The holiday association of shrubby Ouhout trees lining mountain streams and hiking trails meant that we were delighted to find an established Ouhout growing in the garden when we moved into our current home some years ago. The Afrikaans name, used also by English speakers, ‘Ouhout’ literally means ‘old wood’, and even young plants have a woody gnarled appearance.

Although not confined to high altitudes the Ouhout (Leucosidea sericea), being frost resistant, thrives in mountain regions and is able to flourish even above 1 100 m to as high as 2 100 m. In mountainous areas, such as in Lesotho, it is the most common – and sometimes the only – indigenous tree to be found. In such regions it is a noted pioneer plant, establishing itself in disturbed ground. Often shrubby in appearance, in the right circumstances it can grow as tall as 9 m.   

Ouhout next to mountain stream, Drakensberg, South Africa

The Ouhout (seen leaning over the water in this photo) commonly lines streams and watercourses. A less frequently used English name, Troutwood, refers to the relationship between Ouhout and mountain streams suitable for stocking with trout. This photo was taken near the Thendele camp in the Royal Natal Park – uKahlamba Drakensberg Park

Ouhout near the escarpment near Sani Pass, South Africa

Ouhout in the foreground with the escarpment near Sani Pass on the border with Lesotho visible beyond

Leaves of the Ouhout, KwaZulu-Natal

A photo of the Ouhout in our garden. To be more accurate, of the Ouhout that used to be in our garden as over time parts of the tree died off before the entire plant succumbed. Perhaps it had reached the end of its natural lifespan

I have taken it for granted that planting indigenous plants brings many benefits – for example, not only are these plants adapted to local conditions and are water wise, they are diverse and beautiful and also of value to birds, insects and other creatures. Planting indigenous plants promotes local biodiversity in contrast to the domesticated hybrids and cultivars sold as popular garden plants – many of which have their origins in other continents.

However, I have been rethinking some of my taken-for-granted assumptions about planting indigenous plants since a visit (in 2016) to the village of Rhodes in the Highlands of the Eastern Cape. The village was officially founded in 1891 and it was named for Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) who at the time was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. During the 1890s the new village of Rhodes saw the building of its Dutch Reformed Church to serve those who had settled on the surrounding farms, as well as the construction of a post office, court room, jail and school. The population grew to between 250 and 300 people, and many of the Victorian-era cottages that were built then survive today.

Old post office building, Rhodes village, Eastern Cape, South Africa

The post office building in Rhodes (photographed in 2016). Note the old phone booth on the left – neither it nor the post office itself is functional today

The village of Rhodes saw mixed fortunes that were related to those of the farming community. More prosperous times included a wool boom in the 1950s, but by the 1970s agricultural fortunes had declined and the village became almost derelict. However it has been rediscovered and it is now a holiday and tourism destination, with many of the cottages restored and with the village hosting several annual tourism events, for example linked to sports such as cycling and fly-fishing. Sadly though, current travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic must have impacted severely on the village.

Our stay there back in 2016 was a two-day stopover (in one of the old cottages) on our way back home after visiting the Western Cape. The visit entailed a bit of a detour as the village is remote, being up in the Eastern Cape Highlands just 16 km south of the Lesotho border. While there we visited the local pottery, the Clay Café. Among the ceramic items for sale, I was attracted to some simple ceramic tiles featuring the leaves of the Ouhout.

Ceramic tiles featuring impressions of Ouhout leaves, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Clay tiles decorated with indentations of leaves of the Ouhout. I bought these tiles while visiting the Clay Café in the village of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape

The  Clay Cafe pottery is run by ceramicist Irene Walker, and she explained that the reason why Ouhout leaves are featured in some of the pottery made at the Clay Café is because the Ouhout is the only indigenous tree that grows in the Rhodes area, which is high enough to be above the ‘tree-line’.

The village is 1840 m above sea level and too high, dry and cold for most indigenous trees, but the Ouhout is able to survive in these conditions. Of course European settlers back in colonial times usually planted their gardens, villages and towns with familiar plants from ‘home’, disregarding most of the indigenous plants and trees. But in the instance of the village of Rhodes, from what I can gather when it came to trees – apart from the local and overlooked Ouhout – trees adapted to harsh high altitude conditions and acceptable to the settlers would have been trees familiar to them from Europe.

There is a story that Cecil Rhodes, in recognition of the village being named after him, donated a wagonload of pine trees to the village, some of which are reputed to still be alive today. But in an article on the history of Rhodes village, Dave Walker notes that early photographs of the village debunk this story and the fact that the pine trees in the village today have a lifespan of no more than 70 years means these trees are of far more recent provenance.

