Joburg’s jacaranda trees are off to a slow start this year. Although the timing of the purple bloom explosion varies from year to year, there’s no question we should have way more of them by now.

Jacaranda trees without blooms on Melville's 3rd Avenue
Jacaranda trees on Melville’s 3rd Avenue yesterday. There are a few faint hints of purple, if you look really closely.

My fellow jacaranda-loving friends and I — certain the missing jacaranda blooms signify the descending anvil of doom for what has already been one of the worst years in living memory — have been panicking over the jacarandas for the past couple of weeks. The panic is not totally warranted, as it turns out, but the situation is still worrisome for those of us who depend on these trees to deliver us an annual dose of purple cheer in late September and October.

“I have not seen one healthy Jacaranda,” said a friend, visiting from the Western Cape, in a Facebook post on September 23rd. “I don’t think any of the 100,000 Jacarandas in Joburg survived the borer beetle. I am devastated.”

“Oh I’ll really lose it if we don’t get the jacarandas omg,” wrote another friend on Whatsapp on September 24th.

“Oh my gosh what?! Don’t they miraculously bloom in late late September?” wrote another on September 25th. “Devastated…Gosh this is a lot to process.”

The first post above, which references the tree-killing shot hole borer beetle (or PSHB) attacking trees all over South Africa, made me want to bury myself under a rock for the remainder of 2020. So I immediately researched, and confirmed what I’d read before: Jacaranda trees are not highly susceptible to PSHB and hence that is NOT the cause of their late blooming. And the jacarandas definitely have not all died — at least not yet.

Over the past week, purple blossoms have finally started popping up on a few trees around my area. There’s quite a bit of purple in Melville now, and I also saw some in Hillbrow this morning. A friend says the blooms are coming out in Northcliff, and I also saw some promising photos from Pretoria, the true jacaranda capital of South Africa, which is always a few degrees warmer than Joburg and a week or two ahead in blooming. (If you want to see some spectacular jacarandas in bloom, check out my 2016 post about the white jacarandas of Pretoria.)

Jacaranda Blooms on October 13th, 2020

Yesterday morning I decided to drive around and take a few photos of how the jacarandas are coming along in a couple of key spots.

Melville definitely shows promise. But for every jacaranda starting to bloom, I saw at least five more with just a few green leaves and no flowers.

Jacaranda tree in Melville, October 2020
9th Street in Melville. Most of the jacarandas in this row haven’t really bloomed yet, but this one tree is doing quite well.
Jacaranda blossoms on 5th Street in Melville
Signs of life on 5th Street in Melville.
A blossom-less jacaranda on 5th Street, across from the blooming one.
Jacarandas in Melville
I can’t remember which street this is, but also in Melville.

In Parktown, it’s pretty clear that something is up. Even before I saw that dire Facebook post a couple of weeks ago, I had noticed a strip of jacarandas looking very sick on Sherborne Road. The bark is peeling off at an alarming rate, and the trees on that street still aren’t blooming. I took some photos yesterday.

Sherborne Road in Parktown
Sherborne Road, Parktown.
Sick tree trunk on Sherborne Road
A very sick-looking tree trunk on Sherborne Road. All the jacarandas on that street look like this.
Another sick-looking tree on Sherborne.

The jacarandas along Emmarentia Avenue in Greenside and Parkview are still barren. And I’m seeing quite a lot of jacarandas all over the place that are sprouting leaves but no flowers.

I posted an inquiry about this on a local Facebook group moderated by a landscaping expert, and received a couple of possible theories on what might be happening. One person speculated that many of Joburg’s jacarandas — an alien species, brought to South Africa from South America in the late 1800s and early 1900s — are reaching the end of their lifespan and simply dying out for that reason. Someone else suggested the trees are suffering due to long-term temperature and rainfall changes and a general lack of maintenance.

Another possibility is the jacarandas are simply blooming late, as sometimes happens for no discernible reason, and/or they’re just having an off year, as also happens sometimes. I looked back through all my jacaranda blog posts and found this one from late 2012, in which I complained about seeking blooming jacarandas to photograph and not finding any. So this year wouldn’t be the first time.

In that 2012 post, when I looked closely, I noticed a photo from 2011 in which some Melville jacarandas’ bark looked to be peeling off. So maybe that issue is also nothing new.

Jon walking down a street with jacarandas in 2011
Jon walks down a jacaranda-lined street in October 2011. I can definitely see some peeling bark.

I’d love to hear updates from other parts of Joburg and Pretoria on how the jacarandas are looking in your area. And while I normally hate conspiracy theories, please share any jacaranda-blooming conspiracies — or legit scientific explanations, for that matter — you may have heard about what’s happening with the jacarandas. Theorizing about purple flowers is far more pleasant than discussing American politics.

I’ll post another update later in the jacaranda season.

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