Kokerboom. There is something dry, like a rattle, in the pronunciation of the name. Ko-ker-boom. It forms in the throat, is caught by the tongue, escapes like a whisper and ends between your gently pressed-together lips. Two dry syllables followed by a third that subtly suggests moisture. Kokerboom. To say the name is to acknowledge a conundrum. A plant that thrives in the desert, a tree that is not a tree. I travelled to the Northern Cape, and took a turn down an unassuming road to visit the largest Kokerboom forest in the Southern hemisphere.
It happens like that sometimes. You have known about something, seen pictures and then forgotten. Then, someone mentions in passing that they’ve recently visited a kokerboom forest. “Wow” you say fascinated but still far away from anything as exotic as that. Then a few days later while looking at a map of the flower routes in the Western and Northern Cape, you see a tiny green square labelled “Quiver Tree Forest”. A penny drops and you resolve to make it part of your journey. But what exactly is this kokerboom?
The kokerboom in Afrikaans, quiver tree in English or choje to the traditional San peoples of Southern Africa, belongs to the group of plants known collectively as aloes. Both the Afrikaans and the English names are derived from the San people’s practice of making quivers from the branches of the trees. It was a practice diarised by then Governor of the Cape Simon van der Stel in 1685 while on expedition searching for copper in the Northern Cape.
There are three quiver tree species: Aloe Dichotoma or kokerboom, with its many divided branches is the most common but still vulnerable. Aloe Ramosissima, the maiden’s quiver tree is Endangered and Aloe Pillansii, the giant quiver tree is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. All three species can be found in the dry, hot and arid landscapes of the Northern Cape and Namibia.
The Aloes are succulent flowering plants adept at growing in harsh environments. Reaching up to nine metres tall and a metre in diameter at the base, it is thought that these quiver trees can live between 80 and 300 years. In this vein they have developed some remarkable survival mechanisms. For starters, the tree stores water in its short fleshy leaves and the fibrous trunk. It is covered with a white powdery substance that helps reflect away the harsh sun’s rays and photosynthesises through its bark. In addition to this, believe it or not, the quiver tree is capable of self-amputation. This means that in times of drought or when affected by disease the kokerboom is capable of sacrificing its own limbs!
Normally, due to the arid environment where they survive, quiver trees stand alone, on rocky outcrops or as sentinels breaking the monotony of the desert sands. There are however a few exceptions to the rule. Just north of the Bulb Capital of the World, Nieuwoudtville, there is a farm that boasts the largest quiver tree forest in the Southern Hemisphere.
If you travel north on the R357, past the 90 meter high Nieuwoudtville waterfall on the Doorn River, you arrive at a turnoff to Gannabos farm. Now, I have always been mesmerised by these trees. Their natural form is sculptural. They lend themselves to standing guard outside homes in the suburbs round South Africa or in picturesque settings like the desert, a lone tree defiant against the elements. But a forest? I expected a few trees. A sprinkle dotted over a few hundred meters or at best a clump sheltered under a rock face. On Gannabos however, what greeted us was koppie after koppie dressed head to toe in magic.
Magic? Yes. Magic. On our way home we stopped at the Kokerboom Nursery in Vanrhyansdorp and learnt a little more about these trees. It takes about three years for the kokerboom to reach five centimetres, another 15 to 20 years to reach flowering maturity at about a meter. It quickly becomes apparent that these desert giants are slow growing. The existence of a naturally occurring forest with hundreds of adult trees at 3 metres plus, is therefore truly remarkable. The slow rate of growth has its down side and these plants are extremely vulnerable.
The threats to kokerbooms include hungry porcupines who strip the bark off the trunks, voracious baboons and birds that break the branches to get to the juicy blooms, infestations and disease as well as unscrupulous collectors who remove young plants for sale or for private collections. What is emerging in addition to these threats is that climate change is having a radical effect. The desert ecosystem, often considered robust and little affected by global warming, is one of the first to suffer due to the delicate balance between life and death created by scarcity of resources like water.
As global temperatures increase, scientists have documented the movement of quiver tree populations away from hotter regions in a southward movement – from the equator and toward the poles. Obviously a tree is static and so population shift must occur through the distribution of seeds. For a quiver tree that grows so slowly the effects are catastrophic. Quiver tree populations in more northern, drier and arid areas are under threat. They simply cannot migrate fast enough and, without any migration, scientists predict a loss of up to 76% within the next 100 years.
I admit to a love affair with these trees. From their sculptural form and beauty to their desert survival tactics, these trees are to be admired. In May, June and July this forest will be ablaze with yellow flowers attracting a plethora of life. In autumn Brunsvigia bosmaniae – the candelabra flower – will burst from the ground and in spring the flower show will paint the desert horizons. Gannabos is a special place. The kokerbooms a marvel of nature and the Kokerboom Forest something that has to be seen to be believed.