My home base of operation while in South Africa was Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden (SUBG). SUBG is the oldest university botanic garden in South Africa and was originally established in 1902 by Augusta Vera Duthie to grow plants for research and for students. The Garden was originally located in front of the Main Building on the west edge of campus.
In 1922, SUBG was moved under the guidance of Dr. GC Nel to the location where it is currently housed. Greenhouses were built shortly after the Garden’s establishment for plant material that was thought not to be tolerant of Stellenbosch’s climate, either from cold temperatures or rain. Over time many of these plants have proven to be hardy in the local climate and have been moved outside into the main collections. The Garden’s original design was inspired by the Botanical Gardens in Padova, with the concentric circles and bisecting paths in cardinal directions. SUBG’s earliest beds included taxonomic order beds.
The Garden in its 92 year history has had four curators; Dr. Hans Herre (1925-1962), Mr. Wim Tijmens (1962–1999), Mr. Deon Kotze (1999–2012), and Mr. Martin Smit (2013 – present). With each of these curators, they bring their own style and legacy to the Garden.
Dr. Hans Herre is remembered for his passion and expertise of the succulent plant family Aizoaceae (commonly known as Vygies) that is 96% endemic to Namibia and South Africa. Herre carried out extensive plant hunting expeditions throughout the desert and succulent-rich regions in the Northern Cape and Namibia. One of Dr.Herre’s groundbreaking feats at Stellenbosch Botanic Garden was his successful cultivation of the highly unusual Welwitschia mirabilis plant. Welwitschia mirabilis belongs to the Gnetophyta Division in the Plantea Kingdom and is a slow growing species that produces a woody basal growth with two massive dissecting leaves that divide and extended reaching outwards. These plants are restricted to the coastal fog areas of Namibia and can live for thousands of years. Herre was the first person to successfully grow this taxa from seed through vegetative growth to coning to seed. Herre was of German descent and during World War II was held in a South African internment camp throughout the conflict years. It is at this time that his observation skills grew and he recognized the Mesembs (Aizoaceae) unique seed pods to be highly accurate indicators for plant identification. An early adopter of technology, Herre regularly took photographs and was the first person to take color photos of the mass flowering events of Namaqualand. He used these photos to make postcards which he sent to Europe, highlighting this botanical spectacle and subsequently putting this South African mass flower display on the world map. Looking back at historic records and the diversity of plants grown, many would consider this time period to be the Garden’s heyday in terms of total number of different taxa grown in the Garden. Herre is remembered today for his countless discoveries and contributions to the study of South Africa’s succulent plants. The genus Herreanthus was named in his honor, as were many specific epithets. During Herre’s time he employed horticulturalist Helmut Meyer. Meyer was an exceptional horticulturalist maintaining the diverse holdings in the Garden and bringing many new plants into cultivation. Under Meyer’s thoughtful care and growing prowess he was the first person to successfully cultivate and flower Disa uniflora, which is South Africa’s most commonly known orchid species today.
Wim Tinjems is remembered for expanding and developing more of the formal garden infrastructure, incorporating trees, exotic plants and physical garden elements. Wim expresses a charismatic and theatrical flare and deep love for plants and garden culture that has extended his reputation both far and wide. Tinjems worked in a series of gardens before taking his tenure at Stellenbosch, including Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden and Rustenburg Wine Estate. He was instrumental in managing the early days of Harold Porter National Botanical garden as its first curator before moving to the SUBG. Tinjems had a passion for the flora and culture of East Asia and had extensive correspondence in China, Japan, Europe and the United States. He learned to speak Mandarin to aid in his botanical endeavors and collecting trips overseas. He introduced many temperate plant species that now grow in the botanic garden. Tinjems always kept interesting company such as the notable architect and plant explorer Roberto Burle Marx. Tinjems still, to this day, lives in Stellenbosch and visits on a regular basis, regaling visitors and staff with whimsical stories that one is left wondering if they are embellishments or in fact stranger than fiction.
