Many books have been written about trees, but South African Flowering Trees – a botanical adventure through history makes a good effort at giving a complete picture. What do flowering trees look like? How do they grow? What are their uses for man, animal, birds and insects? How have their names changed over time? Naomi Meyer asked Rob Wood, author of this book with its detailed drawings and watercolour images, about his - and the book's - background.
Rob, how did the book originate?
Little did I know when Kevin Balkwill asked me to assist as a volunteer in the library of the herbarium of the University of the Witwatersrand in the early 1990s, that it would eventually lead me to write this book, in partnership with Millicent Frean and, later, Sandie Burrows.
Initially, I was cataloguing all the botanical books in all the libraries of the university published in the year 1900 or earlier. Doing this meant that I became familiar with all antiquarian books dealing with any facet of botany. Progress was rather slow, because I was in full-time employment in those early days.
By 2000 I was fully retired, and getting near the end of the cataloguing task. Working more regularly in the herbarium I met Millicent, a retired botanical lecturer, who was helping Kevin Balkwill with some botanical functions. I learnt that Millicent was involved in botanical painting and hoping that some of her watercolour paintings would be selected for display at the inaugural Kirstenbosch Biennale of International Botanical Art in 2000. She also showed me some of her paintings of trees. We spoke about the families of trees, the various genera and the particular species she was choosing to paint. In the nature of such friendly discussions in the botanical world we spoke about our common interests in plants, of how to propagate our favourite plants, and what trees, shrubs and bulbs we were growing at our respective homes, both of us with very large gardens and both with many indigenous plants.
It was then that Millicent spoke of her interest in the historical background and the origins of the names of the trees she was painting. I was intrigued by her interest and researched and gave her the stories leading to the naming of some trees. She asked me to write notes about the trees she was then painting. It was when I started to write about each tree that I found masses of information, all of it scattered in a very wide variety of sources. I started to bring these different blocks of information together and to write comprehensive notes on each tree. Millicent and I then realised that we could make a book consisting of her paintings and my comprehensive notes about the trees in her paintings. It seemed to us we could complete 25 chapters, each with its own painting of one tree, and that would result in a book about 200 pages long. In our innocence we planned to complete this within two years.
It took us more than ten years to complete the task. Towards the end, tragedy struck. As the last painting was completed, Millicent suddenly passed away. She had become a dear friend by then. And she had been unable to complete the line drawings needed to complement the description of each tree and of its elements.
After a wonderful partnership I was suddenly adrift, not knowing how to proceed. Fortunately, Millicent’s family got together and selected her son John to represent the family interests. John has been a great help in the difficult decisions needed to bring this book to fruition. I approached a fine botanical artist, Sandie Burrows, and asked her to prepare a set of line drawings suitable for elucidating the text of the tree descriptions, and to match Millicent’s charming tree paintings. Looking at the end result, the efforts of the three of us meld seamlessly.
All three of us have done our work so that it is botanically and scientifically correct. After all, both artists are highly qualified in botany. And although I am not a botanist, I was working within a botanical environment and I was having to interpret for myself scientific writings using botanical jargon. All of us interpreted our output for this book in a way that we hope makes that output inviting and simple for readers to view and read. Based on this concept of appealing to both the knowledgeable and those merely interested, Millicent’s paintings are botanically correct, yet are charming, warm and inviting to view. Sandie’s drawings may be thought of as a scientific view of the parts of each tree, but read together with the simple descriptions, and compared with Millicent’s paintings, they simplify and elucidate so that any botanist or any non-botanist will be able to visualise parts of that tree and of the whole tree.
The text which I have written avoids using scientific words or jargon.
How did you and Millicent select the 25 trees featured in the book?
This question is also answered above in the description of how the book originated. Millicent and I met in the herbarium of the university. We started talking about creating a book to feature some of the decorative native trees growing in our vicinity. The grounds of the university have many species of indigenous trees growing there. As one travels east along Parktown Ridge towards Millicent’s home, one finds many more. At that time I lived in a spacious garden, much further east, among yet more decorative flowering trees. We realised that between us we had access to all the trees needed to make up a suitable selection. We developed an outline of the book and drew up lists of potential trees. We felt that about 25 featured trees would make a book of suitable length.
Targeting those trees which were beautiful to look at and which had an interesting story or stories about their names, their naming or collecting, we gradually developed a final list. Then we had to wait for each tree to flower in its season and for Millicent to be able at that time to capture its beauty in her paintings. As Millicent started to paint, so I researched the background and history of that tree and wrote the text.
