South Africa celebrated Arbor Week during the first week of September, and Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West – a provincial heritage site renowned for its historic trees – marked the occasion in appropriate arboreal style.
A distinguished guest planted an oak tree sapling with a fascinating history, and garden staff revived the tradition of gathering seeds from an ancient yellowwood and distributing these to visitors.
It is a Vergelegen custom to invite visiting dignitaries to plant a commemorative oak, and the estate has a fine collection planted by members of Britain’s royal family and other visitors. The oak tree planting on this occasion was undertaken by Mary Carlisle, renowned for her work with under-privileged communities in KwaZulu-Natal, on a visit to the estate on 2 September.
This oak sapling has a fascinating lineage, says Vergelegen Gardens Manager Richard Arm. It originates from an acorn from a famous tree at Vergelegen known as the Royal Oak. That Royal Oak, in turn, grew from an acorn planted decades ago when Vergelegen was owned by Sir Lionel and Lady Florence Phillips, from 1917-1940.
“Lord and Lady Phillips were friends of the Duchess of Marlborough, who had given Sir Lionel this acorn. It came from one of the last of King Alfred's mediaeval oaks at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. This acorn survived the sea trip from England to the Cape in the 1920s and duly grew into the giant oak known as the Royal Oak.”
Since then, acorns from the Royal Oak have been taken back to England for planting in Blenheim Palace and Windsor Great Park.
“We planted the sapling close to the existing Royal Oak so that in a couple of hundred years, oaks can still be enjoyed as part of the heritage of the Cape,” says Arm.
Vergelegen is also home to a vast yellowwood (Podocarpaceae, a protected national tree) estimated to be 150-400 years old.
This venerable old specimen is the source of hundreds of seeds which the horticultural team traditionally gather every year. They skipped this custom in 2020 due to the Covid-19 lockdown, but revived it this year.
“The seed handout at the gate was extremely well received by all our guests,” says Arm, who adds that the seed collection and germination are made easier by resident fruit bats.
The bats not only drop the seeds in certain areas of the garden, so that the team know where to find them, but they also nibble at the skin and fleshy part of the fruit to expose the seed, which helps germination.
Vergelegen visitors can walk the Yellowwood Trail to the site of this magnificent old yellowwood. Other outstanding trees include five enormous camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) outside the homestead, which were declared national monuments in 1942. These are the oldest introduced cultivated trees in southern Africa, and were also the favourite trees of President Nelson Mandela on his visits to Vergelegen.
The collection also includes a hollow old English oak, believed to be the oldest living oak in Africa, and an oak arboretum. The arboretum is home to about 15 varieties of oak and helps to increase awareness of the history of oaks in the Cape, and the conservation and propagation of these trees.
Members of the public are welcome to visit he estate which is open Monday-Sunday 09h00-17h00.
For more info visit www.vergelegen.co.za and social media.