BIG STORIES about little things – The Namib desertAugust 12, 2012
Namdeb – We mend as we mine!August 12, 2012
Text and photographs Luise Hoffmann
Each year from the end of July until the beginning of October trees in the gardens of Windhoek explode in a riot of colour. So today I invite you to join me on a short walk from the large pond in Zoo Park in the centre of town up to the Parliament Buildings to enjoy this spectacle.
Over the said pond a large sacred coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon) spreads its branches, which are covered in erect, scarlet flower heads. This tree is native to the eastern regions of South Africa, and we will encounter it again once we have reached the drive below the Parliament Buildings.
The scarlet flowers attract several species of the nectar-eating sunbird, many insects, and, of course, insect-eating birds. With luck you might find some of the narrow woody pods under these trees. Splitting open along one seam, they expose orange to scarlet bean-like seeds with a black spot at the ‘navel’, and are sold as ‘lucky beans’ in the souvenir trade.
In Namibia the sacred coral tree is found only in gardens, but in its area of origin it occurs widely, where it is used for many medicinal purposes. Its common name refers to a custom in South Africa where, when a man dies, a truncheon – which roots and grows very easily – is taken from a tree near his home and planted on his grave. The endemic Namib coral tree (Erythrina decora) found in the mountainous areas of Namibia has similarly shaped scarlet flowers and woody seedpods that have larger red seeds with a black ‘navel’.
Queen among the indigenous spring-flowering trees in Windhoek is the worm-cure albizia, which, on account of its beauty, surely deserves a more romantic name
Providing a splash of mauve on the edge of Zoo Park opposite the woodcarvers’ market is an orchid tree (Bauhinia variegata), a native of south-eastern Asia also known as poor man’s orchid, camel’s foot and butterfly orchid tree. The names camel’s foot and butterfly orchid tree refer to the bi-lobed shape of the tough leaves, while the beautifully variegated mauve flowers account for the orchid part of its name.
Walking up the hill past the Christuskirche, we reach the avenue leading up to the Parliament Buildings, which is flanked on the right side by mauve-blue jacaranda trees (Jacaranda mimosifolia) alternating with white ones. They are lovely tall trees, made conspicuous by their vibrant displays of bell-shaped flowers. Embellishing many streets and gardens in Windhoek, their fallen flowers form sprawling carpets that resemble mauve-blue clouds.
Jacarandas originate from Brazil. In some parts of Windhoek these trees form a striking contrast with the silky oak or Australian silver-oak (Grevillea robusta) with its dark-green foliage and numerous orangey flowers. This tree, which – as its name suggests – hails from Australia, is not an oak at all but a member of the protea family. On the opposite side of the drive are Australian flame trees (Brachychyton acerifolius), usually leafless at this time of the year, but covered in large pendulous clusters of bright scarlet bell-shaped flowers.
Following the drive below the buildings towards its northern exit, we find a typical Namibian tree with new bright-green foliage and dramatic dark-maroon flowers, arranged in pairs on a long flower stalk. This is the sausage tree (Kigelia africana), and its flowers are pollinated by a certain species of bat. The sausage-shaped fruit can weigh up to ten kilograms. This tree grows naturally only in the north-eastern parts of Namibia. Since the pollinating bats do not occur in Windhoek, the fruits of these trees contain no seeds and thus do not grow much longer than about 20 centimetres.
The French 18th-century navigator Louis de Bougainville, took a bougainvillaea from South America to Kew Gardens, from where it was distributed to many British colonies
Right next to the sausage tree is a large black-thorn acacia (Acacia mellifera), covered in a froth of creamy ball-shaped flowers and providing a lovely contrast to the intense colours of the exotic species we have seen thus far. This is the most common acacia found in Namibia, and often encroaches on disturbed or overgrazed farmland. The 27 acacias occurring in Namibia are characterised by feathery leaves, either curved or straight thorns in pairs, and flowers arranged in small balls or spikes of creamy or bright-yellow flowers. Remember these features and you will be able to identify almost 50% of the trees in most parts of the country.
Another acacia, its spreading crown of bright-green new foliage dotted with numerous ball-shaped golden-yellow flowers, is the camel-thorn (Acacia erioloba), which often provides shade at lay-bys along roads and marks drainage lines far into the desert. The monkey-thorn acacia (Acacia galpinii) along the south-western end of Mandume Ndemufayo Avenue has flowers arranged in creamy-yellow spikes tinged with red.
Queen among the indigenous spring-flowering trees in Windhoek is the worm-cure albizia or aru-boom (Albizia anthelmintica), which, on account of its beauty, surely deserves a more romantic name. But throughout Africa the bark of this tree serves as a cure for intestinal parasites. It can grow as a shrub similar to the black-thorn acacia – but without any thorns – or as a single-stemmed tree marked by smooth reddish grey bark, often with a metallic sheen. The delicate elegance of its large creamy powder-puff-like flowers forms a striking contrast to the sturdy, often knobbly branches on which they perch. An example of this tree grows almost opposite the black-thorn acacia mentioned above. Both species can also be seen on the adjacent hillside.
I would love to take you further around town to show you the many other flowering trees, such as the ubiquitous bougainvillaea, a native of South America, cascading over walls and fences in tumbles of magenta, red, bronze or white and named after the French 18th-century navigator Louis de Bougainville, who brought it to Kew Gardens, from where it was distributed to many of the British colonies of the time. We would also see a very common shrub with dark-green foliage covered in bright yellow bell-shaped flowers hailing from Mexico and the southern USA known as the yellow elder or yellow bells (Tecoma stans). And on balmy spring evenings we would be enchanted by the sweet scent spread by the numerous small lilac flowers of the syringa tree (Melia azedarach), a native of Asia.
Sadly, a lack of space prevents me from continuing our walk, but I do hope I have opened your eyes to the beauty of the flowering spring trees in Windhoek.
This article appeared in the Sept’11 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.