A year of celebrations

2008-02-22 00:00

How many Pietermaritzburg residents have strolled down the most charming, and one of the most historical, walks in the city? How many even know it exists? For the nearly one million locals who’ve never set foot in the Botanical Gardens, the answer is: the London plane tree avenue, which was planted exactly 100 years ago.

It’ll be worth the trip, because for the rest of the year the gardens will be celebrating the avenue’s centenary with a host of activities and events that are hoped to attract old and new faces alike. Curator Brian Tarr is looking forward to between 60 000 and 70 000 visitors.

I have to confess that when I lived here, some decades ago, I was one of those who had never been to the gardens. I decided to put this right with a leisurely, day-long walkabout. By evening, I realised what I’d been missing.

Tarr, who’s been curator since 1982, is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and clearly a man dedicated to making the gardens one of the capital’s jewels in its crown. When he took over, the gardens were still trailing clouds of Victorian glory and reflected the old colonial style of public gardens that were installed in all the colonies.

“In those days, the gardens were very linear in design and laid out in blocks. There was a preponderance of exotic species and little attention was paid to indigenous flora,” notes Tarr. One spin-off, though, was the range of exotic trees that were planted. Today some of them take pride of place in the grounds, such as the gigantic camphor tree (with a circumference of 12 young children standing arms outstretched around the base) and the Morgan Bay fig, both of which are recorded in the National Register of Big Trees.

A star attraction is the dawn redwood, a species that was thought to be extinct right until the end of the 19th century. An American plant collector was wandering through China and he happened to spend a night at an ancient Buddhist temple. There, to his surprise, he found a huge dawn redwood growing in the monastery garden. He sent cuttings back to his arboretum in the United States and they successfully cultivated a tree. It was from this arboretum that the Botanic Gardens were given a cutting in the early fifties and today the gardens have a rare dawn redwood that stands some 15 metres high (with 600 years and another 100 metres to go).

The rigid structures of the old Gardens were gradually relaxed and by the turn of the century they had become a major recreational destination for Pietermaritzburg residents. On Sundays and public holidays, families would all board the tram (the tram terminus was at the gardens at the end of Mayor’s Walk) and go there for the day, complete with picnic baskets and games for the children. For the adults, with the women dressed in full-length crinoline and carrying parasols and the men in suit and tie, there was the band of the military garrison to play patriotic marches.

When custodianship of the gardens was transferred from the Natal Botanic Society to the National Botanic Gardens of South Africa in 1990, there was a dramatic switch to the planting of indigenous plants and trees. Today, more than 90% of the flora is local, though the London planes remain. The avenue of London planes was planted in 1908 by the curator at the time, a Mr Marriot, on the orders of the last colonial government of Natal. Today they form the arch of a magnificent walk with the planes towering some 30 metres into the air.

It is on to this avenue that the plaza in front of the new buildings will open, making a dramatic entrance for visitors. The building will house the ticket office, curio shop, information office and the new restaurant. A network of lights will be woven into the plane trees so night visitors will be in for a spectacular treat.

The centenary celebrations kick off in March with a week-long calendar of events including art shows, children’s activities, roving musicians, string quartets and singers. In June, the music of a symphony orchestra will echo through the trees and in November the centenary highlight will be the opening of sculptor Gert Smal’s installation piece — a huge multi-figure tableau set on the edge of the pond, symbolising water conservation and the role of women in the environment.

As a prelude to the celebrations, the Strelitzia Restaurant owners, Penny Hatting and her partner Thobelani Dumekude, will have the St Nicholas School choir and steel bands playing in and around the restaurant during March. There will be a jazz group in April, interspersed with a pianist, and in May they will hopefully move into the new restaurant building, which will be open in the evenings and overlook the lit avenue of planes.

Visitors to the gardens this year should also look out for Tarr’s other special project — the wetland rehabilitation along the Dorpspruit River. The waterway has been partially dammed and is already silting up, causing the water to spread out across the surrounding land.

“The wetland rehabilitation is vital for the biodiversity of the gardens and the whole area,” Tarr points out. “Visitors can look forward to a steady increase in the number of stream dwellers, insects, birds and other small mammals. It’s a great time to take the children because they’ll be able to witness for themselves the evolution of a wetland.”

With all the events taking place, Mom and Dad simply have no excuse not to go.

• In its century of existence, the plane tree Avenue has become a favourite place for Maritzburgers to take photos. We’d like to publish a selection of them and invite you to send your favourite pics (high-resolution) to features@witness. co.za

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