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The spekboom — also known as Elephant’s Food — is a succulent plant that’s indigenous to South Africa, and it’s got some traits that make it seriously good for tackling climate change and air pollution.

As well as being able to withstand droughts and fires, it can also absorb between four and 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

The spekboom — which can also live for up to 200 years — is generally found in the Eastern Cape, and it grows and thrives in semi-arid conditions.

It’s no surprise, then, that it’s been called South Africa’s “wonder plant”.

And now it’s gaining popularity as a means by which South Africans can help play their part in looking after the environment and tackling climate action, thanks to the #SpekboomChallenge.

The challenge was born in November 2019 when the Boplaas Family Vineyards in Calitzdorp, Western Cape, pledged to plant a million spekbome by 2025 to help fight climate change.

“The world is at a tipping point and we should do everything in our power to avoid a global climate catastrophe,” the farm said in a statement.

The farm chose the spekboom because it occurs naturally in the Calitzdorp, which is in the Klein Karoo region, and because it’s a low maintenance plant that grows anywhere, and survives on just 250-350ml of water a year — about half a standard bottle of water.

When the farm started the #SpekboomChallenge, they were aiming to get 1,000 people to plant 100 trees between them. The challenge didn’t just deliver, it recently went viral and has been expanded to challenge South Africans to plant 10 spekboom each.

The challenge has also been taken up by retail brands. The City of Cape Town last week announced that it’s partnering with the Newlands nursery to grow 5,000 spekboom trees. The shoots will be planted around the city on World Earth Day on April 22 2020.

“We hope this will encourage residents to also get involved in tree planting and maintenance,” said councillor Zahid Badroodien.

Meanwhile, the Pick ‘n Pay supermarket chain has also pledged to plant a spekboom for every tree it sells in some of its stores nationwide.

And the Cape Venison and Biltong store in Bellville, Cape Town, is giving away a free spekboom plant to every customer who spends more than R100 throughout February.

Cape Venison and Biltong owner Eduard Roux told local news portal, CapeTown Etc: “I really wanted to get involved so we decided to join the movement. We thought we would give a little love back to the earth.”

While just planting a spekboom might seem a small action in the face of climate change, it’s actually a really important step in taking climate action and fighting air pollution.

South African researcher Sarah-Jane Paviour wrote in her 2014 thesis on the properties of spekboom: “Because of spekboom’s remarkable growth rate, its rate of carbon capture can rival that of tropical forests.”

Meanwhile, according to the Spekboom Foundation, the spekboom is also “10 times more effective at carbon fixing than tropical rain forests” and “has enormous carbon-storing capabilities.”

Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is compared to that of moist, subtropical forests,” the foundation added, highlighting that this is because the spekboom stores solar energy to perform photosynthesis at night.

It said: “This makes a spekboom thicket 10 times more effective per hectare at carbon fixing than any tropical rainforest.”


Defend the Planet

What You Need to Know About South Africa's #SpekboomChallenge

By Lerato Mogoatlhe