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Bringing back the native trees December 1st, 2019 by

As cities grow and more people leave the countryside, parks and gardens will be some of the few remaining places where people will come into contact with trees. City parks are highly managed, cultivated spaces and the choice of species says a lot about the people who create and manage the parks.

The little park in my neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Parque Virrey Toledo, is a case in point. It’s an unpretentious area with a children’s playground, a running path, courts for basketball and football (soccer), and a statue of a colonial bully, streaked with pigeon feces. There are always people in the park, playing, chatting and strolling. Virrey Toledo may be unexceptional, but it is full of trees, enough to make the park seem like a small forest.

Ana recently gave me a little tour of the park and its trees. I was surprised to learn that almost all of them are exotic. There are stately Italian cypresses, flame trees from Madagascar with fleshy, red flowers. North America contributed the big poplar trees (alamos) with rugged bark and large, flat leaves. A rubber fig from India is named for its thick leaves. A set of Australian “pine” trees tower over the football field. Chinaberries, originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, are losing their leaves and bark as they slowly die from a phytoplasma disease.

Ana explained that 50 to 60 years ago, when these trees were being planted, the fashion was to model city parks after Victorian botanical gardens, which were also full of exotic trees, gleaned from around the world by British plant hunters, eager to show off the showy species from around the new empire.

“Aren’t there any native trees at all in the park?” I wondered. Ana pointed out two trees of jarka, with their delicate, golden flowers, which were once one of the dominant trees in the valley. “But these jarkas probably weren’t planted,” Ana explained. One of them was too close to one of the concrete paths that cross the park. “It probably seeded itself,” Ana said.

None of the trees in our little park are labelled. For most people, these are just shade trees. Most of the neighbors have little idea that the park is full of exotic trees, with hardly any from Bolivia or neighboring countries.

But things are changing. Ana has been working with a volunteer group and the municipality to plant native trees in the park. In 2017 she selected some 20 tree seedlings from the municipal nursery, and hired a helper to dig the holes. Volunteers came to plant the trees and to make a little fence around each tree, to protect them from dogs, careless lawnmowers and playful youngsters.

At two-years-old, these native trees are doing quite well. They include locals like the tajibo with its canopy of flowers, the tall Cochabamba ceibo, and the tipa, from watershed of the RĂ­o de la Plata.

Culture is reflected not just in art and architecture, but in urban parks and green spaces. Early to mid-twentieth century Bolivia had little appreciation for native languages, native crops and foods, and ignored native trees for planting in towns and in the countryside. In all fairness, less was then known about how to plant native trees. But as interest in native trees have grown, Bolivian foresters have been learning how to plant them. People in the Andes are starting to appreciate their own heritage a bit more, and native trees are back in favor. When the children now playing on the swings are adults, native trees will welcome them to this park.

Scientific names

Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens

Flame tree, Delonix regia

Poplar, Populus sp.

Rubber fig, Ficus elastica

Australian pine tree, Casuarina equisetifolia

Chinaberry, Melia azedarach

Jarka, Acacia visco

Tajibo, Handroanthus impetiginosus

Cochabamba ceibo, Erythrina falcata

Tipa, Tipuana tipa

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