As spring arrives in South Africa, so does the abundance of seasonal blooms that adorn the landscape. The locals who are keen to engage with their landscapes have many opportunities to explore the great diversity of plants that can be found across the country. One type of an event that has become a part of South Africa’s horticultural tradition is its flower shows. To anyone who is familiar with horticulture, the concept of a flower show is nothing new or unusual. Flower shows in the United States we often think of as lavish or unusual displays of cultivated plants, opportunities to nab a ribbon for your prized orchid ,or a chance to see the latest and greatest innovations in the green industry. In South Africa, the take on a flower show is a bit different. Instead of constructing elaborate installations that uses plants to embellish larger structural elements or to catch the eye with flashy bursts of flowering colors to draw attention, the South African style is to celebrate the beauty of the plants themselves. While these flower shows do focus on creating large installations, how they differ is the emphasis of highlighting the unique plant communities that are found in the local vicinity. The show itself has much more of a feel of a botanical zoo than it does a formalized flower display. Although many of the “traditional” elements can be found at the events such as flower arranging, horticultural vendors and subject talks, there is a distinct feel that captures a different ethos. This feeling is one of a connection to a native flora that is still present, wild and fascinating. Although this feeling is likely not representative of South Africa’s total population, it feels distinctly different compared to how people connect to plants in US. Most parts of the US tend to have greater factions between the way people connect with plants, defining themselves are horticulturalists, farmers, strictly nativists and so on. These lines are more blurred and obscured in South Africa, perhaps from having such diversity around them, or how collections of wild plants are still a common means making a living or utilizating wild plants in traditional medicine.
These shows often attract an audience from horticultural aficionados to botanical experts. It is not uncommon for new species to be discovered at such events. Farmers or other locals will bring plants to be identified by experts who help to organize the shows. At times plants that have never been seen before or described make their way to display. These shows also function as a platform to promote awareness of biodiversity. One major highlight from the show this year was the display of Psoralea vanberkelae, a newly described species within the family Fabaceae. First found in 2011, this species was photographed and posted on the citizen science web page ISpot. ISpot allows users to post photos of interesting plants, animals, birds, fungi and so on onto the web. They offer users keys and the means to attempt to identify the subject of interest. Experts with a given specialty will trawl the website looking for unusual sightings or new localities of species within their interest group. They also will tend to give a definitive identification if users are unable make a positive id themselves. This is how Psoralea vanberkelae was first spotted and then identified by a UK researcher. A few years after the first Ispot siting, a trip to collect, describe and observer the species was undertaken. Examples of the specimen were then brought to the show to highlight the newest member of the Fynbos community.
Although these shows promote greater biodiversity awareness and display of local flora, there is also an element of uncertainty with the event. It is incredible to see such diversity of plants on display but it also begs the question, “Should many of these plants have been left in the wild?” particularly with an ardent concern for over-harvesting of the flora. Local and national officials, who help to monitor implementation of regulation on collecting wild germplasm, are present at these flower shows and type of events and are able to make comments or consult on the practicalities and ethics of this practice. Even so, it seemed unclear to the general visitor the ultimate fate of many of these collected plants, especially the ones that remained viable in pots. Would they ultimately become a highly species diverse compost pile or is there opportunity to continue to use these plants for horticultural display, to be given to volunteers who would steward them or to a botanic garden? Despite the uncertain fate of many of these display plants, the event undoubtedly plays an active role in promoting biodiversity awareness and creating a culture that celebrates the natural beauty and richness of this country.