On a recent trip to the 630-square-mile Addo Elephant National Park, dense thickets of spekboom (a fleshy shrub with purple stalks and leaves like bloated ticks) made it hard to spot the elephants, lions and rhinos that call this slice of paradise home. Driving home from the park, however, I passed through mile upon mile of yellowed grassland dotted with sheep and goats. Not realizing it then, my drive was actually a form of time travel.
Only 100 years ago, spekboom thickets covered a Connecticut-size swath of Eastern South Africa. And ecologist Anthony Mills is hellbent on turning back the clock. If successful, his mass planting project could capture 750 million metric tons of CO2 — enough to offset Germany’s annual carbon emissions and still be able to leave a tip.
Even better news: What spekboom can do for the Eastern Cape, another plant can do in your corner of the planet.
Since Addo Elephant National Park was opened in 1931, it’s been a tale of two biomes for the Eastern Cape. Outside of protected areas, overgrazing has created “a vast man-made desert” that’s resulted in carbon losses greater than 100 metric tons per hectare, says Mills. Which is why he is piloting a reforestation project that could allow farmers to continue to graze livestock (or game), while also earning annual carbon credits to the tune of $20 per acre.
This will be a boon for both the sheep farmers, whose ancestors presided over the original deforestation, and the planet at large. Neil Dodds, who farms on 25,000 acres near Jansenville, has been involved in Mills’ pilot program since 2008. After spending five years experimenting with planting methods and timing, Dodds had a 120-acre spekboom thicket planted on his farm. Unfortunately the plants haven’t grown as quickly as hoped, mainly because planting such a small thicket amid a sea of brown has created a food magnet for the region’s freely roaming kudu.
The real miracle, however, is the world we live in. Every habitat has its own spekboom.
But Dodds remains positive. All that’s needed, he explains, is for some company with a carbon emissions problem (i.e., any company) to give him enough cash to plant and fence a significant swath of the tall-growing succulent (or vetplant in Afrikaans, which means “fat plant”). Once the plants take, Dodds could bring his sheep and goats back — although, he confides, he’d probably switch to game farming, which is more lucrative and more sustainable.
If Mills and Dodds have their way, huge swaths of the Eastern Cape could be transformed from brown to green. What’s more, says Mills, “the topsoil will come back, bees will thrive, groundwater will return, and the climate will improve,” explaining that the spekboom forest will act “like a giant air conditioner.”
Which makes you want to get out there and start planting spekboom everywhere. But not so fast. While research has led to spekboom being championed as a “wonder plant” by marketers and eco-leaning yuppies in South Africa, Mills stresses that there are “a few very important caveats.” First, the plant thrives in the hot, dry and frost-free coastal plains of the Eastern Cape. Try growing it somewhere like New Mexico — which gets just as hot and dry as Addo but is also susceptible to frost — and you’ll struggle. (Luckily, agave plants are also adept carbon munchers and tolerant of frost to boot.)
And yes, the plant’s ingenious design quirk allows it to photosynthesize throughout the night, but that doesn’t mean it eats more carbon than another plant of the same size. So, go ahead and grow some spekboom (also known as “bacon tree” — it’s like bacon for kudus and elephants) in your garden; it tastes great in salads and is packed with vitamin C. But don’t expect it to capture more carbon than the lavender bush next to it.
The real miracle, however, is the world we live in. Every habitat has its own spekboom (or agave, or … ). Environmentalists are (rightly) up in arms about the rampant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, but Jair Bolsonaro is by no means the first leader to preside over ecological genocide. Even the green and pleasant land that is Britain was once a rainforest nation, columnist George Monbiot recently pointed out in The Guardian. With a little bit of ingenuity (and a lot of hard work), we can all do our bit at rewilding.
Here’s looking at you, industrialized nations.