Do you have a Special Tree?


“A man has made it at least a start in discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” – Elton Trueblood.

“A shade tree”, Trueblood has given this tree a meaning, a purpose, an environmental benefit. In the beginning of the 19th century there was an increasing interest in ‘shade trees’ as people started to move into settlements. In eastern North America, city trees were selected for their ability to grow quickly and provide deep shade during the hot and humid summers. (Dean 2015: 102) Coming from Johannesburg, the city that is often called ‘the largest manmade forest’, it is easy for me to relate to ‘city trees ‘and also to take them for granted.

Figure 1: Johannesburg areal view, highlighting the amount of trees/forest. Image available from





This blog will look into the importance of the modern city tree by exploring four narratives, namely; Narrative of Service; Providing services to the human residents, i.e.: shade, environmental benefits. Narrative of power; Human control of nature, aesthetic purposes, symbols of race, class and status. Narrative of heritage; Prominent community landmarks; trees associated with a historic person,place, event or period, a tree associated with local folklore, myths, legends, or traditions, trees t commemorate historical events.Lastly the Counter narratives: the unruly tree, trees that make a mess, street trees that refuse to stay in line, or grow too big, too fast, or in the wrong way, and service trees that emit allergenic pollen. These are the nuisance trees, the invasive trees, the weed trees, and the dangerous trees. (Dean 2015:166). Including the troublesome tree is acknowledging that there are tensions inherent in sharing space with other living entities, like trees, and the social conflicts that arise around urban forest management. “A recognition of the trouble that they cause is, however, a first step in recognizing that other purposes, besides the human ones, exist, even in the modern city” (Dean 2015:172).

This blog will make reference to J. Dean’s reading, The unruly tree: stories from the archives, in Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective as well as P. Tinkler’s reading Using photographs in social and historical research, to illustrate the importance and abundance of trees that we need to celebrate and acknowledge. According to Dean, stories about trees shape the way of our thinking, which in turn shapes the way we manage them. “The meanings we find in these stories influence the choices we make when we plant trees in the city, they alter the ways that we trim and control the trees, and, finally, they inform our decisions to fell them” (Dean 2015:162).

Narrative of Service

This type of tree emerged in the late nineteenth century at the beginning of the industrial revolution and then returned in a new form in the early twenty fist century. This tree, selflessly provides the service of shade to the humans of the modern world. The type of tree came in many different forms, namely; trees were selected by their ability to grow quickly, and provide sufficient shade during summer. The shade tree is also the provider of good and clean air.

Figure 2: Trees planed for shade outside the University of Pretoria Tuks Rugby field. Image provided.

These trees of shade, especially in summer are lifesavers to my car, as it often over heats and then is in a bad condition to drive. But closer to my hart is another set of shade providers, the trees under which my art class first had a picnic. We had all finally became friends in a class of strangers, we were finished with our final semester one exams and headed out to the Tuks sports grounds to share wine and chocolate. It was the first time we had done something together was a class outside of our class and that was really special as we already spend most of our days together in the studios. Topics of conversation shifted from art and became more light hearted and open.

Figure 3: Trees under which my class had our first picnic together. Image provided


Narrative of Power

The ‘power’ tree is one that that stands amongst many, in long lines of power, reinforcing the idea of humans wanting to control nature. They are typically seen along wide and modern avenues, traditionally in prominent places. Often they are seen along residential roads as well. More recently, our ‘urban forest’ is less symmetrical in the choice of the same tree for power, it has become a more organic choice in tree selection, highlighting the change in focus on wanting to control and dominate nature.

As I grew up in Johannesburg, I have been privileged enough to be surrounded by an abundance of trees. My road that I lived on, was called Pine Avenue and although there were no pines the whole street is lined with Jacarandas. Anyone that knows Jacaranda trees will know that there are about two weeks in October where the whole city goes purple. My road was one of those.

Figure 4: Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, October. Image available from

However, I now live in Hatfield, on South Street,  a street with jacarandas, but it is not October yet, so the trees do not have as much magic.

Figure 5: Rows of Jacaranda trees along South Street, Hatfield Pretoria. Image provided.

The blooming jacarandas in Pretoria, for me, bring me straight back to #FeesMustFall. I was very involved in the movement and for the last week of the strikes, all over South Africa, these trees were also the common link between all the universities. In all the photos on the streets, one can always spot a tiny bit of purple that connected the whole of South Africa. It is amazing as the week after the strikes it rained and the purple disappeared too.

