Tree Enthusiasts are Enthralled

Everybody won on the two day Forest Ecology Course held in Dargle recently. Eugene Moll, who lives in Cape Town now, got to spend time in the forests he remembers so fondly from his student days, to relax on the veranda of Crowned Eagle Cottage listening to tree dassies call at night and to stir up some controversy around the trees we thought we knew. All his favourite things!

r group forest

Participants were enchanted by his enthusiasm and knowledge and couldn’t believe their luck at having such an expert on hand for a few days. The gorgeous Cairn of Old Kilgobbin provided the perfect venue beside the mist belt forest, the days were sunny and there was hand-made lemon cordial on tap. Life doesn’t get much better than this – especially when you are learning about something as special as our forests.

r eugene explains

In 1965 Eugene completed his Master’s thesis on the Vegetation of the Upper uMngeni Catchment. That is above Midmar dam. He admitted that he got some facts pretty wrong and has since changed his mind about a couple of things. One being that the forests had shrunk greatly. They are not. He told us that in the first surveys of ‘forest’ areas, all the grasslands in between were included! “Forests are aggressive things” he said “Controlled by fire. It is our grasslands we need to protect as they are really ancient – certainly older than most forest trees. Grasslands have shrunk alarmingly.”

r eugene

His views on fire were interesting too. He believed that we have got the burning all wrong nowadays and the very best time to burn grassland is when there is less than 40% humidity, temperatures higher than 40 degrees and the wind speed is about 40 kilometres an hour. We could all imagine the LRFPA having a heart attack!

One thing we all learned was to QUESTION things. To think about what makes a peach a peach, for instance. If we understand the basic characteristics of familiar plants we find in our gardens, we will have a much easier time trying to identify new trees.

r Penz Reshnee Sarah

Everyone was keen to try our they plant id skills using the Keys in various Guide books. Just to confuse everyone Eugene included two samples of Kiggelaria Africana (Wild Peach) – one branch from a mature tree and a twig from a little sapling. They were COMPLETELY different and had everyone puzzled for ages.

r puzzling

Eugene was rather disparaging about many of often difficult to use and ‘unfriendly’ keys. The botanical jargon is hard to understand, descriptions of many characters are too general and photos are non-specific. “What is the point of a photo of the entire tree, when all you can see in the forest is the bark?” he asks.

So we learn that the Guide books are exactly that, guides. Nothing beats in the field observation. Walking, looking, feeling, tasting and comparing.   “The same trees can be completely different from one area to another” commented Eugene, in awe of the huge specimens of Dais cotonifolia we came across. “In the Cape these are tiny scrubby things,” he told us.

r Brian Barend David

Eugene has produced a book called What’s that Tree? A starter’s guide to the trees of southern Africa, which he believes does a good job of highlighting the diagnostic features of each species – for example if ‘three veins from the base of the leaves’ is an important feature, he includes a picture of exactly that. Richard Booth, from Karkloof commented “I really enjoyed Eugene’s wisdom.”

r group eugen old kilgobbin

Most of the course we spent outdoors under the forest canopy. Each tree has a little space around it if viewed from the air, we learnt. The tree tops brush against one another and keep each tree separate.

r canopy

We came across an old logging pit where a Yellowwood had been felled many years ago for use in local houses. This illustrated perfectly how we have now lost the ability to live locally, on local resources. We have become ‘Biosphere people’ using resources from all over the globe in our daily lives.

rr IMG_2837

Eugene prefers to call Podocarpus (Yellowwoods), Afrocarpus, which he feels is a more accurate description. We hugged some really big ones and had heated discussions about ‘the twisted petiole’ of P. henkelii! He also feels pretty certain that none of the trees in the forest are over 500 years old.

r hugging tree

Sarah Ellis made a note of 45 trees during our walk in Kilgobbin forest and when she got home looked them all up to learn more about them. “I am certain I won’t recognise more than half of them on my own but writing them down and reading up about each one is a start!”

r lets look that up

We learnt how specimens of Clausena anisata (perdepis) probably got mixed up with specimens of Hippobromus by the early collectors. The scientific name Hippobromus means ‘smell of horse’, but when the dried specimens were finally described, the smell had gone from the leaves, so there was no way of telling which was which!r hand leaf

We felt the stickiness of Protamophila prehensilis and the velvety leaves of Quisqualis parviflora admired Briophytes and Epiphytes, tasted Asparagus stalks and smelt Lemonwood leaves. Naturally, we got down on our knees to find interesting things in the stream, including nematodes and damselfly larvae.

r barend and penz

Kathy Milford won’t forget the course in a hurry. “The most memorable thing for me was the crazy expert peering through his treasured old magnifying glass with a chipped frame, at a little leaf and his saying ‘this must be a Diosypyros whyteana, look at those orange hairs on the edge of the leaf’. That was a special moment, and when I looked through the magnifying glass there were the most beautiful little orange hairs that became larger than life. I felt like Alice in Wonderland! He showed us the most amazing little details on the leaves and trees which would normally have escaped my attention! Wonderful”

r moss

Penelope Malinga agreed “I will pay a lot more attention to the small details in future.” Penelope also loved seeing Samango monkeys for the first time. A troop was feasting on the fresh green Celtis leaves right above our heads as we explored the forest edge.

