We consider our indigenous forests to be a precious national treasure. They cover less than 1% of South Africa’s land area. Approximately 35800 ha of our temperate indigenous rain forest are state owned and are situated along the coastal belt between George and Storms River in the Western Cape, the region now known as the Garden Route.
“Come walk with me, and we will see the forest green, touch its heart and sense its mystery”. Judith Hopley
These indigenous forests developed over hundreds of years because of the many rivers that flowed through the area and the high rainfall experienced in the region. They are described as “moist” and “medium moist” and consist of the tallest trees and most luxuriant undergrowth. The well-known spectacular tree species grow in the wetter forests, for example the Stinkwood, Yellowwoods, Hard Pear, Ironwood and Cape chestnut. White and Red Elder are found in wet river valleys and sheltered “kloofs”.
Other forest types are drier and rather scrubby and are found on the dry north and west facing slopes or along the windy coastal belt.
Although it has been widely expressed that exploitation reduced the indigenous forests enormously, the George area was the most affected. Apart from that, properly reviewed documentary evidence would indicate otherwise – that the area has been a mosaic of forest, fynbos, grassland, thicket and coastal (dune) forest for some hundreds of years. For example, big herds of buffalo in fields are mentioned in some historical records, which would not have been possible if the area was all forest! Nor the grazing herds of antelope that roamed here!
And - Elephants numbered in their hundreds wandered freely over the whole terrain – fynbos, forest, grasslands, foothills, and beaches. The forest was not their natural habitat. They eventually retreated into it to escape relentless persecution by humans. Even then their existence was tenuous until after a final massacre in 1920 by a Major Pretorius who shot 7 in one hunt, there were less than 10 left. It was thought that the remnant would be unable to return from the brink of extinction………..but read Gareth Patterson’s amazing findings in his book, "The Secret Elephants”.
This is not to refute that uncontrolled woodcutting affected the indigneous forests adversely but that the destruction was much less than is frequently stated. On the contrary, cutting down big trees opened the forest canopy to allow sunlight to reach the ground and encourage saplings to grow, replacing harvested trees.
At other times in the region’s history, indigenous people’s habits of using the lower canopy woods and plants for their own needs affected the forests more seriously by degrading the primary undergrowth and reducing its ability to regenerate.
Farmers did not destroy forests to cultivate the land because these soils were notoriously poor and unsuited to agriculture.
In recent years it is the dune forests along the coastline that are most threatened by human development.
Natural factors such as fire and on-going climate change i.e. less rainfall, drier soil conditions etc. have contributed to vegetation adaptations in this region. Some studies indicate that the relationship between fynbos and forest is a determining factor, that fynbos cannot invade forest but that forest can encroach on fynbos. This is enabled by naturally occurring fires in fynbos that allow tree saplings to gain a foothold. This would indicate that indigenous forests have extended themselves in some areas rather than reduced.
Today the formation of the new Garden Route National Park is allowing different controlling bodies like SANParks, Environmental Affairs and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry to jointly assess what is needed to correctly manage these natural resources. There are already strict controls and policies in place to manage our indigenous forests.
They are conservatively harvested and carefully chosen trees are brought to specific depots for auction once a year in a major calendar event for both Forestry and furniture manufacturers. The timber is sold in log form by the cubic meter over a period of five days. Yellowwood, Stinkwood and Blackwood are the three most common species sold but small quantities of Ironwood, Hard Pear, White Elder and Candlewood and others are available for auction.
Indigenous forests are a wonderland of soft, tranquil beauty with an abundance of biodiversity unlike their man-made counterparts, single-species fast-growing tree plantations like pine and gums that do at least serve the purpose of taking the pressure off our slower growing indigenous woods.
Indigenous forests are a plethora of interacting complex organisms, fauna and flora that are much more than trees alone although there are 375 different species of indigenous trees in the forest.
Man cannot recreate an indigenous forest because the factors involved to sustain such a venture are too complicated to duplicate. A multitude of invertebrates such as insects, spiders, worms, snails and millipedes, amphibians such as the rain and southern ghost frogs and reptiles such as various snakes like the boomslang and puff adder inhabit every niche from the forest floor to the forest canopy in a complex ecosystem.
