Many have outlived the people who planted them by centuries while others have grown to dizzying heights. Despite their differences in age, stature and backgrounds, 82 trees have made it to the list of "Champion trees" in South Africa. An initiative of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), champion trees fall under the protection of the National Forest Act of 1998. These trees were celebrated at a presentation facilitated by the Department of Library Services at the University of Pretoria’s Merensky Library on September 18 in recognition of Heritage Month.

Speakers included the coordinator of the Champion Trees project at DAFF, Izak van der Merwe, Enrico Liebenberg, photographer and co-author of "We are the Champions: The Champion Trees of South Africa" as well as Jason Sampson and Phillip Rousseau of the University of Pretoria’s Manie van der Schijff Botanical Gardens. The project is one of 35 initiatives in the world and the only one in Africa that protects trees that are of national conservation significance.

The initiative recognizes and protects indigenous and exotic trees unique to South Africa because of their size, age, contribution to tourism and their historical and cultural significance. Members of the public can submit trees for review to DAFF every year. Though exotic tree species dominate the list, 29% percent is made up of indigenous trees.

Included are trees Van der Merwe considered the Big Five Indigenous species:

  • Baobab trees (Adansonia digitata). One of these, the "Sagole tree", considered the largest indigenous tree in South Africa with a trunk diameter of 10.8 m.
  • Wild Fig trees (Ficus spp.). The "Wonderboom fig tree" (Ficus salicifolia) in Pretoria is more than 1000 years old.
  • Outeniqua Yellowood (Afrocarpus falcatus). One of these giants in the Tsitsikamma forest called simply "the Tsitsikamma Big Tree" attracts more than 80,000 visitors a year.
  • Monkey Thorn (Acacia galpinii). One of these trees in the North West province, at 37 m in height, is the tallest measured thorn tree in Africa.
  • The Matumi (Breonadia salicina). At 33 m, the largest Matumi in the country is one of three collectively known as "The Three Queens" in the Limpopo province.

The Big Five Exotic species include:

  • Saligna Gum trees (Eucalyptus spp.). At 81.5 m height, this Eucalyptus saligna is the tallest planted tree in Africa. 
  • Red River Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) at the University of the Witwatersrand planted more than 80 years ago has the largest spread of any tree at 38 m width and a trunk diameter of 7.5 m.
  • Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). One of these at the University of Cape Town that was planted in the 1800s.
  • Camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora). A lane of these trees, planted under the supervision of former Cape governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel more than 300 years ago are the oldest recorded planted trees.
  • Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). One giant in the Western Cape stands 58 m tall.

Other remarkable trees include a giant Lowveld cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata) towering above the canopy of a natural forest at the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge near Magoebaskloof. This tree is about 35m tall and has a trunk circumference of 11.6 m.