Strangely, as a youngster in Port Elizabeth I harboured a love hate relationship with trees. The Syringa tree in my Aunt Thelma’s back yard was the best. The three of us kids – Cheryl included – would attempt to climb to the top most branches. I loved it for the challenge.
On the other hand, what I loved for its beauty was the Wild Fig, which we drove past every Sunday on our way to Granny Mac. This was just a passing acquaintance but the visit to Trinder Square was the real deal, an enchanted affair. Whenever we visited out cousins staying in Pearson Street, this is where we would play. Unlike the Syringa, one could not climb it, but only admire it.
Main picture: Wild Fig trees in Trinder Square
Vegetation before humankind
Long before Europeans settled on these beautiful shores of the Algoa Bay, a dense forested jungle dominated the landscape that is today known as the City of Port Elizabeth.
The Wild Fig tree is important because it was the cornerstone of the localised ecosystem. It determined what could live within its boundaries and it set the parameters of whom and what would prosper under its fertile canopy.
Because of the Wild Fig’s importance, if not exactly primacy, it is comforting to know that the area around central Port Elizabeth still harbours some of the last remnants of this arboreal treasure, an encounter which remains to enchant us whenever we, by happenstance, cross each other’s path.
If one lets one’s imagination roam back to a long lost era prior to human habitation, what will come into focus? Ones mind’s eye will espy magnificent herds of elephants and Cape buffalo roaming the hills of the Algoa Bay escarpment, becoming clearer and more prominent. Then, finally subtly zoom into the vegetation and notice the prevalence of the Wild Fig tree.
To this day, visitors to the city are astonished that wild herds of elephant regularly visited the Swartkops riverine marshes, a rich and vibrant ecosystem which faces challenges yet continues to prosper. This erstwhile elephant haven, a mere ten minute drive from the City centre is today the gateway to Addo, a rich and flourishing region where wild herds roam and flourish.
The Wild Fig tree post 1820
Since the landing of the 1820 British Settlers in Algoa Bay, much has changed, yet a handful of these trees remained when the Central Hill was developed to make way for urban settlement and factories. Some of the best examples are to be found cloistered inside St Georges Park, a vast urban public space where both kids and their parents can play in the shadows of these truly magnificent trees.
This blog serves to highlight the few remaining specimens clinging to life, sometimes precariously like those in Main Road, Walmer, while others such as those in St. George’s Park are ostensibly still thriving.
Reprieve for South End Wild Fig Tree
Along the freeway, near the South Union Street and Walmer Road intersection, stands an old fig tree, an immovable and living memorial to the people who used to stay in the old South End. As far back as 1970, when most of the people who had not already moved, knew that their time had come, one of the residents, Mr S Isaacs, wondered if government officials would spare the old tree which then stood in Chase Street, South Beach Terrace.
The old fig tree had stood there for as long as anyone in the neighbourhood could remember. The tree’s heavy, wide, spreading branches, densely covered with foliage, formed a canopy over Mr Isaac’s house and also covered the house next-door.
Its roots were thick and uncoiled from the large bole of its trunk, to burrow under the surrounding houses, through solid concrete foundations and under the surface of the street, to come out and go down again on the other side, anchoring itself deep beneath the rock and sand of South End. No gale had been able to bend this old giant to its will. It had grown sturdily erect and stood the strain of what could possibly have been a century of buffeting by the wind.
A reporter who wrote an article on the fig tree in 1970, doubted if the authorities would leave the relic of old South End standing. He stated that what the wind was unable to do man and his bulldozers would most certainly do when the last remains of old South End were razed to make way for the smart new one.
Fortunately, a spark of sanity appeared to enter the minds of the single-minded officials of the ironically- named Department of Community Development, who had zealously carried out the task of evicting non-white’ residents of South End and demolishing their homes, schools and churches.
The old fig tree miraculously won the battle against the bulldozers and, just like the two mosques, is a living reminder that about 30 years ago people of all population groups lived harmoniously together in a cosmopolitan suburb.
The old Fig Tree in South End (across the road on the harbour side from the South End Museum) predates all living memory and is said to be well over 100 years old. Back in the days prior to the removal of all its inhabitants from South End due to the implementation of the Group Areas Act, the tree was a popular spot. Children climbed up in it’s branches, families had picnics in the shade and the older residents used it as a place to meet friends for a chat. Th photo is dated either from the late 1960s or very early 1970s.
In my introduction why did I make the ludicrous comment that I had a love hate relationship with trees as a youngster when today I mourn the destruction of trees to make way for urban development.
Well, apart from the Syringa & the Wild Tree, all that I wanted to do in those days was to chop all trees down.
Fortunately that phase in my life has passed. Today I appreciate what things of beauty they are especially the magnificent Wild Fig. Not only that but they are a haven for bird and insect live.
Instead today, I contend that Port Elizabeth should appreciate its arboreal heritage. Moreover, to this end, I propose that the selective planting of wild fig trees should be endorsed and promoted.
This will ensure that the wonder of this magnificent tree is not confined to isolated specimens but it should be generally available to be admired by future generations and a link to the glorious past.