Five weeks in ‘The Fairest Cape in all the World’
By Belinda Parry
In September 1996 I travelled to South Africa to study propagation and cultivation techniques of Fynbos species, concentrating on the Proteaceae and Ericaceae at Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden. This report details what I achieved.
My principal aim was to base myself at Kirstenbosch and work alongside the horticulturists, studying various nursery techniques. Other aims included visiting the Harold Porter and Karoo Botanic Gardens, the study of Fynbos plants in their natural habitats, visiting other nurseries and participating in any other trips where possible.
I am currently senior botanical horticulturist in the Temperate and Arboretum Nursery at Kew, responsible for the propagation and cultivation of mainly woody species. Plants are produced for the Palm, Temperate, Waterlily and Evolution Houses and Arboretums.
I arrived in South Africa on September 6th. It was dull, gloomy and raining and hard to believe I was in the southern hemisphere, some 6,000 miles from home! The first three weeks were to be spent at Kirstenbosch where I was lucky enough to be offered accommodation.
Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden is situated on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and encompasses an area of 530 hectares. Just 36 hectares are cultivated, the rest forms part of the natural vegetation of the mountain. This vegetation type is called Fynbos and is dominated by species from the Proteaceae, Ericaceae and Restionaceae. The Garden is devoted to the propagation and cultivation of indigenous plant species. An estimated 900 species grow in the naturalised areas and some 6,000 are in cultivation. The principal roles of Kirstenbosch include the introduction of indigenous wild flowers to the public and their assessment for horticultural and/or scientific potential. Kirstenbosch also plays an important educational role.
Work started on Monday morning when I was introduced to Hildegard Crous, Propagator at Kirstenbosch. Hildegard was to be my main contact during my stay (we have since become good friends!). I was given a tour of the facilities before being introduced to the Head of the Herbarium, Dr. John Rourke — an expert on Fynbos plants. Much of the first week was spent meeting with various members of staff and comparing notes on different propagation techniques and cultivation methods. Establishing contacts is an important part of any study trip, especially when time is so short. Five days into the trip I was lucky enough to be taken for a drive around Table Mountain. It was the first sunny day! Deon Kotze was my guide and we spent time talking primarily about Ericas and looking at the vegetation. Deon was the Erica specialist at Kirstenbosch until he was appointed gardens developer and designer for the National Botanical Institute (the body responsible for Kirstenbosch and its sister gardens).
More botanising was done on the Friday when I was taken to the Caledon Wildflower Show — a must for any visitor at that time of year.
By the second week I had settled in well at Kirstenbosch. I met Anthony Hitchcock, who works in the commercial nursery and spent a couple of hours talking shop! I visited a private Protea nursery and the commercial nursery at Elsenberg Research Centre in Stellenbosch. I also visited the Darling Wildflower Show and was not only impressed by the floral displays, but by the educational information available to visitors. The final week at Kirstenbosch gave me the opportunity to explore the Garden in depth. I also met with Fiona Powrie, Nursery Manager.
I stayed in South Africa for a further two weeks and was joined by Marcos Smith, a horticulturist of the South Arboretum at Kew. These extra two weeks gave me the opportunity of getting to the places I had been unable to visit whilst at Kirstenbosch. We spent our time touring other gardens and places of horticultural interest covering some 5,500 kilometres in a fortnight! Visiting Namaqualand was a particular highlight. The Goegap Nature Reserve was a sight to behold, carpeted with predominantly pink and orange Compositae species. The Tsitsikamma Forest along the East Coast was in complete contrast with the vegetation types we had witnessed so far. Huge Podocarpus trees towered above us and we stumbled across a valley filled with Strelitzias.
Other highlights of the trip included climbing up (and down!) Table Mountain, visiting the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and, of course, the Harold Porter and Karoo Botanic Gardens. On the last day I returned to Kirstenbosch and gave a talk about the Temperate and Arboretum Nursery at Kew.
I felt my time in South Africa was well spent and I gained a valuable insight into the Western Cape flora as well as learning many useful tips on cultivation and propagation of Fynbos plants. I am currently putting together a more detailed report on my trip to South Africa on my Kew web internal homepage so that the more technical aspects learnt on my trip are easily accessible to other members of staff. I am indebted to the Kew Guild and Kew Staff Travel Awards and to the staff at both Kew and Kirstenbosch who made this highly fascinating and rewarding trip possible.