Trees as City Wonders

“I’m planting a tree to teach me to gather strength from my deepest roots.” ― Andrea Koehle Jones, The Wish Trees


Many of us have grown accustomed to trees in our environment forgetting that this contributor of aesthetic awe fulfils more purposes for other living things than just functioning as a decorative feature. On the other hand, we rarely consider the fact that there are others who do not have the luxury of an environment adorned with trees.

A photo elicitation is ideal for exploring a broader conceptualisation of trees and their role in our everyday lives or the absence thereof. Tinkler states that photo elicitation or photo interviewing refers to making use of photographs during interviews to do research (2013:173). The value of using photographs as a research tool is that it encourages dialogue and provides useful data (Tinkler 2013:173). Photographs are purposefully used during interviews to prompt discussion (Tinkler 2013:174).

One way by which to examine the role of trees in our everyday lives is to do a photo elicitation with interviewees to bring to light their experience with trees “rooted deep” (Andrea Koehle Jones) within their consciousness. The elicitation is based on the four tree narratives outlined by Joanna Dean namely that of service, power, heritage and the counter narrative of the unruly tree (2015:162-166). Furthermore the elicitations of the first three narratives aim to reveal the anthropocentric nature of these stories. The trees that evoke memories and that are used to prompt discussion between myself and interviewees include the Canary Island pine, the Silk floss tree, the Sago Palm and the Camphor tree. [246]

The wind through the pine trees

Firstly let us consider Dean’s narrative of service (2015:162) which describes trees that selflessly provide services to the humanities such as pollution mitigation. During my childhood years my family used the cones from nearby exotic Canary Island pine trees botanically referred to as “Pinus canariensis” (Figure 1) for the purpose of making fires on winter evenings and as a bird feeder by covering the cones with peanut butter and seed. I admit that this anthropocentric use for the cones did not harm the trees but we selfishly used these cones for our own means without considering the possible environmental impact.

Canary pine tree
Figure 1: Pinus canariensis, Pretoria, 2016. Photographed by the author.

A further “looksee” at service trees, interviews with grandma Sarie, Aoife and Marissa: the first interviewee is an elegant elderly woman so I decided to make an appointment with her at a small coffee shop that is not too far out of her way which she appreciated. After ordering delicious hot beverages I showed her my photograph. The photograph portraying the Canary Island pine and my story behind it successfully sparked conversation between Sarie and I, she reminisced about her summer holidays spent at her uncle’s. He had a Fig tree “Ficus carica” that is native to Asia. At the time of her visits the fruit was ripe and could be devoured after a day in the sun. Sarie still recalls the fruit’s nectar dripping on her chin and the sticky feeling t it left behind. And up to this day she cherishes the memories made.

The second interviewee is a free spirited student so I chose to set up a meeting at a botanical garden knowing that he is fascinated by organic life. Prompted by my photograph of the pine tree Aoife articulated his admiration for a Lemon tree “Lemon” home-grown in Asia, outside his bedroom window because it reminds him of the song Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden (1995).

The third interviewee is an excitable student and also a dear friend. Marissa and I discussed Dean’s (2015:164) third tree narrative based on the photograph. She recalled besmirching her dresses with Mulberry fruit from a Mulberry tree “Morus” that is native to China, at her kindergarten.

Their stories reveal an anthropocentric nature in terms of trees providing a service for humanities when in fact they are also natural organisms in their own right. [384]

Silky pink floss

Secondly let us consider Dean’s narrative of power (2015:163) which refers to trees that beautify a city by functioning as a decorative feature. Trees can be associated with social status and power for example rural settlements or initially impermanent cities such as Soweto has little to no trees in comparison to permanent cities like Johannesburg. Ironically, today Soweto provides permanent housing and is near Johannesburg but does not have many trees, because of fewer trees the city is considered to be poorer and less advanced. I recently, with the arrival of fall, noticed trees that carry pink flowers in my neighbourhood. The thought of this pink tree gave me sleepless nights as its name and the fact that it stood out amongst greeneries puzzled me urging me to visit a gardening centre to identify the tree. It turned out to be a Silk floss tree botanically known as “Chorisia speciosa” native to South America (Figure 2). The tree brought me to realise that I live in a city flourishing with trees as in Johannesburg.

Floss tree
Figure 2: Chorisia spesiosa, Pretoria, 2016. Photographed by the author.

A deeper study of trees as a symbol of social status and power according to the interviewees: My second photograph representing a tree I associate with power reminded Sarie of foreign Willow trees “Salix Babylonica” at her favourite vacation destination. The old Willows added character to the environment as if the destination was fashioned after holiday movie scene. Sarie considers the trees as a “nice touch” and confessed that vacation spot immediately caught her eye because of the trees.

Aoife’s response to the photograph posed a challenge because instead of telling me a story with regards to trees as a symbol of power he chatted on about how interesting he finds trees. The conversation was interesting but did not provide me with the information I needed as the photograph did not facilitate the appropriate talk (Tinkler 2013:175). My story about the Silk floss tree contributing to the aesthetics of a city reveals an anthropocentric nature because it is yet another tree that serves humanity.

On the other hand, Marissa’s reaction to the photograph was more satisfactory. She thought of the Palm trees scientifically known as “Syagrus romanzoffiana” prominent in coastal, tropical areas that decorate the sidewalks in the security estate where she resides. These trees added to a sense of “exclusivity” about the estate.

