1984, Malcolm Leppard, Study Tour South African Botanic Gardens

Study tour of botanic gardens, South Africa, 1984

By Malcolm Leppard, Kew Guild Award Scheme Recipient

During September and October’84 I was fortunate enough to spend six weeks on a study tour of some of South Africa’s botanic gardens travelling some 10,000 km doing so.

The purpose of my visit was to delve into most aspects of design, development, maintenance and management, but with a stronger emphasis on computerisation, visitor narrative and interpretation, staff training etc.

Due to time constraints I spent little time looking at plants as such, in any case the wealth of which would have necessitated decades not weeks.

The first stage of my journey took me from Harare, Zimbabwe, through various types of woodland, savanna woodland and tree savanna, to Mafeking via Botswana. My first impressions of South Africa were reminiscent of Australia with vast rolling plains, isolated farmsteads and plenty of large eucalyptus trees. I had expected kangaroos to bound across the landscape at any second. Towards Johannesburg the huge mining spoil heaps and abundant rubbish were all too evident. Fortunately, we were soon south at Kimberley where the diesel-electric engine was exchanged for a glorious old steam engine that puffed its way slowly across the never ending Karoo made up of short xerophytic scrub, interspersed with the occasionally flat topped hill. Those looking forward to a romantic steam locomotive ride like the ‘good old days’ were rudely awakened and brought back to reality by a carriage full of smoke and soot or incarcerated in a baking hot compartment with shuttered windows to keep out the filth.

Eventually we reached the mountains just north of the Cape. Once over this range the flora sparkled into life with verdant grass, pools of crystal water everywhere, masses of white Zantedeschia flowers, dwarf yellow and blue lupins, sprinkled with pink flamingos and dancing cranes. All along the track were orchards and vineyards that supply the luscious grapes to South Africa’s well known wine industry.

After three days and four nights I had arrived in Cape Town.

Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden nestling on the side of the famous

Table Mountain, is the ‘mother’ garden of the six regional botanic gardens dotted throughout South Africa, and is the oldest and the most popular. It, like its satellites, is run by a group of Trustees independent from the government although receiving 90% or more funding from it. Thus, luckily, they have a certain amount of autonomy come flexibility and their annual plant sale alone raises 50,000 Rand in one day for the garden.

Kirstenbosch is concerned exclusively with the flora of the summer high rainfall areas composed of no less than 20,000 species, exceedingly rich for such a small area.

South Africa is renowned for its proteas and ericas, but few were in flower during my short visit. Drawing the crowds, however, were large areas of brilliant annuals such as Dimorphotheca, Felicia etc., and beds of ‘Crane’ or ‘Paradise’ Strelitziareginae and S. juncea.

A particular feature that impressed me was the trail for the blind. It consisted of a guide rope meandering through vegetation, which was spliced to indicate every point of interest and where an informative braille notice could be found. The footpath surface varied periodically from gravel, sand, woodchips and leaf litter.

On completion of my study of Kirstenbosch I briefly looked at the Company’s Garden in the city centre. This, the first botanic garden in South Africa, began in 1652 as a supply garden for the replenishment of ships stores. It contains some very large original trees, but has been reduced to the status of a park. Before leaving Cape Town for Worcester and the Karoo Botanical Gardens, I managed a visit to the top of Table Mountain. Previously enshrouded, the clouds peeled back to provide glorious weather.

The Karoo Botanic Garden just north-east over the mountains, specialises in xerophytic plants of, you guessed it, the Karoo. Its 154 hectares containing over 500 species naturally occurring within its confines.

A riot of red, orange, and yellow flowers of Namaqualand daisies and vygies, greeted me. Most of the hectarage including the hills on the northern boundary, are treated as a reserve. Boasting a very large collection of Karroid plants it’s difficult to believe that such a number can be maintained by so few, however, I attribute this to the low rainfall of 130-200 mm: less water, fewer weeds.

It’s worth mentioning a hardscape element that 1 thought excellent, was the use of the gardens vertical, or near so, Malmesbury shale. This has been used upright in path construction making some of the best paths I’ve seen to date.

Lastly, was quite surprised to see Welwitchia flowering at the tender age of five years.

Leaving Worcester I travelled up the east coast along what is known as the ‘garden route’, to George then onto Port Elizabeth, through an amazing variety of forests, mountains, Karoo ostrich farms, sea scapes etc.: indeed a trip of startling contrasts. From Port Elizabeth I had expected the train to continue north along the coast to Durban, but oh no! We had to circumvent Transkei and Swaziland, a mere 1,500 km.

Durban Botanic Garden began in 1849 to supply produce such as vegetables and pave the way for introduction of possible economic crops. After going through a number of bad patches it was handed over to the Durban Municipality in 1913. Fairly small in size, 20 hectares, it nevertheless is quite a delightful garden with many original trees, but no longer of botanical significance. Though only run as an amenity it has attributes that could be usefully employed in other botanic gardens. I liked the lake with its architectural planting of Nelumbo nucifera and Cyperus papyrus etc., on the island weaver birds slung their pendulous nests in trees whilst white storks waded amongst an assortment of colourful waterfowl.

Two superb male specimens of Encephalartus woodii collected in 1895, still stand like sentinels over the garden.

I was pleased to meet two ex Kewites, Errol Scarr and Tony Hitchcock, both with Durban Municipality.

The next garden on my list was that of the lowveld, north-east near the border of Mozambique, at Nelspruit. The main reason for choosing this garden is that its climatic conditions are very similar to our own (Zimbabwe). Comprising of 154 ha most of it is treated as a reserve which is separated from the garden by a deep gorge of precipitous rocks containing the Crocodile River. This was impressive and has a good nature trail along its course. Opened in 1971 it concentrates on the flora of the lowveld principally South Africa’s.

Nelspruit has just purchased a computer for use as a data base, from proceeds of its plant sales to the public.

Another point worth mentioning here is the fact that by law all publications, common names on labels etc. must be in English and Afrikanse on a 50/50 basis.

Finally, I looked at Pretoria’s Botanic Garden, a 100% owned and government run: a distinct disadvantage compared to those run by the Trustees.

My main interest were the computer and garden layout which attempts to grow South Africa’s flora using Acocks system of 12 Biomes. The impossibility of trying to cultivate the flora from such diverse habitats is quite evident, however, the nursery complex is quite large and is carrying out some good work with endangered species etc.

Lastly, I should like to thank my sponsors, without whom the study tour could not have taken place. Main sponsorship was by the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust with a support grant from the Kew Guild and, at the very last moment, sufficient funds to mop up rampant inflation, by the John Wakeford Trust of Zimbabwe.


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