Mosque. It would be convenient to refer interested persons to a centralised database of local and national heritage trees for further reading, but such a facility does not exist. Is there a need for one? Clearly, heritage trees have the potential to make urban landscapes more interesting and enriching. Thus making information on heritage trees freely accessible to the public may constitute a cost-effective means to enhancing our understanding and enjoyment of a city. This year, Cape Town is the World Design Capital presenting urban designers with an abundance of opportunities to trial and showcase their innovations. Surely, at least one such innovation must breathe new life into the city’s fascinating, if somewhat overlooked, heritage trees.

This article is from issue


2014 Mar