Of Wild Flowers and Trees – Braam van Wyk chats about his new book Trees of Kruger
 More about the book!

Braam van Wyk is emeritus professor of botany at the University of Pretoria. A leading expert on plant taxonomy, he has had an abiding interest in making botany accessible to the general public, and has authored more than 350 publications about southern African vegetation and flora. He writes here about where it all began.

‘The prospect to still discover trees unknown to science in some of the deep forested gorges of Pondoland spurred me even further on.’

I grew up on a farm near Wolmaransstad in the then far western Transvaal, now part of North West. My father practised mixed farming and my mother was a housewife and a keen gardener. From an early age, I was interested in natural history, especially birds, insects, and plants. My mother even allocated me a portion of the garden where I could grow plants myself.

During my school years, I would catch the bus home every day, which meant I wasn’t able to take part in extra-mural activities. However, this gave me ample time to explore the veld and learn more about its inhabitants. In Grade one, my teacher had a small rockery with succulents in an old plough disc in the classroom, and I was fascinated by the curious shapes and forms of these plants, especially the stone plants (Lithops spp.). There are very few naturally occurring succulents in the Wolmaransstad area, but I discover some carrion flowers and was intrigued by their rarity, flowers smelling of rotten meat and the fact that they were usually growing hidden under shrubs or bushes, meaning that, searching for them required patience.

We did not really have any books on natural history in the house, but my parents bought the ten-volume set of the Die Afrikaanse kinderensiklopedie, the publication that would have the greatest influence on my future career. I became particularly interested in birds because it was one of the few groups with coloured plates in the encyclopedia. However, I also enjoyed reading about other animals and plants. Ironically, I didn’t have much of an interest in trees at the time, probably because tree diversity in that part of South Africa is exceedingly low.

In high school I was privileged to have inspiring teachers in both science and biology. Following my conscription in the army, I enrolled at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (now Potchefstroom campus of NWU) with main subjects botany, zoology and human physiology. I enjoyed all three, but it was one of my lecturers in Botany, Dr Daan Botha, who instilled in me a particular interest in plant taxonomy, the description, identification, naming and classification of plants. Which is why, following my first degree, I chose to further specialise in plant taxonomy.

For my master’s project I embarked on a taxonomic study of the indigenous myrtleberries (Eugenia spp.), a group of little-known trees and dwarf shrubs. During field work, I was fortunate to meet some inspiring amateur naturalists; people that have helped foster my interest in trees. Amongst these were Hugh Nicholson, Ian Garland and Tony Abbott. It soon became apparent that several of the myrtleberry species, including ones new to science, were confined to Pondoland, in the area more or less between Port St. Johns and Port Shepstone. Field work showed that this area also harbours an exceptionally high concentration of other rare trees. The prospect to still discover trees unknown to science in some of the deep forested gorges of Pondoland spurred me even further on.

In 1977, I took on the role as lecturer in Botany at the University of Pretoria, the institution from which I retired some 40 years later. Shortly after my move to Pretoria, I was invited to meet with conservation biologist and tree photographer Piet van Wyk (no relation), author of a now classic two volume work on the trees of the Kruger National Park. However, this meeting was not about trees, as, at the time, he was looking for a botanist to provide the text for a book based on the photographs of wild flower photographer Sasa Malan. I agreed to help and, in 1988, my first book was published. Soon after, a second edition appeared under the title Field guide to the Wild Flowers of the Highveld. This was one of the first wild flower guides in South Africa to arrange the species into groups according to flower colour.

My friendship with Piet van Wyk turned out to be a most fruitful one. We did, amongst others, Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa (published in 1998, and still in print, topping nature lists every month). In this book, we developed a system whereby the trees are arranged in groups based on easy-to-observe leaf and stem features. However, it soon became apparent that some users of the guide still find it difficult to identify trees because they lack essential botanical background. To fill this gap, the book How to Identify Trees in Southern Africa was prepared as a companion volume.

In 2006, Piet sadly passed away, but his legacy lives on in the huge collection of tree images he left us, as well as the valuable information on trees documented by him. Our most recent tree book, Trees of Kruger, is aimed at visitors to the Kruger National Park and focuses on those trees most likely to be seen when driving around in the Park. Most tree identification books require inspection of a tree at close quarters. Obviously this is not possible in the Park, as much of the time, one will be viewing trees and wildlife from the safety of a vehicle. So the tree accounts focus on details that are visible either with the naked eye – often from a distance – or through a pair of binoculars. Particularly useful for identifying trees from a distance is the colour and texture of the foliage, features that are difficult to describe in words and for which photographs may be used more beneficial. For this purpose, it’s important to ensure photographs of the actual tree are printed quite large, something we have tried to do. Hopefully this book, like the others I have been involved with, will provide its readers with much pleasure and contributes towards an appreciation of our country’s rich tree diversity.

Trees of Kruger is out now.


This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine from Penguin Random House South Africa. 



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Categories Lifestyle Non-fiction South Africa

Tags Braam van Wyk Penguin Random House SA Piet van Wyk The Penguin Post Trees of Kruger

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