Six Trees for Small Gardens1st May 2019
Life’s getting harder, everything’s getting more expensive, the world’s getting madder, and it’s all happening faster by the hour. How on earth is anyone supposed to stay sane?
PLANT A TREE.
Besides making you look cool, a well-placed, well-chosen tree will add value to your property (especially since your garden will probably deliver that vital first impression when it comes to selling the place), will increase the appeal of your neighbourhood, and will help the world battle climate change. Yes, really, it will.
And trees are good for everyone around you, too. As Sara Ebenreck, author of Shading Our Cities: A Resource Guide For Urban And Community Forests, points out: ‘Trees outstrip most people in the extent and depth of their work for the public good.’
But, like everything in life, you get trees and you get trees. Some become huge, some are boisterous, some become weedy, and some are just plain bullies. And you have limited space in your garden.
So how do you choose the right tree for the job?
Most people, landscapers and nurseries are recommending that we plant mostly indigenous gardens, but ‘indigenous’ implies ‘of South Africa’, and South Africa is a vast country with many different soils and vastly differing climates – and over 900 species of tree.
So, first look at where you live, and then at the plants that thrive in your area, because ‘occurs locally’ beats ‘indigenous’ every time. A tree that occurs naturally in Mpumalanga could be inappropriate – invasive, even – in a place like Cape Town. And vice versa.
So here’s our (current) selection of just a few of our (current) favourites for three of the country’s major climate zones.
But there are many more.
The temperate highveld
Hot summers, occasional droughts, frost in places in winter, and – oh! – those awesome afternoon thundershowers in the summertime! The highveld’s a great place to be if you’re a tree.
- The lavender tree (Heteropyxis natalensis, SA Tree No. 455) is called ‘iNkunzi’ in Zulu and ‘laventelboom’ in Afrikaans. Growing to between five and seven metres, it’s a neat, small, showy, slowgrowing tree that might well have been designed for the modern townhouse garden. The pale, almost whitish bark of its fluted and sometimes crooked trunk contrasts beautifully with its dark, drooping leaves that smell strongly of lavender when crushed. You can use them in potpourri or herbal teas. Although each individual flower is tiny – around 3mm across – they’re borne in clusters that will reward you with a sweet fragrance throughout the summer.
- The forest bushwillow (Combretum kraussii, SA Tree No. 540) is called ‘umdubu-wehlathi’ in Zulu, ‘ulandile’ in Xhosa, and ‘bosvaderlandswilg’ in Afrikaans. It is a handsome, fast grower that’ll reach around eight or nine metres in cultivation. It’s especially attractive if you’re looking for riots of autumn colour (the leaves turn bright red to purple) but it has many other positive traits, too. Like creamy flowers in winter and spring followed by bunches of conspicuous, reddish, fourwinged fruit. While it grows well in the temperate interior, it can be a little tender to frost.
The subtropical east coast – East London to Durban
Hot, humid and sultry, often wet and pretty much frost-free. Almost anything grows along our subtropical east coast! But let’s try something different for a change:
- Soap dogwood (Noltea africana, SA Tree No. 453) is called ‘umkhuthuhla’ in Xhosa, ‘umahlahlakwa’ in Zulu, and ‘seepblinkblaar’ in Afrikaans. This highly decorative, fastgrowing tree with purplish-red branchlets and shiny, dark green leaves grows to about six metres, and bears bunches of tiny, fragrant, white flowers from midwinter (bonus!) until well into spring. It’s attractive to pollinators like butterflies and bees, and birds love it for its protective, bushy crown. And its common name – soap dogwood – is well earned: simply rub the branches together in water and you will get nice bubbly cleansing suds.
- White pear (Apodytes dimidiate, SA Tree No. 422) is called ‘umdakane’ in Xhosa, ‘umdagane’ in Zulu, and ‘witpeer’ in Afrikaans. This is one of the most versatile trees for small gardens, especially considering the fact that its root system is unlikely to disturb your paving or the foundations of your house. One of the most common species of the country’s Afromontane (Knysna) forests, it’ll usually only reach about four to five metres in a garden setting, but it can hit as much as 20 metres in its natural forest environment. It flowers profusely during summer, and the flowers’ sweet fragrance attracts many species of birds. Plant it wherever you want evergreen shade, or if you’re looking for a tree that’ll grow close to a swimming pool without dropping tons of leaves into it.
The fynbos coast: Cape Town to Port Elizabeth
Winter rainfall (well, in theory at least), hot, dry summers, occasional salt winds: the fynbos coast isn’t always kind to gardeners. But if you know what to choose, this part of the country can be quite a breeze …
- Wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina, SA Tree No. 688) is called ‘iThobankomo’ in Xhosa, ‘isiGolwane’ in Zulu, and ‘wildegranaat’ in Afrikaans. With its bright orange-to-red flowers that are particularly attractive to nectar-feeding birds, its glossy, dark green leaves, its smooth, greyish bark, and its non-invasive root system, the wild pomegranate has to be one of the best choices for small gardens in the Cape. And as an added bonus, the roots are used in love charms in traditional medicine – but even if those don’t really work, you can be sure that everything about this beautiful baby will charm almost everyone who visits your garden.
- False olive (Buddleja saligna, SA Tree No: 636) is called ‘unGqeba’ in Xhosa, ‘iGqeba-elimhlope’ in Zulu, and ‘witolien’ in Afrikaans. It’s drought-resistant and fast growing – up to eight metres a year – and its great trusses of fragrant, honey-scented white flowers really attract the birds and the bees. This is one of the best choices for those difficult Cape gardens, but it grows well in the highveld, too. It takes well to pruning, so it’s good for bonsais and as a hedging plant, and it’ll tolerate regular cutting back if you need to contain its natural exuberance.
For more choice
A selection of just six trees hardly scratches the surface in a country as rich in biodiversity as South Africa, but fortunately for our Estate Living gardeners, we’ve recently discovered theplantlibrary.co.za – a wonderful, home-grown resource that helps you by narrowing your plant choices down by region, type of plant, and so on.
GIVE IT A TRY!