The importance of trees – Milkwood forest edition

The importance of trees – Milkwood forest edition

Grootbos Nature Reserve is home to many beautiful milkwood forests – the type of cool, grey-green, dappled forests with wizened ancient trees that inspired J.R.R Tolkien to write the  ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, and the type that conjures images of fairies, gnomes and magical creatures. 

Milkwood (Sideroxylon inerme) trees are hardy, slow-growing, twisting trees with dark green rubbery leaves which often disperse sticky, black berries. Sprawling branches create sheltered thickets that are habitats for a variety of wildlife in the area. Milkwood trees are protected due to this unique micro-environment that their thickets create and may not be cut down without a permit.

Did you know… the bark of a Milkwood tree is used in traditional medicine to treat broken limbs, as well as to banish nightmares. 

The flowers that bloom on milkwoods turn into juicy fruits which are delicious treats for both birds and baboons.

Did you know… milkwoods are one of a few trees that are able to withstand the harsh salt-laden winds that race along and scour the southern coastline of South Africa. 

Restoration efforts aim to conserve biodiversity in its natural state. Understanding the factors that drive current forest and fynbos boundaries in the Walker Bay region are vital for reforestation efforts. Reforestation of agricultural land not only improves biodiversity, but can also result in increased primary production for forests, help to reduce susceptibility to invasion by an exotic species and to increase ecological resistance to pressures like climate change. 

One question often asked is how these ancient forests persist in these little islands, enveloped by a sea of fire-prone fynbos. Many possibilities exist as potential drivers – one of these is the geology, the soils that differ between forest and fynbos. Bianke Fouche from Nelson Mandela University, is currently completing her Conservation Biology Master’s programme. Bianke is comparing soils of forest and fynbos, and looking at historical photographs to see how these Afromontane and milkwood forests might have changed over time. With this project, Bianke hopes to be able to inform landscape stewardship practices. So far, results show that each forest is unique, and careful consideration for site specific conditions need to be made when designing management interventions in the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy. 

Next time you come across a majestic milkwood forest, stop and give it the admiration that it so rightfully deserves. It is most probably older than you can even imagine and might even have stood by to see the passing of animals, humans and possibly even magical creatures.

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