Down here in South Africa, especially along the coast, we seem to have a perpetual fixation with palm trees. I know, I know … we’re trying to evoke a sense of being on a tropical island. Or something.
But it’s old fashioned and inappropriate in this world where the imperative is taking care of our environment. A big part of that is planting indigenous, especially when it comes to the really big stuff – trees.
Think Durban beachfront: it’s literally coated with palm trees. They started dying at some stage. You have to wonder why the effort of planning and spending public money didn’t go into planting something indigenous, like our lovely milkwoods, red or white (Mimusops, Sideroxylon inerme).
We are so fortunate to live in a nature reserve next to the sea, but I am disturbed that somebody took it upon themselves to plant an exotic fan palm in a public space here. It is dying, thank goodness. But still. I assume this person has not seen a veld fire (wild fire) – they have swept through the reserve from time to time – nor a burning palm. Their high oil content turns them into torches. I’d say that is a hazard in a nature reserve.
Very few palms are indigenous to South Africa, and even those tend to have very localised growing areas. They include the Kosi Bay palm Raphia australis), wild date palm (Phoenix reclinata), Pondoland coconut palm (Jubeaopsis caffra), and the Ilala palm (Hyphaene coriacea).
There are so many beautiful local alternatives to palm trees that it makes your mind boggle. The cabbage tree (Kiepersol) is one of my favourites. I have several in my garden. The bushbuck love to eat it too.
The deciduous knobwood (Zanthoxylum) is fascinating. They make gorgeous neat trees that soon establish little groves. When you crush their leaves, they delight with a whiff of lemon.
This part of the Eastern Cape is home to magnificent coral trees (Erythrina), also deciduous. Collecting bowls and bowls of shiny red lucky beans that drop from these trees are part of my childhood memories.
The allophyllus, now sporting handsome red berries, thrives on this part of the coast. And the wild olive (Olea europaea sbsp Africana) stands up admirably to the sea winds; I know because I killed a string of trees by exposing them to the wind before I happened on this pretty thing.
The white stinkwood (Celtis Africana) grows well down here. In my Irene, Pretoria, garden, it was one of my favourites. Even the stunning fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea) grows here – I had a beauty in my suburban East London garden – but it grows naturally much further north than here.
These are just a few of the possibilities that I can think of offhand. With such a wealth of native trees, why would one ever choose the exotic?