Figure 6: #FeesMustFall protests in Pretoria, 2015. Image available from Twitter.

Narrative of Heritage

The ‘heritage’ tree is one specific specimens where often history unfolded or the tree is associated with an influential character, place, event or period. The heritage tree can also be associated with folklore, myths, led gents or traditions. The tree can become any of these characteristics when considering its size, form, shape, beauty, age, colour, rarity, genetic constitution, or other distinctive features. An example would be the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) that stood outside Anne Frank’s attic refuge in Amsterdam. Not all heritage trees are there before the event, for example some trees are planted in acknowledgement of a historical event; a war, peace or a community in the past.

Figure 7: Anne Frank’s house and the chestnut tree. Image available from ynetnews. com

A narrative tree that stands out for me, is one that was planted in memory of my best friends brother who passed away. He was only six, when he had a fatal car accident. The tree was planted outside his grade 1 classroom and it was a big event that involved the whole school. Everyone that was there at the time remembers ‘Eric’s Tree’. It has now been nine years later and the tree is large and strong and a favourite to climb in. Unfortunately I am unable to get an image of this specific tree but that does not mean it is not remembered.

Counter Narrative: The Unruly Tree

Not all trees are selfless providers, there are trouble makers too. These are the nuisance trees, the invasive trees, the weed trees, and the dangerous trees. A characteristic may be that the trees that make a mess; street trees that refuse to stay in line, or grow too big, too fast, or in the wrong way; and service trees that emit allergenic pollen.Examples of these types of trees are the weed-like Manitoba, the crab apple and the Lombardy poplar. Each does not provide shade, emits allergic pollen or spreads too fast.

Figure 8: A eucalyptus tree, that is invasive as well as it being too ascetically tall. Image provided.
 This eucalyptus tree is an alien invasive species, that not only spits gew onto the ground but also is ascetically unpleasing, as it is too tall.

Interview 1: Erica Kempken (Mother)

When shown the image of the narrative of service, my mom immediately related it to her own office trees, that also provide shade. Her garden is very

Interview 2: Sarah Kidgell (friend)

When shown the images of the heritage gardens, Sarah’s first thought was sitting back home in the Botanical Gardens. These gardens are filled with a variety of different plant and tree species. As a young child she would go to the Botanical Gardens and play on the large open grass areas. It has also been a heritage sight for her as it holds many precious memories, such as childhood picnics, a sight to hold weddings, a place to relax and unwind, and a place to go to spend time with loved ones.

Interview 3: Jeanette Brahmer (Grandmother)



I had no idea that there were categories of urban trees, the idea that trees were providers is one that I have taken for granted before writing this blog. But it is interesting to see that each type of tree has such a significance. By looking at Dean’s reading specifically, I have managed to understand the four tree narratives; power, service, heritage and the unruly tree. The photo interview shows that photos are a good way of sparking conversations that then spark awareness.


Dean, J. 2015. The unruly tree: stories from the archives, in Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective, edited by LA Sandberg, A Bardekjian & S Butt. New York: Routledge:162-175.

Saunders, W. and Macoun W. T (1899) Catalogue of Trees and Shrubs, Bulletin 2. CentralExperimental Farm, Ottawa, ON.


Tinkler, P. 2013. Using photographs in social and historical research. London: SAGE.

Your Happy Place Blog. 2014. Tag Archive: Quotes about Trees. [Online] Available from – [Accessed on 10/05/2016]

Feature Image: Ruffled Blog. 2012. Cherry Valley Wedding. [Online]. Available from [Accessed on 12/05/2016].

Figure 1: Wikipedia. 2016. Johannesburg. [Online]. Available from – [Accessed on 10/05/2016]

Figure 2: Image taken by author

Figure 3: RiteBook. 2015. Jacaranda tree, in Pretoria. [Online]. Available from – [Accessed on 10/05/2016].

Figure 4: Image taken by author

Figure 5: Image taken by author

Figure 6: Liza Fabbian – Twitter. 2015. #FeesMustFall Pretoria. [Online]. Available from [Accessed on 10/05/2016].

Figure 7: YNetNews. 2009. [Online]. Available from –,7340,L-3815196,00.html. [Accessed on 10/05/2016].

Figure 8: Image taken by author