Oaks – our cultural heritage

Oaks, Main Street

Oaks, Main Street

This time of the year Paarl’s oaks become prone to fungal diseases, and without fail the debate of replacing Paarl’s iconic oaks begins. Oaks are vilified for not being indigenous, for having branches that break off, andOaks may not be indigenous to the Cape, but they are certainly part of our cultural landscape, and have been so for more than three hundred years.

Timber played an important role in those early economies. Trees provided wood for construction, and carpenters used wood to make doors, windows, furniture and to build wagons. Every household needed wood for cooking fires and to warm houses in winter. At the Cape, timber was also used to repair ships during their stopover between the East Indies and Europe.

In 1656 Jan van Riebeeck, the commander of the VOC maritime station at the Cape, planted groves of oak and ash to provide firewood for the settlers in Table Bay. Indigenous forests in the area between Rondebosch and Constantia Nek, Orangekloof and so forth, were rapidly exploited so that a special “placaat” was issued in 1658 to prohibit settlers from felling indigenous trees. In 1688 Simon van der Stel, the Cape’s new commander and later governor, planted a forest of 40,000 oaks against Table Mountain – possibly in the region of Kirstenbosch today. he too issued several “placaats” to protect the remaining indigenous forests.

Commissioner HA van Reede tot Drakenstein visited the Cape in 1685 to inspect the settlements in Table Bay and Stellenbosch. As an avid botanist he too commented on the rapid depletion of natural forests, and warned that the colony was heading for an economic disaster. On his instruction, settlers were only allowed to fell trees on their own properties, and then only if they replaced those trees with oaks. In 1689 Governor Van der Stel decreed that every free burgher receiving a new land grant had to undertake to plant at least 100 oaks on the property, and every tree felled on the property had to be replaced with another.

By the early 18th century timber was being sourced as far afield as Swellendam and Riviersonderend, and even Knysna. In 1712 more than 1,000 young trees were transplanted from Rondebosch and replanted in Stellenbosch.

Farms allocated to free burghers in the Drakenstein Valley would have been subjected to the same instructions – to plant oaks. The first farm in the valley was Jean le Long who received Boschendal in about 1685. Thirty more farms were granted in Groot Drakenstein, Klein Drakenstein, Dajosaphat and Agter Paarl before settlers began to cultivated the western slopes of Paarl Mountain – the area that would later become Paarl. Those early Paarl farms – Picardie, Laborie, La Concorde and De Hoop, all granted in 1691, are still part of the town’s cultural landscape.

Paarl’s oaks are clearly no more foreign than its lime-washed houses.

Sources: 1) Britton, P – A short history of forestry in South African, SAN Parks Bulletin 2006, 2) Sleigh, D – Die buiteposte, Protea Boekhuis 2004

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