These elicitations focus on trees that have aesthetical attributes which transforms how people see and feel about places thus revealing an anthropocentric nature because the trees also serve humanity. [417]

The precious cycad

Thirdly let us consider Dean’s narrative of heritage (2015:164) which refers to a tree that functions as a community landmark, that has a historic association, that represents crop nearing extinction and that can be associated with local folklore. When I was a pre-schooler the teacher told my class a folktale that stayed with me to today; the legend of queen Modjadji (SAHO 2011). It is said that the queen of the Lobedu people is titled as Modjadji or the Rain Queen. The Lobedu live in the Limpopo Province. Queen Modjadji was believed to have the supernatural ability of making it rain and she was also thought to be immortal. According to legend the first queen’s successor still reigns as Modjadji to this very day and lives in a forest of cycads as cycads are considered to be very old and precious trees. The Sago Palm (Gardening in South Africa 2016) botanically known as the “Cycas revoluta” (Figure 3) is one of the many cycads in the forest inhibited by Modjadji.

Figure 3: Cycas revoluta, Pretoria, 2016. Photographed by the author.

A further exploration of heritage trees, an interview with Sarie, Aoife and Marissa: Upon hearing my story Sarie eagerly told me about the Tree aloe “Aloe barberae” that is a very popular native tree in South Africa. She noticed that the tree is planted in cities to contribute to grand garden landscapes because of its flowers and leaves that make a statement. The Tree aloe is an important tree in urban landscapes as it attracts birds, butterflies and bees as well as other insects and it is for this reason that the tree has become a distinctive feature of many South African gardens.

Aoife immediately thought of the Jacaranda tree scientifically known as the “Jacaranda mimosifolia” native to Australia that decorates the city of Pretoria. Aoife pointed out that the Jacaranda city was named after the Jacaranda trees that decorate the city with their beautiful purple blossoms. He feels that Pretoria would not be perceived in the same way without these trees, they act as a landmark of the city which distinct it from other cities in South Africa.

After viewing the photograph Marissa referred back to her experience of an English oak tree botanically known as “Quercus robur”; the tree was situated near the neighbourhood church leaving countless acorns lying on the ground. She was not particularly fond of attending church early every Sunday morning and made it a habit of kicking the acorns on her way into church believing that if an acorn did not stray off the pathway leading to the door she would enjoy the morning in church.

The trees mentioned in the elicitations either function as landmarks in urban settings or they are associated with local folklore. Our use and reference of the trees as such also reveal an anthropocentric nature. [466]

The not so convenient Camphor

Lastly let us consider Dean’s counter narrative of the unruly tree (2015:166) which can be defined as a tree that causes trouble in an anthropocentric context. Not too long ago our fore garden had been covered in shade produced by a Camphor tree botanically known as “Cinnamomum camphora” (Figure 4) but the Camphor had a viral root system that repeatedly grew into the house’s sewage system, the cost of fixing the sewage pipes every few months was unaffordable and we felled the magnificent tree. Felling such a humungous specimen was sad as my family and I grew to love its “wild” factor and we also respected its age. The tree became a nuisance, one we could not afford to keep. But it is also true that if the property developers considered the environment the sewage system could have been situated somewhere else and the Camphor’s roots would not have become an unaffordable ordeal.

Figure 4: Cinnamomum camphora, Pretoria, 2016. Photographed by the author.

Sarie was reminded of a similar experience. Before she retired she was urged by her neighbours of that time to fell a Leopard Tree “Caesalpinia ferrea” it’s aggressive root system damaged their pavement. Sarie is still angry about the situation because she did warn them then not to pave near the tree and they did not take the warning seriously which led to her felling a large, indigenous tree for the sole purpose of saving a pavement that should have never been there in the first place. During the interview I realised that this is a sensitive topic for Sarie because the recollection of what happened angered her. Nonetheless her response did coincide perfectly with the counter narrative.

After telling Aoife about my experience of an unruly tree he reflected on when his dad brought home a small exotic Olive tree “Olea europaea” in a ceramic pot. He said that his father wanted an ornamental tree in the garden and entertained the idea of using olives in food and fancy drinks. However the tree was too difficult to maintain and died.

Finally, Marissa responded to my story about the nuisance tree by telling me about her local municipality’s recent venture of felling Bloekom trees “Eucalyptus globulus” that originate from Australia. The main problem with these trees is their excessive consumption of water and because South Africa is a dry country that does experience water shortages the tree is regarded as a trouble maker. Marissa says that she understands why these trees pose a problem but she also considers the fact that they were not replaced with indigenous trees which she also regards problematic.

The elicitations about the unruly tree shows that trees are, in many cases, selfishly classified as such because they do not conform to man-made standards. It also shows that even though some trees do pose as a threat and should be removed, it is important to replace it with a more suited alternative. [478]


This photo elicitation reveals the humanities’ attraction to beautiful trees as long as the trees exist within man made boundaries. It is also evident that we take notice when trees are absent. The use of photographs proved to be a successful research tool in two out of the three interviews conducted. The first three tree narratives as explained by Dean (2015:162-166) express anthropocentric nature in the stories and the counter narrative of the unruly tree shows the extent to which human beings expect trees to conform and the consequences if a tree turns out to be too “wild” for an urban setting. [156]


Sources consulted:

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.

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

Forestry Department. Sa. Status of Invasive Tree Species in Southern Africa. [O]. Available:
Accessed 08 May 2016.

Gardening in South Africa. 2016. Cycas revoluta. [O]. Available:
Accessed 09 May 2016.

South African History Online. 2011. Oral tradition and indigenous knowledge. [O]. Available: mountains-and-other-landmark
Accessed 08 May 2016.

Thompson, N. 2016. Cinnamomum camphora. Pretoria.

Thompson, N. 2016. Chorisia spesiosa. Pretoria.

Thompson, N. 2016. Cycas revoluta. Pretoria.

Thompson, N. 2016. Pinus canariensis. Pretoria.

Fool’s Garden. 1995. Dish of the Day. [CD]. Los Angeles. Intercord Record Service.




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