Good Oaks in South Africa

Some time ago in a bookshop I came across a book titled Oak, by Peter Young (Editor's note: you can read Allan Taylor's review of Oak here). Of course I had to take a closer look and it proved to be almost 200 pages of text dealing with all aspects of oak you can imagine. The names of the chapters are sometimes a little cryptic, but

Winter Landscape, 1837, by Dutch painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803-62), a painting featuring oak trees, of the kind mentioned in Peter Young's chapter on "The Arts."

the intention should be clear: Seeing the Trees, Diversity, Home, Away, Wood in Words, Symbols and Superstitions, Stature, The Arts, Conservation. The whole book is thus a compilation of facts and stories that for oak lovers (not compulsory) gives much pleasure reading. The text is accompanied by many pictures and photos in black and white as well as in colour. It gave me much pleasure in reading and again made me aware of the wide variety of oaks we have and of the importance of oaks to mankind and to wildlife. What I missed in the book is the occurrence of oaks in South Africa and particular in the area around Stellenbosch. I have a short anecdote to tell about oaks in SA.

Some time ago I was talking to my brother-in-law about the Oak Open Days event that we were going to have in Trompenburg. We came to speak about collections of oak and of the distribution of oaks around the world. He remarked that South Africa must have many good oaks because he had met a guy from South Africa who referred to some of his South African colleagues as being good oaks. Much to his surprise I could inform my brother-in-law that South Africa has no oaks as endemics and that the oaks (old oaks in many cases) now growing in SA originate from trees that were imported by the Dutch during the time of the Dutch East India Company. In particular the trees were imported for plantations to have a source of oak wood for making casks for wine production. This all

A pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) at Vergelegen wine estate near Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo: Shaun Haddock 

was initiated by Mr Simon Van der Stel, first Governor of the area, who had discovered that the climate (Mediterranean, hot dry summers, cool wet winters) was ideal for the growing of grapes and production of wine. He founded the (then village) Stellenbosch in 1679. Because of the vast number of oaks Van der Stel planted there the place became to be known as Eikestad, City of Oaks. The oaks prospered very well, but it later proved that the quality of the wood of the oaks grown in the western part of SA has a different structure (it is too porous) and is not as good quality as oak timber from Europe. So, no good oak in SA! Of course that raised a chuckle from my brother-in-law.

Some research into oaks in South Africa brought to light the fact that "oak" (or actually spelled "oke", as in bloke) is common South African slang for a person, male or female. Of course the old oaks near Stellenbosch are magnificent specimens and can be considered "good oaks", that also goes for the local "good oke" that knows how to appreciate these historically interesting trees!