400 year oak history nearing its end?

Oak species at crossroads

The nearly 400-year-old history of oaks in South Africa may be coming to an end, forever changing the treescape of towns and cities such as Cape Town, George, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Swellendam.

In a research paper published in the South African Journal of Botany, ​​​​ecologists from the Centre for Invasion Biology (CIB) at Stellenbosch University’s school for climate studies, traced the history of the introduction of the genus Quercus into South Africa, as well as its current status and the factors that are changing its distribution across our landscapes.

Christiaan Gildenhuys, a postgraduate student in SU’s department of botany and zoology and first author on the article, says the first written record of English oak (Quercus robur), dates to 1656, reportedly introduced under the authority of Jan van Riebeek himself: “Dozens of other oak species were introduced to the Cape of Good Hope by ​early ​Dutch settlers​ and the British colonial government. Many ​oaks w​ere​ ​subsequently ​widely cultivated across the country and have since beco​me​ one of the most widespread and recognised tree​ genera​ in South Africa today,” he explains.

But now the species may have arrived at a crossroads.​     ​

Gildenhuys found that three oak species – English oak, Pin oak, and Cork oak – have become invasive along riverbanks ​and the urban-wildland interface ​in Stellenbosch and Cape Town. These oaks do not cause major problems as invaders now but may do so in the future.​     ​

At the same time, many species (including the most widespread species​,​ Q. robur or English oak) are highly susceptible to diseases and invasive beetles such as the polyphagous shot hole borer: “Not only does this mean that many century-old oaks are at risk, but it also means that infected trees must be removed before the infestation spreads further,” says Gildenhuys.

Prof. Dave Richardson, an ecologist at CIB and co-author, says the story of oaks in South Africa is a classic example of ​how ​global change is rapidly changing the roles and perspectives of species in urban areas​​​​.

“We must accept that the potential impact of the polyphagous shot hole borer is a game changer. As a result​ of this invasion​, the treescapes of many towns in South Africa are going to change rather radically. Landowners and authorities who may decide to replace infected Q. robur trees with less susceptible tree species must also consider the potential negative impacts of these species,” he explains

The ideal would be to replace the infected trees with indigenous species which are less susceptible to pest​s​ and diseases such as the PSHB. ​However,​ people’s attachments to their oak-lined streets may inhibit replacement efforts and induce conflict​s​ between management and stakeholders, he warns.

Prof. Guy Midgley, interim director of the School for Climate Studies, says trees make a vital contribution to lessening the impact of climate change by reducing heat stress in urban areas. On the other hand, the way thousands of diseased trees are disposed of may significantly impact carbon emissions.

Adding fuel to the fire is the debate about the cultural value of oaks in general. In one sector of South African society these centuries-old trees are celebrated as part of our cultural heritage. In another sector they are regarded as unwanted relics from a colonial past.

All that said, the authors warn that further study on the invasiveness of oak species is necessary.

  • The article “The genus Quercus (Fagaceae) in South Africa: Introduction history, current status, and invasion ecology” was authored by Christiaan Gildenhuys, Luke Potgieter and David Richardson and was published in the South African Journal of Botany.

Interesting historical facts about oak trees in South Africa

  • 1656: Earliest written record of Quercus species (Q.robur) in South Africa.
  • 1795: Planting of historical oak avenue between Company Gardens and Parliament in Cape Town.
  • 1868: First oaks planted in Potchefstroom.
  • 1910: Planting of historical oak avenue in Potchefstroom (declared a national monument in 1977).
  • 2012: First record of polyphagous shot hole borer in South Africa, reported from KwaZulu-Natal.

Quercus robur was first introduced into South Africa in 1656. Today it is one of the most widespread and recognised trees in the South African landscape, such as the centuries old oak trees lining the streets of Stellenbosch (also known as Eikestad or Oak City). But these centuries old trees are also the most susceptible to infections and pests such as the polyphagous shot hole borer. Photos: Christiaan Gildenhuys 

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