Projects that attempt to imitate it inevitably fail. The best most of us can do is plant indigenous trees suited to the area in which we live, in our gardens and public places and remove aliens which have become pests.
Indigenous forests have 5 distinct zones that can be identified as layers. From the ground upwards is firstly the herb layer, then the shrub layer, sub-canopy layer - young trees, the canopy layer - middle sized trees and the emergent layer - the trees that tower above the rest.
Together with the creatures of the forest the layers of vegetation create a self-contained ecosystem that constantly recycles its degrading elements so that nothing is wasted.
These days the public has easy access to these historical indigenous forests in the form of well setout foot paths and cycle trails and picnic areas. Visitors to Sedgefield are in the enviable position of being within easy reach of some of these most beautiful forest areas. To the west, towards Wilderness and George and then inland towards the Outeniqua mountains, are the “Groeneweide” forest trails.
To the east, and inland towards the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains are Millwood and the old gold fields indigenous forests. East of Knysna is another large forest area: Diepwalle, and still further east are the Tsitsikamma forests inland from Storms River. All these areas are accessible and are well traversed by walking trails of varying distances requiring different degrees of fitness.
Being able to identify some flora and fauna of indigenous forests can only increase your pleasure of the experience. It is not as difficult to identify these things as is often imagined, so a few of them are mentioned here. With trees, the three things to look at are, the leaves and bark, and if possible the fruit or flowers.
Stinkwood: This beautiful tree has a “not very beautiful name”! The word, “stink” in English, indicates a bad smell, but in truth it just has a noticeably pungent smell. When a tree is newly felled, the heartwood, which is darker in colour than the sapwood, smells. Once the timber dries out, this smell goes. Stinkwood is only found in South Africa and is one of the most excellent and highly sought after woods for furniture making and hence very expensive.
From seed a tree takes 300-400 years to reach maturity. The stinkwood is particularly easy to recognise, if the leaves are within reach. It is a species that coppices, i.e. trees are multi-stemmed and often produce new shoots low down and within easy reach. New leaves are light green or reddish in colour and these darken with age becoming dark green.
The most obvious characteristic is small pocks found in the angle of the veins of the leaves, usually in the angle between the central vein and the first, and maybe second, lateral veins. These small pocks are convex on the upper side of the leaf and concave underneath. They are called, “bullata”, meaning little bubble, hence the botanical name, Ocotea bullata, and belong to the laurel family.
The bark has patches of colour – light grey, mauve and orange, and is fairly smooth apart from traverse ridges and very small lumps – enlarged stomata, the breathing pores of bark.
Yellowwoods: There are many yellowwood species throughout the world, but there are only four here in South Africa. The family’s botanical name is very interesting. It is,“podocarpus”.This means, “foot fruit”. The reason for this is that most, but not all the family members have very strange fruit, the seed being, not inside the fruit, as in a peach or a plumb, but on the outside of the fruit. Hence, the seed looks like a little foot. The “Big Tree” is one of the exceptions to this rule, the seed being inside the fruit.
These trees take 200 years to mature and some of these majestic matriarchs have graced the forest for over 800 years. Even two hundred years ago, they were too big for the woodcutters of those days to tackle.
Unfortunately there are several common names given to this species: The Big Tree, the Outeniqua , the Kalander, the Knysna. “Kalander” is said to be short for “Outeniqualander”.
Hard Pear: This tree has become popular for furniture making because the polished wood has a very attractive grain and colour. It is also fairly costly. Olinia ventosa (the botanical name) has deeply fissured rectangular blocks that are dark grey. The leaf smells strongly of almonds when crushed but it is actually a cyanogen which is deeply poisonous. As a gas, it has been used in chemical warfare!
If you visit the Big Tree (Yellowwood) in the Tsitsikamma Forest signposted on the R102, 3kms before you reach Storms River, you can do an easy circular walk (4.2kms) that will also take you past a big Hard Pear tree. If you’re on a tight time frame it is one of the easiest places to experience the magnificence of an ancient indigenous forest.
