In recognition of their valuable work in the field of conservation, the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden was endorsed as an Accredited Conservation Practitioner by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) in 2018. It is the only garden in Africa and one of only 11 gardens in the world to receive this prestigious honour. Long-term involvement in projects such as species-specific conservation (for example, propagating the endangered indigenous paintbrush lily Haemanthus pumilio and the exotic miniature water lily Nymphaea thermarum, which is extinct in the wild) was one of the criteria that led to being accredited, as was the garden’s commitment to expanding its conservation work.
Since 2018, the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden has added more than 50 threatened plant species from endangered Renosterveld and Fynbos habitats, as well as the Succulent Karoo and threatened local wetlands, to its collection. While the garden’s team does not have the resources to actively engage in habitat restoration, it does believe it can play a vital role in creating back-up ex-situ populations of some of South Africa’s most threatened plants through cultivation. This it does by working to the unique strengths of its own world-class academic botanical and plant biotechnology expertise, and in partnership with SANBI and overseas organisations such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.
The dainty paintbrush lily has been the subject of a longstanding conservation and research partnership between Stellenbosch University’s botanical garden and its Institute for Plant Biotechnology. The scientists have explored lab techniques to bulk up material of this fragile and slow-to-reproduce species using in vitro propagation and tissue culture. Their work becomes more and more urgent as the species continues to decline due to the degradation and loss of its unique wet lowland habitat around Stellenbosch and Paarl. It is believed there are now only a few hundred plants left in the wild. The local Stellenbosch form (pictured below) may even be a new species or subspecies, making this population even more important.
Future of the garden
For the next three years, Donovan and his team will focus on planning and implementing nursery infrastructure and display upgrades so that they can better support teaching and showcase their most threatened plants and habitats for students, learners and visitors.
They have expanded their internship programme to employ four graduates and provide practical learning. They have also significantly expanded their efforts to create backup ex-situ collections of species or essential populations that are at extreme threat of extinction, and currently, they hold more than 60 conservation-grade collections of highly threatened species.
Collaboration and the sharing of material with other local and international institutions is, of course, a critical part of securing the future of the garden’s essential collections. Sadly, there are so many of these, as about 400 plant species in South Africa are either Critically Endangered or already thought to be extinct. New assessments of habitat loss, poaching and other impacts will inevitably see that number grow in the next few years.
But, as Donovan points out, “We can’t save everything, so we specifically target taxa from the surrounding area and species for which we can hold viable conservation populations in a small space. For now, that means a strong focus on bulbs but in future we hope to tackle more of the spectacular and threatened Cape ground orchids, partnering with academics to develop laboratory micropropagation protocols suitable for their complex and challenging growing needs.”
Next time you visit this unique garden in the historical hub of Stellenbosch, take a closer look at these endangered species and take comfort in the knowledge that there is a dedicated programme to protect them for generations to come.
Support the garden
There are several ways in which you can 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.
Read more on the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden and the team behind this fine institution.