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Friday, June 25, 2010

Harare’s flamboyant tree culture

lifestyle Reporter - the Herald

Until the 1960s Harare was known as the "City of Flowering Trees", the people and their council being very proud of the "jungle" of jacarandas, flamboyants and many others that lined the city streets.

The seedlings had been planted mostly in the early 1900s in an inspired public works programme when unemployed men were hired for a shilling a day.

The British South Africa Company provided the shillings, as it wanted to keep the men in the country until the depression caused after the end of the Boer War ended, and the municipal council provided the shovels and the vast number of seedlings grown by its Parks Superintendent, Joshua Billings.

By the 1920s the seedlings were looking good and with another decade the first branches started meeting across the streets, creating those green tunnels that still entrance some Avenues children.

Billings had seen trees as cure-all for a lot of ills.

In the later 1890s he had started vast nurseries in the Harare Gardens, allowing the Government to close its nursery in what is now Highlands.

Palms were a popular early choice, as can still be seen from some mature Avenues gardens, but the jacaranda was rapidly becoming desired.

Harare owes its swathes of October colour to Mr A. T. Holland.

As his grandson, Mr Andre Holland, used to explain, Holland, a civil servant, had married the daughter of the Surveyor-General, Mr J. Orpen.

The two were honeymooning in Durban and unfortunately missed the train. So they were stuck on the coast an extra week. During this week they wandered around the local botanical gardens to see if they could buy seedlings and were told that "these six plants are some sort of South American species with purple flowers" although neither the sellers nor the buyers had ever seen a jacaranda in bloom.

Harare’s jacarandas descended from those six seedlings, Holland planting his first in the western part of Josiah Chinamano Avenue, then called Cape Avenue.

At the same time the almost as common flamboyants arrived, via South Africa from Madagascar, and the bauhinias, an Indian tree.

Billings had started his beauty plantings in the gardens and Africa Unity Square, having made the BSA Company buy fences so the donkeys would not eat the seedlings, and was putting in thousands of gum trees east of Fourth Street to provide windbreaks to ease the horrors of the clouds of red dust the blew continually into the city. Remants of those still survive.

Many modern residents of Harare may be surprised to hear that in the middle of the last century there were flowering trees right into the city centre.

Third Street with its jacarandas and Cameron Street with its bauhinias are both more typical of a 1940s street than the modern concrete jungle.

But the motor car, and an insatiable demand for parking and need for four-lane roads, eventually put an end to the flowering city centre. Tree after tree was chopped down to widen a street or squeeze in yet one more parking bay.

And by the 1960s, the shade having gone and flowering trees limited largely to the Avenues, the council decided to face facts and rename Harare as the "City of Sunshine", making a virtue out of the shadeless wastes.

By the 21st century, as all those trees planted in the early 1900s reached their centenaries, the lifespan of the jacaranda became critical.

These pretty trees live only for around a century, and they started dying.

But the city still has the successors of Joshua Billings, is still producing seedlings and still has its believers that a few thousand trees can do a lot of good.

Many of the new highways leading out of the city have their centre-line and side trees, although we need a couple of decades before these reach maturity.

Replanting of the Avenues has started, and even streets like Samora Machel and Sam Nujoma have modest trees growing on their pavements.

According to the sign posted at their premises along Leopold Takawira, in Harare Gardens, the Parks Section of Harare Municipality has the ongoing responsibility for the "beautification of the city so that it continues to be rated amongst the best in Africa".

There are more than 10 tree types that have been set aside for planting in the streets of Harare.

From the wide spreading croton, to the giant eucalyptus and the fragrant bauhinia, there is literally a tree for every street.

The sizes of the verges determine which species goes where.

Jacarandas grow large and spread out so they need to be where they will not interfere with buildings.

They are generally planted on the main roads that lead out of the city centre, like Seke Road and Princes.

It was the intention to plant flamboyants along Joshua Nkomo highway which leads to the Harare International Airport, but there may not be enough seedlings to suffice and jacarandas may be used instead.

Flamboyant, found in abundance in the town of Masvingo, closely resembles the jacaranda but its flowers are a vivid red, hence the name.

The jacarandas along Josiah Chinamano Avenue are more than 100 years old and need to be replaced.

The Parks Section is doing just that, but they do not just chop down the old trees and then plant the tiny seedlings in their place.

They start off by planting the new trees, look after them and make sure that they get established. Then they gradually take off the old guard one by one, so that no drastic change will occur to the ecosystem.

Thus many people may miss the changeover, but it is happening.

1 comment:

  1. i love jacarandas in harare, so interesting to read about their history. for more interesting zimbabwean stories check out my blog