THE Johannesburg City Council revealed this week that it plans to introduce legislation that would force people to have trees and other “green” features included in any future building plans.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that they want it to be an indigenous tree.

“It should not be negotiable for every new house in the city to have a tree,” City Parks spokesman Jenny Moodley said.

“The idea is to have each house with an indigenous tree, fruit tree and a food garden that can comfortably feed a family of four.”

The problem is that there are just about no trees indigenous to Johannesburg or the Gauteng highveld: Maybe a few rhus and combretum trees in the valleys, and (my personal favourite) Englerophytum (or Bequaertiodendron) magalismontanum, the stamvrug or Transvaal milk plum, on the koppies.

“Indigenous” has become an excuse for lazy landscapes with limited plant knowledge mixed with a huge dose of horticultural xenophobia. It’s gardening patriotism run to seed. Above all, indigenous is a meaningless political concept based on political borders. In fact, it’s a colonial concept based on our inherited colonial borders. If they had only annexed Rhodesia and Mozambique into the Union of South Africa a century ago, we could have had so many more indigenous trees to choose from.

The city wants to bridge the divide between the leafy northern suburbs and the townships. That’s also good news because it would stop lazy journalists using that old cliche “leafy suburbs” when they don’t want to say “previously white suburbs”.

But therein lies the dilemma: The northern suburbs are endlessly praised as being the largest man-made urban forest in the world, a claim hard to prove or disprove. But it is a forest made up of overwhelmingly foreign or exotic trees, imported from every continent on earth. Much like the eclectic mix of its human inhabitants.

The problem is that there are just about no trees indigenous to Johannesburg or the Gauteng highveld: Maybe a few rhus and combretum trees in the valleys, and (my personal favourite) Englerophytum (or Bequaertiodendron) magalismontanum, the stamvrug or Transvaal milk plum, on the koppies.

That’s what gardeners do, they explore novelty, and they establish what will grow well in the soil and climate.

The suburbs’ glory lies in their large trees, the pin oaks and plane trees lining the streets, and the jacarandas about to burst into bloom, and of which Johannesburg has more than Pretoria. There are also a staggering number of deodars, which were once cute little Christmas trees in pots.

(I have a worryingly large yellowwood which started out the same, but I don’t claim it to be indigenous to Johannesburg.) 

If you read about the trees of Johannesburg, you can trace the history of horticultural fashion but also learn what grows here. If you don’t know what to plant, look around your suburb. What thrives in Orange Grove might not make it in Orange Farm.

Townships have less space and you’re not going to plonk a yellowwood into an RDP house (or Tuscan townhouse) garden because the council said you must: Go for a Pride-of-India. In time tough, foreign trees create the microclimate and windbreaks for others to grow on the highveld.

The trees that don’t do well here are long gone or unhappy: Pin oaks love it, English oaks look mildewy and miserable a few weeks into summer.

Many trees deemed to be problematic have been banned anyway: You won’t find a jacaranda, eucalyptus or a pine tree to plant now, and if you want a guava tree, forget it: they are banned too.

Yes plant trees, and if you can find it, plant it: Any tree.

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