Platbos Forest

Milkwoods: A Plea for a Tree

by Francois Krige

At the heart of Platbos Forest stands a milkwood tree, it’s stem leans out at an angle, hollowed and knotted. It has stood there for 1000 years at least. It is not big, its trunk is over a meter wide and true to the name of the forest it grows in, the canopy is about 5 meters tall.

Milkwoods can grow much taller, and faster. Elsewhere in the forest where there is more underground water, there are trees double its height that are probably younger. Down on the coast, from Saldanha in the west, to Kenya on the east coast, on the rocky shoreline, the first vegetation to be found that is not seaweed is a milkwood. The first tree will be centimeters tall, the second tree, sheltered by the first, will be slightly taller, and so they build in structure till they form the dune thickets, those intimate spaces that have whole worlds under their dense canopies. These coastal trees are like icebergs, with massive root systems, way bigger than the struggling growth in the salt spray above ground. Occasionally nature allows, through water or wind erosion, for us to get a glimpse of the subterranean structure and a hint at the incredible age of these stunted beings.

Growing in harsh conditions means that sexual reproduction is not always possible. It’s always preferable, always attempted, the trees produce the pungent flowers in February every year, and then fruits. That attempt at variation of type, evolution, often fails in the dry windswept environment it has as its niche.

For this reason, milkwoods have become masters of coppicing, suckering and layering, the three techniques of asexual reproduction. Coppicing is resprout from the stump after the tree has died back or snapped off. Suckering is putting out shoots from a lateral root. It looks like a seedling but try and pull it out and you will find that it is attached to the parent tree.

Then there is layering, the milkwood’s speciality. This is when it scrambles or rambles or collapses and lays is branches into the sand, the point of contact forms roots and eventually the old trunk or branch that connected the new rooted structure to the original tree rots away. In this way milkwoods slowly walk through a forest, taking a step every few hundred years.

The old milkwood at the center of our forest at Platbos grows on a slightly raised mound of nutrient rich decomposing matter and soil, hinting that this 1000 year old trunk is a reiteration of itself, that it coppiced in situ at least once. Perhaps this happened after a sucker from a parent tree grew there a few thousand years ago, that sucker may have been the result of a layering from a nearby tree many thousands of years ago, and so the mind reels back in time with the possibility of incredible longevity. The ethereal shape shifting milkwood. The life does not die, the clones change shape but it’s the same genetic being repeated over eons.

It may well be that asexual reproduction has been favoured by these trees for a very long time and the forest is one milkwood. A clonal system.

The milkwoods of Platbos do not have the luxury of crown shyness, the phenomenon observed in other forests where individual tree canopies are separated from each other by a small gap of blue sky seen from below. Things have been tough for Africa’s southernmost forest for a long time. The trees have learnt to reproduce in nutrient pockets of old rotting stumps. Parent trees send roots probing till a rich moisture retaining decaying stump is found in the sandy soil. It is here that the parent tree’s roots will produce suckers and it’s here where milkwood trees will have to share the old stump in a cluster of different forest species, the canthiums, chionanthus, apodytes and others. This is an unusual phenomenon, botanists call it “facilitation”, the sharing of a nutrient pocket.

The miracle of life and endurance is for me what the milkwood embodies best. Perhaps of all the trees in our biome, they are the ancient ones. They survive in an environment that is evolved to burn and completely depends on burning every two decades or so. Forest comprises .05 percent of the land surface of the Western Cape and is the tiny bit of our landscape that must not burn. In a world where Mediterranean fires have become hotter and more destructive on all the continents, and in a region where alien vegetation grows rampant and burns ferociously, the milkwoods are in need of our care, for we are behind the threats to its survival. They do not burn easily, yet within a few hundred meters of the old milkwood at Platbos, there are the burnt-out skeletons of many trees. They had persisted on the landscape for centuries, surviving regular cooler fynbos fires, till introduced invasives changed the fire regime and caused the inferno that killed them.

Within a few kilometers of Platbos is the Franskraal forest. A fire burnt thousands of milkwoods there recently. Now the invasives riot amongst the white skeletal frames of those old and once beautiful trees. The next fire will erase the memory of forest from the earth, the coppicing will cease and a monoculture of alien will endure.

We are able to safeguard milkwood trees, they are protected by law, you may not “cut, damage or disturb” a milkwood tree and there are hefty fines or imprisonment for offenders, but conditions for lethal fires in milkwood stands are routinely created through our negligence. It is our sins of omission that have brought gravest threats to milkwoods in our short climate changing lifetimes. Firebreaks, alien clearing, and controlled fires are what milkwoods are asking from us.

They have been our guardians since our species evolved to live on the seashore harvesting shellfish. We must now be their guardians.