Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Purple reign - an ode to the jacarandas




Slice of heaven ... a jacaranda vista with the brick-pink Westcliff in the background

I always thought growing up in sub-Saharan Africa that jacaranda trees, with their light blue-purple, bell-shaped petals, were quintessentially African, a welcome sign of spring and early summer. Maybe the visual intensity when viewed en masse against a fierce, hot, blue African sky or against a rain-soaked, thundercloud-lit summer afternoon is homegrown, but not the flowering trees themselves. These beautiful, albeit fragrance-free, beauties originate in places like southern America, Brazil and Mexico and the Caribbean. If I thought they made stunning canopies over the sweltering suburban streets of cities like Harare, Bulawayo, Pretoria or Joburg (where more than 70 000 trees come out in blossom every year around mid-October, a tribute to our "greatest man-made forest" status), I should go to Mexico City in jacaranda season. The entire city is so vividly purple it puts anything I have witnessed up till now to shame. They grow in India and California, too, and parts of Australia which are not too far south like Brisbane and New South Wales. You get a great many varieties of jacarandas and you even get white jacarandas, but they are wallflowers compared to the floral displays put on by their blue-tressed sisters (Jacaranda mimosifolia)!

What is it about the purple colour of the jacarandas that have such a profound effect on the spirit? Maybe it's that magical colour, so impossible to capture in a photograph, which has lent itself to a name on the colour palette - jacaranda. After all, purple is supposed to be a deeply spiritual colour which feeds the eye and soul and looks good in every light and from every angle. Or maybe it's the feeling that you are attending some gorgeous giant wedding, as the petals fall oh-so-silently in purple carpets below like confetti. To be married under an avenue of jacaranda trees which reflects off the bride's white dress! What could be prettier? Maybe the colour combinations of the red bougainvilleas and scarlet coral trees which also bloom this time of the year.

Whatever the reasons, jacaranda season is one of my favourites in this town of mine (I always seem to miss the jacarandas in Pretoria, probably because they flower earlier) and I love to drive around and find the best spot to view them. Joburg truly has "pretty power" in jacaranda season. The northern suburbs of Joburg boast the highest concentration of trees and while it's lovely to drive around and let your eyes drink them in on ground level, in the streets of Rosebank or Melville, sometimes you need that extra bit of elevation to appreciate how they make the city "pop", like Mac eyeshadow.

Now despite rumours to the contrary Joburg is not a flat place like Bloemfontein. It is, in fact, as Hugh Grant once said of Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, very hilly. One of the nicest spots to stop and look at the reign of purple is the street which goes behind the Joburg Gen Hospital, which has now been closed off. The security guards don't think I am mad, but let me drive through for a good gawk. They must get this all the time.

The Westcliff on the other side draws me too, perhaps because of their aptly named Jacaranda Hill section. PR Gaby Palmer is just leaving but tells me to pop up to the pool area at the Belle Terrasse for the best view. She's says I'm not the first journo to come there for a story; it's a popular destination at this time of the year and a honeymooning couple takes full advantage, interrupting my purple reveries with their tonsil-gobbling smooches (very annoying to an outsider). But I ignore them and look at Forest Town, Wescliff, Rosebank and Parktown forming a giant botanical garden below like an urban Amazon forest in among the honking car horns and the quaint late 19th century architecture. Even the grim, crematorium-like features of the Joburg Gen are softened by the already fading purple sea of blooms. The jacarandas are not so good this year, I muse. Gaby tells me that Moneyweb's David Bullard aptly described this year's crop as "straggly". Must have been all that hail we had recently.

It's the saddest thing when the purple fades and the green leaves start peeping through, making the trees disappear back into the urban forest again. So this is my ode to the passing of the Joburg jacarandas, before they spring back into life again next year. In tribute I have changed the colour of my blog headings to make them as jacaranda-coloured as possible!

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