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On the Cutting-Edge of Carbon Sequestration

Jonanda Kannemeyer - Spekboom

ReflectionS Exhibition - October 2021

This post is the first of a series where we focus on our artists who have submitted their work to our recently opened ReflectionS Exhibition which is turning out to be our most successful yet. We love to hear the story behind the image. This week we are delighted to present the work of Jonander Kannemeyer from Blouberg Rise, South Africa. We hope you enjoy Jonanda's description of her submission, we certainly did.

The ABBA Team.

Speckboom (Portulacaria afra)

Watercolour on Paper x2 - 76cm x 56cm

The unassuming “Spekboom” cutting is making headlines for its easy propagation and enormous carbon-storing capabilities. It has been widely reported that this "Wonder Plant of South Africa” is 10x more effective in carbon sequestration per hectare than the Amazon, and a key player in restoring its native thicket ecosystems.”


Growing up in South Africa, I have fond memories of the “Spekboom” being part of our families’ gardens. My granny used to call it ‘Tortoise food’ and when I heard the name, I used to picture a tortoise snacking on it somewhere in Africa. It is also known by other common names such as “Porkbush” and “Elephant’s food”.

Over the years, we have shared many ‘Spekboom’ cuttings between family and friends’ gardens. By simply inserting it into the ground, we were amazed at the results. It really does grow as easily from cuttings as people say, especially when planted in a sunny position. (Watch this insightful YouTube video on how to best grow ‘Spekboom’ from cuttings: )

image of Spekboom preliminary sketches
My preliminary drawings with lit specimen.

I’ve also heard of a medical doctor sharing his results of how it has benefited his health. He recommends eating a few leaves a day as protection against inflammation. Upon further research, I quickly realized that this plant is indeed a well renowned “Wonder Plant”, with an extensive list of health & nutritional benefits for both humans and animals.

It was not until earlier this year, after ABBA made the Call for Entries for the 2021 Reflections Exhibition, that I discovered that the “Spekboom” is considered a highly effective carbon sponge. The theme of the Reflections Exhibition required us to create a botanical artwork that will reflect the pivotal role that plants play in preserving the planet's biodiversity and the impact of Climate Change, in our specific region.

Subsequently, I was amazed at the “Spekbooms” enormous carbon-storing capabilities and the vast volume of articles published, indicating that it is “10x more effective in carbon sequestration per hectare than the Amazon rainforest” [1-8], or other articles quoting …“than (any) tropical rainforest” [9-13, 20]. Although how the comparison between the “Spekboom” and the Amazon rainforest came about, can be traced back to various articles (see some listed below), it appears to be a debatable statistic, not applicable outside of the Subtropical Thicket Biome. [14-16]

As an artist, (and not a scientist) I can only comment on my understanding from the information published in the media on this topic. My conclusion is that the main concern from botanists, scientists & environmentalists, regarding these types of statements made to the general public is that without further context, it creates an incorrect understanding that we can combat Climate Change by growing our own “Spekboom” carbon sinks in our back gardens or local communities. Without the correct guidance from an environmentalist, when growing “Spekboom" in bulk outside of its native environment, it has the potential of doing more harm than good, by invading the endemic species of that specific area, causing other biodiversity and conservation issues.

Pencil sketch of Spekboom
Developing the composition.

The impressive carbon sequestration results published in these articles are also only achievable during optimal circumstances where ‘Spekboom’ is planted as a large thicket, restoring its native/endemic environment in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa & the eastern parts of the Western Cape. It further gets very technical regarding which part of the “Spekboom” along with its environment affects the carbon-storing calculations and how it relates to a rainforest carbon sequestration calculations. [14-15]. Apart from these statistics being challenged, the “Spekboom” remains a highly effective carbon sponge with enormous carbon-storing capabilities. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), estimates its carbon storage capabilities to “about 10kg of carbon per hectare.” [17].

Furthermore, the ‘Spekboom” is also considered an ecosystem engineer. [18] The Ecosystem Guidelines for Environmental Assessment in the Western Cape states: “Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) has recently been referred to as an ‘ecosystem engineerbecause of the critically important role it plays in thicket restoration and promoting the recruitment of other thicket species. This characteristic thicket plant also resists droughts and floods and encroachment by fire from neighbouring landscapes dominated by grassland and savanna.”[19]

Spekboom tracing paper
Using tracing paper to "mask" the watercolour surface and adding colour.

This year the ‘Spekboom’ was selected as one of South Africa’s three trees of the year during Arbour week and chosen as the “promotional tree” of the year. SANBI published a pamphlet “2021 Trees of the Year” highlighting further interesting facts about this ‘Wonder Plant’ , including its ability to photosynthesise using CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism).

“Portulacaria afra can photosynthesise using CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) photosynthesis. During dry periods the stomata open at night to allow carbon dioxide to enter, which is then used the next day for photosynthesis. The closed stomata restrict moisture loss during the day. This mechanism allows it to adapt to extreme weather conditions and it can survive anything from droughts to frost.” [17]

A mid section detail.

The vast volume of articles and publications on Portulacaria afra indicates that the “Spekboom” is not only capturing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, but also the hearts of South Africans. It is amazing to learn that we also have our own “Wonder Plant” to be proud of and to make the mind-shift that an environment does not have to look like a typical rainforest to make a significant difference in combating Climate Change. [20]

While painting this unassuming “Wonder Plant”, I was amazed by its modular structure made up of nodes. This enables it to grow in any direction, perfect to form a dense thicket. Staring at the leaves for hours and looking at it under a magnifying glass, I was also captivated by the tiny pores, and how unique each seemingly similar leaf was in regards to its size, angle, shape and shine. The leaves reminded me of miniature solar panels, each absorbing and reflecting the sun in its own unique way. To have such easy access to a “Wonder Plant” of this caliber is rather mind-boggling.

ABBA’s 2021 Reflections Exhibition made me realize that each part of the world has its own “Wonder Plants”, which are ultimately endemic species of all shapes and sizes. Each area’s unique species plays as an important role in combating Climate Change and conserving biodiversity, as the next. Our planet’s original biodiverse design will always be the best:

My reflection is, that if we all work together towards the protection and restoration of the endemic plants and biodiversity of our local areas and become more eco-aware in our daily habits, the effect can be as impressive as the carbon sequestration abilities of the well-renowned Amazon rainforest.

“Whenever we restore the wild, it will recapture carbon and help us bring back balance to our planet… we must use this opportunity to create a more equal world, and our motivation should not be fear, but hope.” - Sir David Attenborough, COP26 Climate Change Summit, Glasgow, 2021 [21]

Jonanda Kannemeyer

November 2021




















  19. Ecosystem Guidelines for Environmental Assessment in the Western Cape, Edition 2, Copyright: © Fynbos Forum, 2016 (, p145




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