Historic citrus tree planting at the old raadsaal in bloemfontein

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Gloria Weare

Orange trees do not grow in Bloemfontein – not as a rule anyway. The name Orange Free State had nothing to do with oranges. In 1777 it had been re-named in honour of the Dutch monarch, William V of Orange and after that Orange has always been dominant in its name - the Orange River Sovereignty (1848 – 1854), the Orange Free State Republic (1854 – 1902) and the Orange River Colony from after the Anglo Boer War until unification in 1910, these latter names obviously from the Orange River.

A number of magnificent sandstone public buildings were constructed in Bloemfontein, including the 3rd Raadsaal (also originally known as the Government Building, today the home of NALN, i.e. the National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre), the 4th Raadsaal (currently the Free State Provincial Legislature) and a Presidency (nowadays the Old Presidency Museum).


President Brand planted two trees in front of the Government Building on the 25th Anniversary of the Republic’s founding in 1879, and since then a historical tree garden developed, as more dignitaries planted trees at commemorative occasions – a tradition continued even in the British period after the Anglo Boer War.

In February 1903 the wife of Joseph Chamberlain, the British Minister of Colonies, planted two hawthorn shrubs on behalf of her husband and herself, and in January 1906 three Deodar Fir Trees were planted by the Inspector of Colonial Forces, the Duke of Connaught, his wife and their daughter Princess Patricia.

It was in 1907 that five orange trees were planted in the main courtyard of the Government Building, where they would be protected against the elements. For over a century these trees became part of the building and of the Free State history.

Original layout of enclosed courtyard with citrus trees surrounded by hedges.
It is amusing to read how the Orange tree became a symbol on the Orange Free State’s official great seal and its original coat of arms - a tree symbolising “freedom” – i.e. a symbolic tree, not any specific tree, and specifically a tree not bearing any fruit – formed one of the main elements. Through the years, much speculation has arisen around this tree, ranging from linking it to the freedom trees from the time of the French Revolution, the Dutch Patriots in their quest against the Spanish, the much later Patriot movement at the Cape, to the Dutch “oranjeboom” associated with the Dutch royal House of Orange, to the indigenous olienhoutboom (wild olive tree).

By the 1890’s the tree on the coat of arms did indeed become an orange tree! That clearly happened by mistake. Different theories exist how it came about. One theory is that in the mid-1860’s the London-based printers of the first Orange Free State stamps, for which presumably the “freedom tree” of the coat of arms formed part of the stamp design proposals, by error took it to be an orange tree (which they thought was representing the “orange” in the Orange Free State’s name) and on their own initiative added some oranges to the tree.
The other explanation is found in a statement made in his old age by a German-born artist, Mr H.R. Hochapfel, who had been commissioned around 1891 by the National Museum in Bloemfontein to paint the Republic’s coat of arms for the museum. In a written declaration dated 11 March 1933, reiterated in a newspaper interview published in The Friend the next year, he explained that at the time, being a relative newcomer to the Free Sate, he had been informed only by second-hand representations of the coat of arms; that he had thought the tree on the Orange Free State’s crest to be an orange tree, and that he “of my own accord” added oranges to the tree because he thought that a fruit-bearing tree would be more a symbol of the fertility and productivity of the Free Sate.
Regardless of the reasons however, towards the later years of the Republic the tree on the coat of arms became generally accepted to be an orange tree.
Unfortunately during a prolonged renovation of the NALN Building which began in 2002, some of the citrus trees started to show signs of illness, and one died completely. Together with one that had to make way for the architect’s plan for a small open-air stage in the courtyard, three of the original five trees were removed by 2007/08.

In 2008, Otto Liebenberg, the curator of NALN, phoned the Citrus Growers Association for assistance and advice. Gloria Weare, Executive Assistant to the CEO and recipient of many strange requests and queries from the public at large, took this call. Otto was concerned at the state of the two remaining orange trees. Although the trees still bore fruit, some of the branches were dying off. While chatting he mentioned the fact that he had a photograph dating from 1908, in which these very trees could be seen. Gloria, being fascinated by history – albeit the ‘other side’, the British – was stunned to think that these trees were not only over a hundred years old, but were still bearing edible citrus fruit.
Otto Liebenberg, Curator of the NALN, in Bloemfontein.
Gloria contacted Dr Hennie le Roux, Citrus Research International’s Extension Manager, explained the situation and asked what he could suggest. Hennie immediately contacted Otto to arrange a visit to inspect the remaining trees. On 29th September 2008, Hennie determined that the trees had Phytophthora collar rot and were beyond recovery. On Otto’s request he took buds from the original valencia trees which were then budded by Dr Fanie van Vuuren onto Swingle citrumelo rootstocks. These rootstocks are more tolerant to soil borne diseases and as the trees were going to be planted in replant soils this should be the best option. The new trees grew in the greenhouses until reaching a size suitable for transplanting.
On 21st February 2014 the trees were removed from the green houses at CRI, Nelspruit under permit from DAFF, (Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) as the Orange Free State is a greening and CBS free area, and Hennie made the road trip from Nelspruit to Bloemfontein with the trees.

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