Trees are Survivors – until they’re not!

by Michael N. Hofman

What a wonderful opportunity Janet and I have to get the chance to see different parts of the world. It’s even more special when we can view our travels through the lens of our years of working in landscaping. When we see a new place, or even view one we’ve been to before, it’s often through our experiences in designing, installing and maintaining beautiful gardens and in around San Francisco for all these years.

Early in February 2017, we went to Botswana, Zambia and South Africa, of course to look at animals. But we were also fascinated by the incredible display of plants and trees. During the course of our travels, we saw trees that took literally hundreds of years to die, and during that time the provide homes for a variety of animals and birds (and make for an incredible landscape). We saw hundreds of these trees, which take many years to fall because they are a hard wood. I believe this is a Leadwood (Combretum imberbe) (reasonable common name considering how long it lasts). Its wood is often used in building structures, because of course it lasts so long.


Another incredible survivor is the Baobab (Adansonia). We saw many of these trees especially in Chobe National Park (in Botswana). They grow to an incredible size and are a great impact on the scenery. It’s not uncommon to see these trees throughout the landscape (maybe a little uncommon with a rainbow on top). But they fall prey to the elephants, who love to grind their trunks (or sides) on them. It seems like over time they have evolved to have a huge trunk in comparison to the rest of the tree scaffold, probably in response to the elephants’ abuse. However, even though the trunks are big with thick back, the elephants “attacks” cause the bark around the trunks fall off, deteriorate, and of course cause the tree to fail. The following photo shows how the lower bark (just about elephant height) is attacked! We saw a number of these trees with very little bark left, still (barely alive) standing. Nonetheless they provide shelter and homes for many birds and many baboons.

In addition to the animals, we saw many instances of other attackers as well. In particular, two caught our attention. I wish I could tell you what type of tree was under this incredible vine canopy, but who knows. All that was obvious was that in this area right by the Zambezi River (which was quite full because there was no drought after 18 years), the vines were very active and have taken over this tree. As you can imagine, with no landscaping professionals managing the wild areas within the national park, these opportunistic species can take over!


Another attacker we saw quite frequently was dodder (cuscuta). This is a parasitic plant (which according to Widipedia is now in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae)! We’ve seen this plant many times in many tropical locations (quite visible in Central America and the Caribbean), taking over the landscape with vigor. No doubt why it’s in the morning glory family – in warm climate these vines take over.. Here you can see it all through the canopy of this tree (could be a Mopane Tree -- Colophosphermum mopane). We saw this aggressive vine on the ground, in tree canopies and spreading quite rapidly. It will insert itself into the vascular system of the host and over time kill it. While we’ve only seen yellow varieties, it does present in other colors. Be on the lookout for it when you travel.


We saw quite a few Mopane trees (mentioned just above).  They bloomed just about the time we were there and the trees were covered!  Quite pretty and also of course a way for the species to spread and survive.  You can see how many blooms there are on this one (quite large tree).  In Chobe National Park, these trees are quite prolific (must be all those blooms spreading seeds).


Well, I know this is an article about trees, but there were several incredible displays of plants that I can’t ignore. Due to Botswana’s incredible rainfall this year (ending a drought of 18 years), we saw quite a display of water plants, among them the papyrus and the water lillies. We have both plants here and in certain circumstances they do quite well, but along and in the waterways these plants were so prolific and healthy it was a wonderful display to see. The papyrus was so full and aggressive, local teams have to cut it back or it will choke out the waterways!


We saw many lilies, with both big and small leaves and several colors. During the periods of full sun, going on the water in either a canoe or a motorboat was an experience in a profusion of color. Unfortunately, another plant is causing waterways to choke and the lilies can’t compete as effectively. Nonetheless, when we saw groups of lilies we thought of Monet more than once. Here’s hoping you have a chance to see and enjoy all the varieties of plants and trees the world offers us, both at home and away!