Deon is remembered for continuing to build the financial stability of Stellenbosch Botanic Garden. Under his watch he incorporated a gift shop, restaurant and retail nursery all of which now play an important role in keeping the Garden financially solvent. Although SUBG works on a relatively small budget, these financial developments allow for the Garden to start to build its programs and expand its operations. Deon successfully was able to de-couple the Garden from any academic department. This allowed the Garden to develop its own mission and vision for the future instead of being subject to the interests of departmental chairs.
Martin Smit, although only in the job for just over a year, brings his expertise as a life long horticulturalist and botanist. Martin has earned two masters degrees, one in plant physiology from The North West University in South Africa and the other in Public Horticulture from Longwood Gardens and the University of Delaware. He has received training in Royal Botanic Garden Kew’s International Diploma in Botanical Garden Management. Martin brings to the Garden a contemporary view of public gardens with a focus on engaging the public directly with plants and he holds a strong plant conservation ethic. He is already shifting the direction of the organization to minimize exotics and increase wild collected, endemic South African species. Non natives in the Garden have to earn their place by possessing a wow factor or to illustrate a point. Under his guidance he has implemented the use of IrisBG collections database manager to maintain a high level curatorial standard and plant records. Accurate plant records are considered a basic standard for recognition as a botanic garden and a system that is wanting or non existent in the majority ofSouth African gardens. Recognizing the unique nature of SUBG he also tactfully incorporates exotic plants of high horticultural interest to create a dynamic garden experience that generates veneration of the diverse beauty of plants. This approach of mixing the scientific collection with the interesting and aesthetic enables visitors from across the spectrum from the laymen to specialist to appreciate the Garden. As the Garden continues to develop under his watch it will continue to express a high level of horticultural proficiency and gain recognition as a model for botanic gardens in South Africa.
Stellenbosch Botanic Garden is in many ways unique in its history and plant collections. While the world class garden Kirstenbosch is often highlighted as the premier botanical attraction to see on the West Cape, Stellenbosch BG fills a unique niche in the garden world of South Africa.
Due to governmental mandates national botanical gardens are only allowed to research, grow and display South African native species. While in a country like South Africa that houses an extremely rich diversity of plant species of high conservation and ornamental value, these rulings have little impact on the ability for gardens to create an environment that fulfills both an aesthetic and conservation minded mission. While international visitors to South Africa are often awe struck by the unusual displays of the Cape Region’s flora, to the every day South African these plants are the usual and may not inspire the same enthusiastic reaction. Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens, on the other hand, is able to grow and display anything that falls within its plant collection policy. This allows for interesting plants to be grown regardless of their origin. The Victorian Water Lilly (Victoria cruizana) is grown at SUBG and is a perfect example of a highly unusual plant that grabs visitors’ attention and engages them into the wonderful world of plants.
The Garden itself houses a number of interesting collections of note.
South Africa’s oldest and largest bonsai collection is housed at SUBG. This collection exhibits plants with many traditional elements and plant material but also has its own African flare. Many of the trees are untraditional selections of South African trees that have been adapted to the eastern practice of growing dwarfed trees. This garden will also provide the visitor with an opportunity to explore a few of the styles of Bonsai that are unique to South Africa. This includes the Baobab style which attempts to mimic the Adansonia digata tree that grows throughout tropical Africa and is recognized as one of the world’s largest in girth. One may also experience a tree in the Pierneef style that mimics the stereotypical umbrella branching savannah tree style.
Stellenbosch BG exhibits a collection of carnivorous plants, mainly comprised of South African species along with an assortment of species from North America.
The vegetable garden is designed to display an assortment of foods, spices and other hedged edges. The plant materials selected come from all over the world and illustrates the connection of people and plants.
The fern house exhibits a variety of shade loving southern temperate and sub tropical plants. As one may imagine the main collection consists of tree ferns and other diminutive fern taxa.
Two greenhouses are dedicated to the growth of succulent plants. Much of the collection is composed of remnants from Garden history with a strong focus on South African taxa. The collections also include representation from Madagascar and its African allied plant species as well as some cacti and succulents from North America and other desert regions. In addition to the greenhouses themselves there is also a rockery section of the garden that features many succulent plant species.