The National Champion Tree Evaluation Panel.

Assessing the health of the ‘Satico Giants’ (Eucalyptus grandis), planted in 1938, height 72 m. From left to right: Leon Visser (official tree climber), Vukosi Baloyi (DAFF), Theo Stehle, Shumani Dzivhani (DAFF), and Albert Mathabela of Satico, who guided the team to the trees which are located in a remote area close to the Swaziland border. Photo: Dr Coert Geldenhuys.

by Theo Stehle

The National Champion Tree Evaluation Panel held its annual meeting in Mpumalanga in June, and added five new Champion Trees to the list. The Panel, convened by Izak van der Merwe of DAFF, is responsible for the annual evaluation of nominated trees and the review of the list with regard to possible delisting of dead champion trees, the periodical re-measurement of listed trees, as well as recommendations for the management of the trees.

Currently 86 trees and groups of trees are on the list of proclaimed Champion Trees that are protected in terms of the National Forests Act of 1998.

The meeting included an evaluation session for nominated trees in Nelspruit, and field visits to KLF’s Jessievale Plantation and the Satico gum mining timber plantation near Louw’s Creek. The Jessievale arboretum features a number of impressive pine trees, which are potential Champion Trees. The spectacular Satico Plantation Champion Grove of Eucalyptus grandis trees, named the ‘Satico Giants’, are the second tallest trees in the country with a maximum height of over 72 m.

The tallest trees in South Africa and Africa are the Champion Grove of E. saligna trees planted in 1906 in the Woodbush Plantation, the ‘Woodbush Giants’, with a maximum height of 81,5 m (the height of a 30 storey building), measured in 2013.

This status is now contested by a giant Entandophragma excelsum tree in the indigenous forest on Mount Kilimanjaro, measured by Dr. Andreas Hemp at 81,5 m in 2016, who claims it is Africa’s tallest tree. There is also talk of some giant gum trees in eastern Zimbabwe that may be even taller.

However, Champion trees are by no means about height only. Other dimensions, like girth and crown spread are important, and together with height, make up the size index. Additionally criteria such as landscape, age, and historical and cultural value can be considered, with all the criteria adding up to what is subjectively but aptly termed the “wow” factor.

At the evaluation meeting in Nelspruit, 34 newly nominated trees were assessed, of which five qualified for inclusion in the list:
• A lane of Eucalyptus saligna (W-Cape)
• An E. camaldulensis tree (W-Cape)
• A grove of E. cladocalyx trees (W-Cape)
• A Ficus anulata and a F. benghalensis (Durban).

It must be noted, however, that some of these additions still have to undergo checking for accuracy of names, and all of them a legal process, before they are finally proclaimed as Champion Trees.

A number of the nominated trees were referred back to be checked and re-measured, including a Baobab in Limpopo that could potentially qualify as the largest tree in South Africa. Four trees on the current list were identified to be de-listed.

The reason for relatively few of the nominated trees making it onto the list is that many of the trees are locally important and impressive, but when compared to the national criteria they fall short.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, July 2018