The longest living species on earth, trees are essential for life, where for centuries they have held almost mythical status as places of gathering, worship, protection and shelter.
Arriving at De Bergkant Lodge, nestled at the foot of the Karoo’s Swartberg Pass in Prince Albert, you are welcomed by the massive boughs of a sheltering Banyan tree, a member of the Fig family.
Here, its thick, sinuous trunk and roots provide a cool canopy of shade as you pass under its spreading boughs, supported by a myriad of elegantly hanging tendrils to a warm welcome by Michael and Renate, the doting owners of De Bergkant Lodge.
Many explorer, celebrity, politician and visitors from both local and foreign shores have marveled at the size and beauty of the De Bergkant Lodge’s leafy sentinel spread wide at its 4-star entrance. And, the image of this mighty Banyan has accompanied just as many back home again as a backdrop to favourite holiday memories captured on film.
Michael and Renate have no need for Cape Town’s painted yellow frames erected for postcard photograph settings for visiting tourists, instead the beauty of their Banyan plays a lush backdrop to its visitors who come to visit the Karoo’s vast, silent landscape enjoyed at leisure from the Lodge’s vantage point in the midst of the towering Swartberg Mountains.
“Our Banyan tree is over 100 years old and while we may have hosted many famous visitors who have passed under its boughs, there are many more who came before even us that will remain a secret of this ancient tree. De Bergkant Lodge was built in 1858 and our Banyan tree was maybe flourishing here even before that,” say the couple.
Originating from India - it’s the country’s national tree in fact - the Banyan was first brought to South African shores by indentured labourers.
From tiny seed to mighty bough
In tree terms, the Banyan starts its life as an epiphyte; a plant that grows on another plant when its seed germinates in a crack or crevice of the host tree.
The seeds small size however is no indication of its potential size and, as it germinates, its roots spread down into the ground to envelop its host while grows skywards as well. Once at full size, the Banyan trees aerial prop roots mature into thick trunks. Both by its nature and its strange appearance, the Banyan carries the title of 'strangler fig'.
Ancient trees such as the De Bergkant Lodge’s Banyan also spread laterally, using these prop roots to grow over a wide area, with every new trunk connected in sinuous relation to its sturdy primary trunk.
In India, the famed Great Banyan Tree is over two hundred and fifty years old and covers approximately three and a half acres in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Botanical Garden near Calcutta, making it the widest tree in the world.
Protector of health and fertility
One can understand the benefits of bringing the Banyan to our shores. Different parts of the Banyan tree are helpful in treating diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, diabetes, leucorrhoea, menorrhagia and nervous disorders.
It’s said its bark and leaf buds are useful to stop bleeding. Its fruit stops swelling and pain as well as being nutritious and its tender roots are thought to be beneficial in treating female sterility. The aerial roots populated by smaller shoot sticks have been use to clean teeth and are said to prevent teeth and gum disorders. If you have annoying warts on your skin, try using the milky juice from the Banyan’s fresh green leaves which is said to be useful in making them disappear.
In Hindu mythology, the Banyan is called Kalpavriksha, the tree that provides the fulfilment of wishes and other material gains.
When visiting De Bergkant Lodge on a weekend getaway or holiday retreat, look out for one of the Banyan’s seeds and take it home with you to plant as a beautiful reminder of your stay - certainly more enduring than a photograph. You will need a two litre milk carton cut in half. Fill it with soil, plant the seed and keep it moist and watch it grow!
Arbor Week South Africa
Arbor week takes place from 1 to 7 September each year and is dedicated to appreciating the rich diversity of trees and forested areas in South Africa.
From the densely forested Garden Route, filled with Yellowwoods, Keurbooms, Stinkwoods and Alders, all the way to the Cederberg, home to a small remaining number of endemic Cedar Trees, the coast and Karoo, presided over and protected by Cape Nature, offers beautiful scenery, which supports burgeoning bird and animal life in its cool canopies.
Top 5 Indigenous Tree resistant to Drought
The Cape, much like most of southern Africa, has in recent times experienced low rainfalls and imminent drought. If you would like to plant a tree indigenous to the area, consider these five drought-resistant species:
False Olive (Buddleja saligna)
Evergreen and frost resistant, the drought-resistant false olive grows rapidly in the Karoo sun, rewarding you in Spring with fragrant white flowers which attract birds, bees and butterflies.
White Stinkwood (Celtis africana)
With tiny yellow, sweet-scented flowers in summer which attract insects and fruit eating birds, the white stinkwood is deciduous, frost and drought resistant and fast growing. Its name refers to the unpleasant smell when its wood is first cut. It has many medicinal uses in local cultures, such as treating fever, headache, sore eyes and pleurisy.
Cross-Berry (Grewia occidentalis)
Offering fruit and pink flowers in summer, the Cross-Berry attracts birds such as the louries, mousebirds, bulbuls and barbets.
Karee (Searsia lancea and Rhus lancea)
An evergreen tree good for shade and as a wind break, it is also frost resistant.
Sweet Thorn (Vachellia or Acacia karroo)
Honey scented pompom flowers attracts insects and birds which eat them. It is named Vachellia after a chaplain and plant collector to the British East India company who first identified it.