10 things you didn’t know about Arbor Week in South Africa

Written by Life Green Group & Catherine Clulow (Botanical Society of South Africa)

“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

– Mr. J. Sterling Morton-

1. When did it start?

Arbor Week started in Nebraska in 1872 with Mr. Morton who convinced the local government to set aside a day for planting trees. Armed with a pen, a passion for plants and his position as editor in the local newspaper Arbor Day was soon celebrated in every State. Shortly after that Arbor Day become a worldwide phenomenon.

Just over a century later, in 1983, the South African government introduced Arbor Week to South Africa. In the Northern Hemisphere Arbor Day is the last Friday of April (beginning of Spring), in South Africa it is the first week of September – the start of our Spring. Arbor Week is a Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries initiative.

2. Why is it so important?

National Arbor Week is important as it teaches citizens about the importance of indigenous trees in society. Trees are important sources of: food, medicine, building material, fuel, not to mention mental well-being. They also play a pivotal role in providing food, homes and shelter for livestock and local wildlife.

Arbor Week plays an important part in uniting society and is celebrated by businesses and large corporations, schools, townships, government, tertiary education institutions, religious bodies and in the home.

3. What are you meant to do?

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the next best time is now.”

– Chinese Proverb-

©Catherine Clulow

South Africans are encouraged to plant an indigenous tree as a practical and symbolic gesture, as a sustainable form of environmental management.

4. Things to remember:

Make your tree count! A tree is a long term investment – take time and care to research the type of tree you would like to plant.  Remember trees have different root systems and grow to be different sizes – you are not going to fit a baobab in your backyard and you do not want to have to cut it down five years later because you didn’t plan properly.

You also do not want to pick a tree that is going to die because it is not frost or drought resistant. Find trees suitable for your area.

The point of Arbor Week is to go indigenous – an oak, jacaranda or maple tree holds little ecological value.

5. Did you know:

In 2008 Madiba planted the 90th stinkwood in Soweto’s Thokoza Park in honour of Arbor Week. His tree was one of 990 tree planted in Soweto by Johannesburg City Parks. He planted it saying: “It is time for us to restore to nature that which we had taken from it.”

6. The theme:

As Arbor Week takes place in September which is also known as Heritage Month in South Africa the government encourages the public to educate themselves on trees with cultural meaning and traditional gravitas.

7. Famous trees in South Africa

If you visit South Africa there are some magnificent trees you should make a concerted effort to hug which include: the Sophia Town oak tree; the Sagole baobab in Limpopo; and The Big Tree in the Tsitsikamma forest.

You should also appreciate: the Jacaranda peppered streets of Pretoria that give the city its name the Jacaranda City. The Giant Flag made from solar panels and spekboom in the Eastern Cape.

Did you know that Johannesburg is one of the most treed cities in the world! And that Durban is often referred to as the ‘Garden Province’ because everything grows there.

8. Tree of the Year

The outstanding common wild fig (Ficus thonningii) is this year’s Tree of the Year. It makes for a fantastic shade giving tree in subtropical environments. The Ficus thonningii attracts arks of animals from the Big 5, butterflies, bees and birds. It makes for a super fodder tree for game and livestock.  In traditional medicine it is known to treat multiple aches and pains, as well as coughs and sneezes. Because this year’s Arbor Week is focusing on cultures, the common bush-cherry can be used. Its fruit are used to make jam; and fibres from its roots are used to make a strong rope and mats in African culture. It is the ideal plant to bind soil but it will cause great destruction to your pool, so be warned.

9. Rare tree of the year

Common bush-cherry (Maerua cafra) is 2016’s rare tree of the year. It has a heavenly smell and large juicy fruits. Sadly it is not commonly found in nurseries or used by landscapers because it is slow growing which makes it expensive.

Good things come to those that wait and the common bush-cherry has fragrant fruit that attract many birds. It is a small drought resistant shrub that can handle semi-shade and deep shade which is most useful!

10. Ideas on trees you could plant during Arbor Week

We have made an effort to select indigenous trees in your region that hold cultural significance:

Erythrina lysistemon Kirstenbosch 5 Sep 11 ALN 123 1024- Alice Nottenpx
Lucky bean tree (Erythrina lysistemon) ©Alice Notten
  • Limpopo – Space permitting, the Common wild fig; MarulaTamboti
  • North West – Shepherd’s tree; Brandybush
Shepherd’s tree © Life Green Group
Bauhinia galpinii- Monique mcquillan
Pride of de Kaap (Bauhinia galpinii) ©Monique Mcquillan
Grewia occidentalis fruit flower foliage 13 Dec 14 ALN 100
Cross-berry (Grewia occidentalis) © Alice Notten

Have a fantastic Arbor week, celebrate, and nurture trees, not only today, this week or this month, but always! What would we do without them?

Comment below and tell us what your favourite tree is, and/or what tree (s) you’ll be planting this Arbor Week?

Further information:

Visit PlantZAfrica to find out all you need to know about indigenous plant options



Published by


The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) are an NGO conserving and educating about biodiversity for over 100 years.

3 thoughts on “10 things you didn’t know about Arbor Week in South Africa”

    1. Thanks for your comment Cathy, you are most welcome to make a donation to the Botanical Society of SA, we’d greatly appreciate it. You can specify for its use if you wish- aka indicate wish donation goes towards tree plantings/ conservation/ education/ SANBI garden etc. Please contact info@botanicalsociety.org.za or 0217972090. Thank you 🙂


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