r samango celtis

We learnt so many fascinating facts like: Insects are the biggest herbivores and that woody plants (C3) utilise higher levels of carbon dioxide. Eugene demonstrated how to make rope from the bark of Dais cotonifolia (Grewia occidentalis also used for the is purpose), and we learned the vines of Dalbergia obovata  are used to make fishing baskets.  Sarah Ellis “I found Eugene fascinating, with such a huge passion and depth of knowledge. How fortunate we are to have spent time with a man of this calibre. I also enjoyed meeting and chatting to some of the other like-minded people on the course.”

r looking up

Oriah and Kei Ellis, who are home schooled in Dargle, used the opportunity for some outdoor learning.  “The tree ecology course was a great experience – learning about the different shapes of leaves, learning through the interactions with others, and how to simply identify trees.  I also enjoyed taking a walk through Barend’s forest, eating cookies and making new friends!  ” said Oriah afterwards.

r kei oriah sam

Alison Lettinger came all the way from Creighton and was so pleased she had. “Two days in a delightful setting with kindred spirits. I am so glad I made the effort to attend. Kilgobbin is one of the most beautiful, accessible and diverse forests that I have been in. My favourite was hearing snippets of info and opinions from Eugene. Such as not tree rings in South Africa not being annual rings, but growth rings.  Intriguing that the red fruit of Acokanthera is toxic but ripens to palatable as it turns black.”

r leaf litter

Reshnee Lalla of SANBI felt she really learnt a lot and collected some samples of the invasive blue periwinkle growing on the forest edge.

Julie and Richard Braby, who live in Underberg, enjoyed their time with other people as passionate about plants as they are. “We felt we were in another world for those two days and were sad to get home. The venue was fantastic. The talk and very good food at Tanglewood in the evening in the company of Dargle Conservancy members, was wonderful.”

rr carol and barend

Barend Booysen, who is custodian of the section of forest we spent time in, had a marvellous time. “I really thought I knew this forest backwards. I have been humbled by all the things I have never noticed before and my head is spinning with all the new information. I learnt so much. What a delightful man.” David Crowe added “The two day workshop was informative and worthwhile.”

rr IMG_2842

Eugene Moll is a retired professor from the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape. He holds a PhD in plant ecology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He edited the first edition of the Keith Coates Palgrave’s Trees of Southern Africa, and has authored and co-authored many guides and papers on trees and the ecology of woody plants.

rr picnic in forest

Sarah Ellis compiled this: KILGOBBIN FOREST TREE LIST

  • Rapanea melanophloeos – Cape Beech
  • Tricalysia africana – Pondo Jackal-coffee
  • Ficus craterostoma – strangler fig
  • Scutia myrtina – cat thorn
  • Veronia mespilifolia – veronia
  • Buddleja dysophylla – White climbing sagewood
  • Ptaeroxylon obliquum – Sneezewood
  • Euclea natalensis – hairy guarri
  • Diospyros whyteana – bladder nut
  • Harpephyllum caffrum – wild plum
  • Dias cotinifolia – pompon tree
  • Grewia occidentalis – cross berry raisin
  • Vepris lanceolata – white ironwood
  • Dombeya rotundifolia – wild pear
  • Trimeria grandifolia – wild mulberry
  • Xymalos monospora – lemonwood
  • Gymnosporia harveyana – round fruit forest spike thorn (was Maytenus mossambicensis) Kiggelaria africana – wild peach
  • Combretum edwardsii – forest climbing bush willow
  • Cassinopsis ilicifolia – lemon thorn
  • Prunus africana – red stink wood
  • Combretum krausii – forest bush willow
  • Dalbergia obovata – climbing flat bean
  • Cussonia spicata – cabbage tree
  • Diospyros whyteana – bladder nut – ginger hairs on edge of leaves
  • Podocarpus falcatus – yellow wood
  • Podocarpus henkelii – drooping leaf yellow wood
  • Podocarpus latifolius – broad leaf yellow wood
  • Strophanthus speciosus forest poison rope
  • Cnestis polyphylla – itch pod
  • Ilex mitis – Cape holly
  • Celtis africana – white stink wood
  • Carissa bispinosa – num num
  • Rhamnus prunoides – glossy leaf (blink blaar)
  • Dovyalis rhamnoides – Sourberry Kei-apple
  • Clutia pulchella – lightning bush
  • Apodytes dimidiata – white pear
  • Ocotea bullata – black stink wood
  • Eugenia zuluensis – paperbark myrtle
  • Clausina anisata – perdepis
  • Cryptocarya myrtifolia – myrtle wild quince
  • Calpurnia aurea – wild laburnum
  • Vepris lanceolata – white ironwood
  • Canthium inerme – turkey berry



9 thoughts on “Tree Enthusiasts are Enthralled

  1. David Clulow

    Fine write-up. Very much enjoyed. A memorable 2014 experience. Still possessing the 1981 edition, now rather worn, of Eugene Moll’s “Trees of Natal”, on which I was weened, indigenous tree-wise, it is lovely to know of his continuing enthusiasm for the forests, bringing in new disciples all the time.


  2. Meriel mitchell

    As a blog reader, I was just as enthralled. What a magnificent opportunity afforded you wonderful custodians of the Midlands!


  3. Pingback: Eugene Moll Teaches Tree Enthusiasts to Question Things: What Makes a Peach a Peach? | Struik


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  5. Pingback: Eugene Moll Teaches Tree Enthusiasts to Question Things: What Makes a Peach a Peach? | Struik Nature

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