A tree-lined street in Rhodes village, South Africa

Two women walk up a tree-lined street in the village of Rhodes. A flock of sheep is being shepherded behind them. The trees are all introduced non-indigenous species

So although many of the trees that were planted in and around Rhodes have survived for decades, many are aging and others have been removed or have died. I was interested to see online that a Rhodes Tree Planting Project  was initiated in 2008.  On the project’s website it says that the idea was “to plant new trees to beautify the village whilst at the same time offset our carbon on our visits to Rhodes”. Plans include planting a new generation of trees to form new avenues, and also mentioned is the need to replace trees to address village firewood requirements

Unfortunately the website does not detail the species of trees to be planted under the auspices of the project, but it notes trees that remain in the village from times past include Normandy Poplars (Italy), oaks, pines, cypresses, cedars, willows, pears and many more. It also notes “the loss of the Crack Willows that lined the river banks removed by working for water”, and that old Weeping Willows have been removed to be used for firewood.

A view towards Rhodes village, Eastern Cape, South Africa

A view towards the village of Rhodes with willow and poplar trees being evident

By contrast I have been reading a paper on invasive alien plants in the Drakensberg Alpine Centre, and this study applauds the Working for Water (WfW) Programme of the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs (DWEA), which is one of the programmes proactively removing invasive alien plants that impact on water systems, a project of particular importance in mountain water catchment areas.

The paper’s list of invasive alien plants in the mountain regions includes, for example, the Crack Willow (Salix fragilis), and it notes that this willow uses huge amounts of water, has the capacity to spread prodigiously, and has other negative effects on waterways including slowing water flow or diverting the flow of water, which can cause erosion of river  banks.

Montane grassland and Knifophia northiae near Rhodes Village, South Africa

While we were travelling from the village of Rhodes towards Naudé’s Nek Pass, the mist lifted enough for us to have this view of montane grassland with a stream flowing fast after heavy rain. In the foreground are giant red-hot pokers (Kniphofia northiae) in flower

We were unlucky when we left Rhodes village heading towards Maclear on our homeward journey via the famous Naudé’s Nek Pass (summit 2 920 m) to have mostly thick mist and drizzle depriving us of seeing much of the scenery and spectacular views. So as a passenger I focussed on what I could see, which was largely the rather hair-raising bumpy and winding gravel road and the vegetation along the roadside.

I was intrigued by what appeared in the mist to be Ouhout bearing rose-like flowers. So we stopped and picked a sprig. I have since found out that Ouhout is a member of the Rose family, and the rose-bearing plant seen from the car window was in fact the alien (and invasive) Eglantine or Sweetbriar rose (Rosa rubiginosa) – a rosy relative of the Ouhout.

Sprig of naturalized Sweetbriar rose, South Africa

The sprig of the Sweetbriar rose that we picked on our way from Rhodes to the Naudé’s Nek Pass, photographed on the dashboard. I hoped to be able to identify it once we got home. Its leaves are fairly similar to the leaves of the Ouhout

So anyway, the visit to Rhodes gave me much to think about regarding the roles of indigenous and alien species of plants. Rhodes needs replacement trees to provide firewood, but perhaps a compromise can be sought where non-invasive trees that do not require huge amounts of water can be utilised.

The Sweetbriar rose has naturalised in large parts of South Africa and as it is highly invasive it has been declared a Category 1 invader plant, which means it is totally prohibited. However, its fruits (hips) can be considered to be of value and they have been harvested to make a syrup that is high in Vitamin C.

But back to the Ouhout, it too is a medicinal plant being widely used in traditional medicine. It has been shown to have antimicrobial, anti-parasitic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (see here).   The wood has been used to make long-lasting fence posts. Although the wood can be used to start fires as kindling, it produces far too much smoke to make a good firewood.

Ouhout in flower, Midlands, KwaZulu-Natal

Ouhout in flower near Fort Nottingham in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. A patch of mistbelt forest is visible on a hillside in the background

The Ouhout seems to be a tenacious survivor. Among its other attributes of toughness is its ability to withstand wildfires. After being burnt it is largely able to regenerate.

And I am pleased to report that we have been able to propagate an Ouhout plant from a cutting. It is now doing well in a pot and we plan on planting it out in the garden after the first (hoped for) spring rains.

A close-up of leaves of the Ouhout plant, South Africa

A close-up of the leaves of the young still-potted Ouhout that we grew from a cutting

While reading for this post I came across a post on the blog Under the Milkwood about a Rhodes village community-based initiative making face masks for distribution to mitigate against the spread of the novel coronavirus. I decided to share this link as a reminder that even remote villages like Rhodes are caught up in the global pandemic. Here are the details: Bennett, Janette. 2020. The mask makers of Rhodes Village and Zakhele. Celebrating ordinary people emerging as heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. 9 April.

Sources:  Becking, David. 2020. Leucosidea sericea. Tree SA.;  Boon, R. 2010. Pooley’s Trees of Eastern South Africa. Flora and Fauna Publications Trust, Durban;  Carbutt, Clinton. 2012. The emerging invasive alien plants of the Drakensberg Alpine Centre, Southern Africa. Bothalia – African Biodiversity and Conservation 42(2):71-85.;  Walker, D. 2006. A brief history of the village of Rhodes

Posted by Carol