What do you find interesting about trees?
I am interested in all of natural history and especially in the kingdom of flora. I think I can say the same about Millicent. We both cultivated, at our respective homes, the full range of bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees. Trees have a special allure because they can be spectacular in flower; they can be large enough to provide shade and shelter; they are long-lived; many of them provide food, building materials, medicinal ingredients, poisons, ropes and are repositories for myth and legend. Our book had its origins in the many trees which were highly decorative and growing around us. My fascination with trees was deepened when our family went on our many hikes in the forests of Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
Which trees do you find the prettiest? And which ones can be used the most for medicinal purposes?
All the trees included in the book are there because their flowers are pretty. Some have spectacular flowers, like Cape chestnut, weeping boerbean, African wattle and dwarf coral tree; some have subtle colouring like forest bellbush and pistolbush; some have profuse displays of large individual flowers like Transvaal gardenia, scented-bells and september-bells; some have short-lived sprays of breathtaking flowers like wildpear and tree-wisteria; some have attractive flowers nestling among silvery leaves for much of summer like corkbush; some have interesting shapes like the multitude of long filaments with no petals on long angular flower stalks of spiderbush and the mickey mouse flowers of the peeling plane. We could go on, but this shows that the prettiest depends on the season and each tree’s environment and the mood of the moment.
Among the 25 selected trees, most have medicinal uses. These uses vary from area to area, region to region, country to country. The most widely used appear to be weeping boerbean, wildpear, Transvaal gardenia, peeling plane, puzzlebush, corkbush, African wattle and sagewood.
If you had to you choose one indigenous tree for each of three regions in South Africa, which ones do you think would flourish in the selected areas?
Most of the trees selected in my book can be cultivated in many areas of South Africa. Three trees popularly grown are the keurboom from coastal Eastern Cape, wildpeach, growing everywhere in South Africa, and I have seen them flourishing in the Western Cape and doing well in Gauteng, and pompontree naturally found in much of southern Africa, perhaps linking to KwaZulu-Natal.
Are the three trees from the previous question suitable for gardens, pavements and public parks?
Keurboom is suitable for new and old gardens, as pioneer species on forest fringes and in open spots, public parks; a handsome avenue and pavement tree.
Wildpeach is suitable for gardens, as a pioneer tree, a specimen tree, pavements, public parks and for use as a bonsai.
Pompontree is suitable for small and large gardens, as a specimen tree, in a flower border, an avenue or pavement tree, public parks and even as a container plant.
If the book is about the history of flowering trees, what can gardeners learn from the publication?
Those trees selected for South African Flowering Trees are discussed comprehensively, so that the reader does not have to refer to a number of different books to learn about cultivation details or uses or description of the tree or common names or why it has its particular scientific name. Here all the threads are brought together. The gardener will read about the type of natural habitat of the trees, where they are naturally established, the shape of the tree and details of its bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. Detailed growing and cultural details are given, uses of the tree and its parts by man, mammals, birds, bees, butterflies, moths and insects, family relationships and some of the common names in many of the southern African languages.
The second feature that sets this book apart from many other tree books is the historical emphasis. This means that for each tree I have looked back at its earliest recorded discovery. This does not mean that the tree was unknown before the earliest explorers came along. On the contrary, the tree was well known to the indigenous people of that area and they made good use of its resources. Today, in order to build up a history, we have to rely on the first written records about the tree. We are grateful to the early inhabitants for their experimentation and the uses they made of parts of the tree. However, in the telling of the historical stories, we are reliant upon the use of what was recorded, and what specimens were collected and ended up in herbaria around the world. The correspondence that criss-crossed the world in those early days about each plant is full of interest and truly remarkable in its quantum and in its depth of coverage, especially when we bear in mind the primitive postal systems the explorers and scientists had to use.
What is the book’s take on the conservation of trees?
There is no specific message or take on the conservation of trees. The theme running through the book is to celebrate the glory of the tree. Celebration of trees and appreciation of their beauty and usefulness will raise awareness of the importance of trees, to man and to all of nature, and hopefully encourage cultivation of trees by us all for us all. The more we know of our history, the more we appreciate and care for what we have.
The book was written to be entertaining, simple to understand, informative, easy to dip into from time to time and a worthwhile addition to everyone’s bookshelves.