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Jacarandas in Johannesburg, South Africa

Updated on November 12, 2012

Jacaranda tree in bloom


Leaving South Africa

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Shortly before I left Johannesburg to move to Texas and marry the man who had won my heart, I drove around the suburbs of my hometown, my eyes clicking like a camera as I committed to memory the sights that filled my mind with images of home.

One of the most spectacular sights to behold in these parts are the magnificent gardens that have been cultivated in virtually all the homes thereabouts. The gardens are a botanist’s delight and a suburb dweller’s paradise. Most worthy of note are the Jacaranda trees that have been planted along many avenues, on both sides of the street.

Violet Bougainvillea glows through Purple Jacaranda

Jack Holloway at:
Jack Holloway at: | Source

Yours Truly under a Jacaranda

Yours truly before I left home to marry the Texan who won my heart
Yours truly before I left home to marry the Texan who won my heart | Source

God's Paintbrush

I drove along these avenues in the late afternoon one day, the sun beginning to lower in the west, its rays highlighting plants and trees as they beamed down through the foliage. My heart caught as my eye alighted upon a huge Jacaranda tree, interlaced with a brilliant fuschia-almost-violet colored bougainvillea which made its way up and through the canopy of the giant Jacaranda. The slant of the sun’s rays turned the bark of the trunk and gnarled branches an almost fire-orange and the bougainvillea glowed violet amidst the purplish-blue canopy. The shutter of my mind’s eye clicked in rapid exposure and that scene will forever be imprinted in my heart and my brain.

If you have never seen a Jacaranda tree, they range in size from 6.6 to 98 feet tall. The deep green leaves are bipinnate or complex, and each flower has five lobes with purplish-blue petals. I did not know that there are 49 species of Jacaranda tree, but these trees have to be seen to be believed. Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital and about a half-hour drive from Johannesburg, is popularly known as the Jacaranda city due to the number of trees that grow there. They are marvelous, majestic, mauve giants that offer shade for creatures and a fanfare of food for busy bees. They line the avenues and their canopies arch overhead and meet in the middle of the road, high up in the air. Not only does it form a spectacular canopy, but when the blossoms drop, it creates a purple carpet below. A friend just reminded me how, when one would drive over the petals, and in those days we kept our car windows open, the petals would make a pop-pop-popping sound and the fragrance of the blossoms would waft up one's nostrils!

Avenues lined with Jacarandas

Jacarandas line the avenue in Zimbabwe
Jacarandas line the avenue in Zimbabwe | Source

A Jacaranda in Corpus Christi, TX?

I have not seen trees like that in this part of Texas, but one day, as I was exiting a hall having attended a ceremony to commemorate a tragic period in history, my gaze fell directly in line with a Jacaranda tree. The shape and size of the canopy and the glowing purplish-blue of the flowers seared my brain. I gasped and my husband's keen gaze followed my line of sight. I exclaimed in disbelief: “A Jacaranda tree!” I had tried to describe these trees to my husband, who had never been to Southern Africa, and there it stood. I was incredibly excited and it showed all over my face and in my voice. My husband ushered me to his truck, opened the door as he always did, closed it after me and immediately drove me around the corner to the front of the house in which garden the tree grew.

He took me to the front door and rang the bell. The homeowner opened the door with a questioning look. My husband told him that his South African wife had just noticed the tree in his back yard and that it reminded me of the trees that grew back home. The man agreed to show us his tree. He led us around to the back of the house and I reveled in the beauty of the Jacaranda. My husband would always tell me how everything in Texas was bigger and better than elsewhere (as all proud Texans know), but seriously, the conditions for the growth of Jacarandas are better in Johannesburg!

The man told us that his Grandma had planted that tree and it was native to Mexico. I could not believe my ears. Subsequently I discovered that indeed, the Jacaranda is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. It apparently also grows in Asia, Nepal in particular (who would have thought)… and it was introduced to Australia, New Zealand, India, Fiji and parts of Africa! As a matter of fact, Jacarandas have done quite well in some parts of Florida, Arizona and California. A friend just let me know that they were introduced to Israel fifty years ago and I see that they can be found in Lisbon too. I had been so transported by the memory of these giants from back home, that when I returned to my husband's truck, I walked around to the wrong side to get in!! He was the driver and I, the passenger.

What I didn't know about the Brazilian Jacaranda, is that the wood is used to make the body of acoustic guitars. It has also made its way to China, where its leaves are used to make its distinctive purple dye!

Jacaranda Seed Pods

Jacaranda seed pod split open in late summer.  It has not yet fallen off the tree.
Jacaranda seed pod split open in late summer. It has not yet fallen off the tree. | Source
Jacaranda seed pods from a tree in Israel.
Jacaranda seed pods from a tree in Israel. | Source

Is this a good tree for a pre-school?

When I was studying to be a teacher, I was required to do a project on trees. I needed to collect seed pods as well as to describe the shape and structure of the tree and its leaves and flowers. I would drive around Johannesburg and Pretoria, staring up at the trees and searching for pods. I tried to find as many varieties as possible. The Jacaranda has unique oblong to oval pods which disperse its seeds. You could find me standing atop my car trying to reach for pods to include in my project. I kept that collection of pods for a few years. They were stored in a packet in the corner of my bedroom.

One night, as I slept deeply, probably in the delta phase, I was awakened by what I thought was gunfire in the corner of my room. I shot out of bed to discover that some of the seed pods I had collected a couple of years earlier, had dried enough and split open, shooting their seeds around my room! Once I recovered from the fright, I observed how certain long bean-shaped pods had split and curled, flinging their contents to each corner of my bedroom! I can laugh today, but back then, I am sure I turned as white as a ghost!

During my training, I also learned that a Jacaranda is not a tree of choice for a pre-school garden. Although it is a wonderful climbing tree, it attracts too many bees! When the blossoms drop to the ground, it greatly increases the probability of a tender bare foot being stung quite dramatically!

Queen Elizabeth returns to South Africa

Only the Queen may wear purple!

The last part of the story that I need to tell dates back a few more years. The Union of South Africa was founded as a dominion of the British Empire. It was governed under a form of constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch represented by a governor-general. The Union ended when the 1961 constitution was enacted. On May 31, 1961, South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth in the face of condemnation of its apartheid policies.

Queen Elizabeth of England paid a visit to South Africa in 1995, forty-eight years after her first visit as a Princess. She visited not as Head of State, but as Head of the Commonwealth. I recall that her visit took place during Jacaranda season and as some of you may know, dear readers, only the Queen is allowed to wear purple. The front page of The Star newspaper proudly publicized a photo of the Queen’s visit during the blooming of the Jacaranda trees, in black and white, so that the Queen, wearing purplish-blue, would not be upstaged by the crowning glory of these beautiful trees!

Purple overhead and underfoot

Pretoria - Jacaranda City
Pretoria - Jacaranda City

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