Saving Schoenstatt’s silver trees

Silver tree seeds can remain dormant for several decades.

A development plan has raised concerns about the future of a grove of silver trees at the Schoenstatt estate in Constantia.

The estate has belonged to the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary since they came to South Africa in 1933 as missionaries.

In 2016, the nuns applied to the City to build a retirement village on a portion of the 7.25ha estate surrounded by Constantia Main Road, Price Drive and Schoenstatt Road (“New plan for prime land,” Bulletin March 31, 2016).

Plans for the 3.25ha Great Oaks Retirement Village were launched in February. The development will include 55 cottages, 27 flats and a 20-bed health-care facility. Construction is due to start in January next year, according to Helen Seaman, director of Constantia Life Developers, which has been involved with the Great Oaks development since 2018.

“No-one knows if the trees were planted or grew naturally from seed in the ground. Some of the sisters living there now recall that Sisters Benice and Ursula discussed the small silver trees between 1995 and 2005,” said Ms Seaman.

In May 2017, ecologist Dr Clive McDowell, of the Constantia Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association’s environmental portfolio, alerted City planning officials because the grove of silver trees lies directly within the path of the proposed new buildings.

Clare Burgess from TreeKeepers, Dr Clive McDowell from the CRRA and Helen Seaman from Constantia Life Developers.

Silver trees are listed as endangered, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild. “It is known from a few natural localities on the lower richer granitic soils on the foothills of Table Mountain. It is one of few indigenous trees to be accorded formal protected status,” wrote Dr McDowell.

It is illegal to damage or destroy a protected tree and anyone doing so without the proper authority can face a fine, up to three years imprisonment or both.

According to Dr McDowell, silver trees are sensitive and cannot be transplanted when taller than a few centimetres.

“They are also sensitive to ground disturbances in the near vicinity. The seeds which fall to the ground around the adult female trees can remain dormant for several decades which assists in its survival assuming no major damage to its habitat.”

The grove of silver trees lies directly within the path of the proposed new buildings.

Clare Burgess, a landscape architect and chairwoman of TreeKeepers Cape Town, has been working with the Schoenstatt planners, heritage practitioners, architects and engineers to conserve some of the 260 trees at the estate, including the silver trees.

She said some of the trees had to be removed because they were diseased or very old and “showing signs of dying in the near future”.

Dr McDowell suggested translocation of seeds or segment cuttings. He said the Friends of Constantia Valley Greenbelts were keen to plant the seedlings at Belle Ombre Meadow.

“This translocation will be suitable as it is a granitic, north-facing slope and nearby,” he said.

Fruit from the silver tree has a helicopter-like appearance.

Dr McDowell said silver trees were a charismatic symbol of Constantia’s history where local names Wittebome/ Wittebomen, Silver Crest and Silverhurst had their origins.

Ms Burgess said: “If the process works and is successful in conserving biodiversity, it will set a precedent that we can use for other developments of this type where large areas of landscape are being densified.”

Dr Clive McDowell, from the CRRA, and Helen Seaman, director of Constantia Life Developers, with a model of the planned Great Oaks retirement village.