Pride and prejudice in our gardens

2008-05-07 00:00

I hope that the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Botanic Gardens still has its standard-trained bougainvillea. In the nineties they towered above the paths and “mountains” that defined the design of this interesting place.

Bougainvilleas? That hail from some exotic place other than our own land? Politically incorrect they may be, but what vibrancy (of colour) and elegance (of stature) they gave to the whole plan of that particular botanic garden.

And mountains? In a small level area carved out of the original bushveld/grassveld of Scottsville? Artificial they might have been having been “earth-moved” into place; but what a good way of creating every possible aspect/orientation for a diversity of plants all needing special conditions: south, cool and shaded; west, protected from morning frosts; east, for those plants that love morning sun; north, for the ones that bask in the heat.

I believed, then, back in the nineties, that this structural adaptation of the landscape was to accommodate as many as possible interesting plants from anywhere on Earth. I haven’t yet been back to check but I do wonder now … because global sourcing for botanic gardens seems to have given way to the call for indigenous only.

Native plants have loaded one end of the horticultural seesaw and left exotics high and dry at the other end. Does the term “botanical gardens” in its local sense now tend to mean natives only?

Indigenous is another word that worries me. Indigenous to Africa? Or southern Africa? Or KwaZulu-Natal? The mountains of KZN, or the midlands or the coast? There are species of the genus Protea in the fynbos and one or two others in the Drakensberg; but not to my knowledge growing wild in the vast areas of veld (bush and grass) that make up most of South Africa. So most of us can forget about planting proteas in our indigenous gardens.

Again, take freesias: there are cultivars that thrive in many gardens but these are no longer the native species. The wild freesias flower just once, set their seeds, then they are done, for the rest of the year. The gardenised ones have become global plants that thrive in gardens all over the world. These hybrids are often called indigenous by retail nurseries, but are they?

In fact we read now that there is a worry about hybridised natives escaping into the veld: someone told me recently that this was becoming an endemic problem. Oh, please … endemic? And he a scientist? Endemic seems to be a word that was so specific that it seemed to be under-used, so has now become a sort of catch-all expression — for threatening? — or plentiful? — or ineradicable? (So I guess he meant ineradicable).

In horticultural terms I have always understood that word endemic to mean “occurring in only one specified place”. Like our own yellow Phygelius aequalis which is endemic to the Mawaqa mountain that overshadows the village of Bulwer (where it was discovered by a farmer’s wife and planted in her garden at the mountain’s foot; and subsequently found its way to England where it has been hybridised and now grows in gardens worldwide; I believe one of the cultivars is called Golden Trumpets … a beautiful exotic, in Europe).

Exotic? Here we go again — does this mean “growing/originating in other lands”? Or does it mean “fabulously colourful and beautiful” like our indigenous begonias and our alien bougainvilleas? Whichever …

Come to think of it, none of these words taken in the context of the sentence are really difficult to understand … except, that is, that troubling term botanic gardens…

Do botanic gardens still have house-room for the likes of both Brunsvigia (as in B. natalensis) and Bougainvillea (as in Natalia)? I guess I should go check.

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