Saffron: the False Saffron is common in coastal forests as is the Climbing Saffron – a creeper version. The Common Saffron is found in the wetter real forests as opposed to the Dune (coastal) forest. It’s named because the colour under the bark is a rich yellow. The expensive culinary saffron comes from a little bulbous plant found in the Middle East and Southern Europe.
N.B.You will notice at times, some trees that are numbered. If you make a note of them, you can look them up later in a reference book.
The undergrowth is also governed by the amount of moisture available. For example, the witchhazel or ”onderbos” grows well on drier ground. Tree ferns and many mosses enjoy wetter situations. Many lichens hug the bark of trees forming intricately delicate patterns. Their role in the scheme of things is not fully understood but the presence of "Old Man's Beard" is taken as an indication that the air is clean and unpolluted.
The Ramora fern, or “seven week fern” is more versatile. It has this common name because, if cut and treated correctly, it will last for seven weeks, and is therefore used in floral decorations and exported abroad. Others are the Knysna fern and Carrot fern.
Arum Lilies thrive in moist conditions, next to streams, in patches of sunlight, and similarly bulbous plants like forest bluebells and Wild Irises brighten paths with bursts of colour.
Many different kinds of fungi can be noticed on trees in the indigenous forests, some varieties are only found on rotting fallen trees and others only grow on living trees. They have intriguing shapes, some like intricate flowers and with multiple colours! They play an important part in recycling forest litter. So don’t rush past just looking at the ground in front of you!
Forest animals are seldom seen because of the dense vegetation and because many of them are nocturnal. However, they are there! Elephants! There are two notable predators, the leopard and the lynx; two antelope, the bushbuck, which is fairly common, and may be seen during the day, and the very rare little blue duiker, now hardly ever seen.
Bushpig are quite common in indigenous forests, but their spoor and droppings are usually all that indicate their presence. If they are seen during the day, it should be remembered that they are quite temperamental and can be aggressive. (They should not be confused with warthogs. These are not found in the forests, but belong in drier bushveld and savanah areas.)
Baboons and monkeys are often seen and you are likely to come across their droppings. In most instances they keep their distance and you will hear them noisily retreating into the forest away from the paths and your presence. Honey badgers and porcupines also forage in the forest but you would be very fortunate to even catch a glimpse them.
Easier to see are butterflies although they fly away sometimes too fast to be identified. I got a good photo of this Battling glider that prefers the wetter indigenous forests of the Cape region. The larval host plant is the Wild Peach Kiggelaria africana found in the Knysna forests.
The butterfly feeds on damp patches of soil next to the road which is where I saw it. They are shy and easily disturbed so I feel lucky to get a photo of it.
I was also fortunate enough to come across a spider wasp with its prey - just as well otherwise I certainly wouldn't have known it was a spider wasp! These wasps hunt spiders exclusively.
You can see the spider is bigger than the wasp and it doesn't give up without a fight. Unless it gets away, the wasp paralyzes it by stinging it in a specific nerve centre and then implants an egg in its victim which becomes food for the hatched larva!
Although birds are abundant in indigenous forests, they are difficult to spot because of the dense vegetation. Sometimes however, their calls give them away like the noisy calling of the Knysna Turaco, tsping sunbirds, melodic Cape Robins, Southern Boubous and Sombre Greenbuls. Raptors, particularly the Forest Buzzards – are fairly common and easy to see, mostly solitary – soaring in the sky as you walk through forest clearings. The silent Narina Trogons, furtive flycatchers, and secretive Cape Batises are much more difficult.
A walk in the indigenous forests on a lovely summer’s day where you can appreciate nature’s intricate kaleidoscope of colours and creatures and plants and cool streams and sweet birdsong is an uplifting and revitalising experience. One has to take it slowly, stop and look, stop and listen. You should do it this way because you have to keep your eye on the path when you're walking so without realising it, you can miss alot.
Try a walk in our indigenous forests if you have never done one before – it will help you to see your life differently!
“Thank you God for quiet places far from life’s crowded ways, Where our hearts find true contentment and our souls fill up with praise!”
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This book provides the names, descriptions and photos of indigenous trees from Mossel Bay to Storms River and supplies a key as a means to help you identify them in the field.
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