An oasis of hope

In the build-up to Garden Day on Sunday 9 October, we visit the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, a peaceful haven in the middle of town and a hive of activity where botanists are hard at work protecting plant species.

It is a place where the common wild sorrel (Oxalis, locally known as suring) receives as much care and attention as the rarest and smallest waterlily (Nymphaea) in the world. A place where students come to learn to love and understand unique collections of plants and experience diversity from all over the planet. It is home to the oldest African bonsai tree and to Welwitschia plants that were grown from seed in 1926.

Footpaths in the garden lead to a variety of pleasant corners and surprising finds, such as the bonsai collection. 

This special place is the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, the oldest university garden in South Africa and protects endangered plant species from around the world. 

Conservation is high on this garden’s agenda. Says curator Dr Donovan Kirkwood; “Our botanical gardens have always celebrated the richness of our Cape and South African environments but the need to embed deeper understanding and catalyse action has never been more urgent.” 

One of the oldest bonsai trees on display is this pine tree (Pinus sp) dating from 1940.

The south-western Cape’s Cape Floristic Region encompasses, by far, the richest non-tropical flora on Earth, comprising nearly 10 000 plant species. Likewise, the winter-rainfall desert of the Succulent Karoo is the most biodiverse globally. Both landscapes are facing unprecedented levels of habitat loss and degradation.

The National Biodiversity Assessment conducted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) in 2018 has highlighted the current rapid and extreme loss and degradation of habitat in this country. The most threatened habitats are lost more rapidly, and more than half of the 6 256 Fynbos and Renosterveld ecosystem types are considered endangered, as are nearly all of the aquatic systems. Almost 20% of Cape habitat types are critically endangered. And they are so reduced and fragmented that ecological collapse and substantial species extinctions are inevitable.

Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden’s Oxalis research collection is spectacular in early autumn, when most species are flowering.

The Cape Winelands are at the epicentre of these threatened landscapes and in the midst of them, the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden is an island of hope.

For Donovan, there is enormous scope to make more direct connections to our local landscapes and to make abstract conservation concepts real, especially for unique and threatened habitats that are not easy to visit or see. And of course, to undertake more direct conservation action.

One cannot help but admire this curator’s broad vision, given the garden’s small size and limited resources. Donovan is convinced that the perfect location of the garden and its academic context provides opportunities to punch well above its weight in addressing conservation issues, while also living the new vision of the Stellenbosch University that emphasises high-impact, collaborative and meaningful work.

Conservation is his driving force

Dr Donovan Kirkwood has been at the helm of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden since 1 October 2018. As an experienced botanist and trained ecologist, he has focused mostly on the conservation of protected areas. Having completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town in 2003, Donovan started as a regional ecologist with CapeNature in the same year and was involved in the monitoring and management of nature reserves.


Then, as the need to identify and retain representative habitat, ecosystems and species for the full spectrum of Cape diversity became more urgent, he moved into regional planning and prioritisation.

Over the past few years, Donovan has come to believe that guiding land-use planning has not been enough. Being involved in the 2018 National Biodiversity Assessment was a critical turning point for him when he realised that, despite world-leading land- use guidance and spatial maps and good legislation, we were still losing our most important habitats and threatened plants at disproportionately rapid rates. Clearly, more had to be done to educate people across the social spectrum and create for them personal links to our environment and flora or, as Donovan puts it, “to really win hearts and minds”. The move to Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden was an opportunity to do just that and to develop a long-term and fulfilling sideline of growing indigenous species.

Lockdown hero

When lockdown started, the senior botanical assistant at Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden, Bonakela Mpecheni, cancelled his leave and moved into quarters at the garden. Here he lived by himself – away from his home and family – so that he could continue his daily work.

As always, he started early and worked a full day, every day, singlehandedly keeping on top of the watering, pruning and tidying. He also cleaned the pump filters and did all the million other jobs that needed to be done to ensure the garden would be ready to reopen as soon as permission was given.

This commitment expresses his love for the garden and his job, at a time when he could easily have chosen to stay home without having to work at all during lockdown.

Support the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden:

  • Buy a season card
  • Subscribe to the newsletter
  • Sponsor a container (60cm to 80cm ceramic display pots)
  • Consider long-term volunteering (weekdays only, commitment to regular schedule)
  • Make a donation. Any amount, large or small, will support our conservation, education and other activities. A tax deduction certificate can be provided for large donations. The garden encourages potential supporters to get in touch to discuss its programmes and projects.

The Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden is located on the corner of Neethling and Van Riebeeck Streets, Stellenbosch Central and open daily 8:00 – 17:00.