Trees don’t wait for rain

Sabi Sand | September 2016

Every time I return to Singita Sabi Sand after a two-week break at home (where, although only a thousand miles away, the climate is so different that it feels as if I’m in another country), I always notice the changes that have taken place in the really very short space of time that I had been away. Some of the changes are very subtle, such as the sunrise being earlier by several minutes.

While many signs of spring were already evident in August, such as the knobthorn trees (Acacia nigrescens) being in flower and the Wahlberg’s eagles having made their return, what really struck me this time, when I returned in late September, was how spectacular some of the trees were looking. Probably most noticeable among these were the sjambok-pod (Cassia abbreviata) and the weeping boerbean (Schotia brachypetala), most specimens of which were laden with flowers. The flowers of the sjambok-pod are strikingly yellow, but they do not last long. The sjambok-pod trees also have their new bright green foliage at present, so they stand out spectacularly in an environment which appears otherwise very parched and arid, since the extended drought has not yet been broken.

The weeping boerbean trees are almost evergreen anyway, but they always produce their little red nectar-filled flowers in September or October. This year, despite the drought, the quantities of these flowers seem particularly high, and these beautiful trees are even more magnificent than I remember them being in recent years. Perhaps this is again also a factor of the drought, as it might just be that the flowering boerbean trees are standing out more noticeably in the really dry, sparsely vegetated background environment. The attractive little red flowers contain a sweet nectar, which is enjoyed by sunbirds and honey bees. Amusingly, the Shangaan name for the boerbean is “uvovovo,” an onomatopoeic name, mimicking the sounds of bees buzzing among the flowers as they suck up nectar.

Another attractive species of flowering tree is the Transvaal gardenia (Gardenia volkensii) whose new flowers are creamy white and very fragrant (reminiscent of the frangipani), but which soon turn pale yellow, then a much darker yellow before they fall off the trees.
In addition to the flowers, many of the trees are sprouting new leaves, a fact that will be warmly welcomed by the various browsing mammals. It is significant that trees do not “wait” for the rains to arrive before they produce their new leaves and flowers. It is actually more a factor of changing day length that stimulates the new growth, rather than the rains having arrived. The roots of trees are able to reach ground water, so the drought has very little direct impact on the health or condition of established trees. Grasses, on the other hand, have very shallow roots, and grasses therefore require irrigation (in Nature, in the form of rain) in order to grow and flourish.