Botanical Garden Celebrates Centenary

The Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden will celebrate its milestone birthday with a week-long festival.

The new Stellenbosch Botanical Garden Shop recently opened its doors to the public.

IN THE MIDDLE of the historical centre of Stellenbosch is a small green space that has grown into a luxuriance of plant species that are found nowhere else in the world. At Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden (SUBG), conservation and education take centre stage, and the main goal is to preserve plant species for generations to come.

This year, SUBG will celebrate its centenary with a week-long festival, the Stellenbosch Flora Festival, coinciding with the popular Woordfees from 7–15 October 2023. The garden will showcase the work that was started in 1902, when Stellenbosch University lecturer Dr Augusta Vera Duthie planted the first seeds for research and teaching next to what was then the Main Building on campus.

Dr Duthie’s dedicated work was continued by Dr Gert C. Nel, the professor of botany who, 19 years later, convinced the Stellenbosch University Council to allocate property for a botanical garden. Work on this garden started a year later.
Nestled on the corner of Neethling and Plein Streets, this tranquil space provides solitude and quietness for many during the day. It is also home to a Welwitschia mirabilis that was grown from seed in 1926 by the garden’s first curator, Dr Hans Herre. Still growing, the plant resides in the original display in Arid House 2, even though the structure itself has been rebuilt twice. Welwitschia mirabilis is endemic to the Namib Desert in Namibia and southern Angola.

The exquisite new SUBG shop houses a range of botanically themed homeware, decor, clothing, art, books and plants.

At only 1.7ha, SUBG is small in comparison to other botanical gardens, but its impact on conservation is immeasurable. It lies at the epicentre of efforts to combat the global extinction of habitats and plants, located as it is amid the internationally significant botanical diversity of the Cape Floristic Region and, specifically, within the extremely threatened lowland ecosystems of the wine-growing areas.

You only need to join SUBG’s current curator, Dr Donovan Kirkwood, for one of his educational garden tours to understand why this garden ticks all the boxes as one of South Africa’s foremost botanical gardens in addressing threats to plant and habitat survival through education, research and conservation. Donovan’s passion for, and dedication to, building this special garden is clear to all the staff, lecturers, interns and students who work with him daily. It’s a passion that plays out in every part of this uniquely laid-out garden.

ABOVE CENTRE: Haemanthus pumilio is known from only two or three locations. This specimen conserved at SUBG is from a now extinct Wellington population. ABOVE LEFT: The historic Welwitschia mirabilis was planted by Hans Herre in 1926, and still grows in its original location. ABOVE RIGHT: The winter-growing leaves of the Riversdale freesia,Freesia fergusoniae, precede its beautiful, fragrant flowers. It grows in the Overberg Alluvium and Renosterveld Threatened Lowland Habitat bed.

“In the space of only five and a bit years, I’m amazed that I’ve managed to grow our team and make really meaningful progress towards global ex situ conservation targets, while also getting multiple major infrastructure upgrades completed or under way. It is so much more progress than I had hoped was possible, and I am grateful to our amazing staff and colleagues in SUNCOM (previously Commercial Services) and the life sciences departments who have enthusiastically supported the garden,” says Donovan.

The winter-growing leaves of the Riversdale freesia,Freesia fergusoniae, precede its beautiful, fragrant flowers. It grows in the Overberg Alluvium and Renosterveld Threatened Lowland Habitat bed.

For him, SUBG stands for the conservation of South Africa’s – and particularly the Cape’s – exceptional and threatened biodiversity, the academic support of Stellenbosch University’s life sciences and research efforts, and the promotion of the global value and diversity of plants and natural habitats.

Donovan’s latest project is a collection of threatened lowland habitat displays created in beautiful raised beds that have been constructed from rocks gathered at the areas in which the plants originate. These displays, set up in conjunction with the Table Mountain Fund, are almost fully planted and will be complete in time for the first Stellenbosch Flora Festival.

A magnificent old Euphorbia of the Eastern Cape Thicket (part of teaching displays dating to the 1940s) overlooks the new Gordon’s Bay alluvial habitat beds of the Cape Threatened Lowland Habitat display.

This botanical garden is home to many different indigenous and exotic plant collections, some of which are either extinct in the areas where they originate or represent most of the remaining genetics of that species. The beautiful vygie Conophytum herreanthus subsp. herreanthus, named for Hans Herre and probably collected by him, is now entirely extinct at the single locality it was known from. Many of the plants are extremely beautiful flagships of habitats that are almost extinct, but even the less attractive ones are equally deserving of conservation. One of these, the daisy Marasmodes undulata from Paarl wetlands, is known from six individual plants, five of which are at SUBG. The garden’s Oxalis collection, initiated by Prof. Leanne Dreyer in 2001, currently includes an impressive 70% of species and sub-species in southern Africa, one of two global centres of Oxalis diversity.

The SUBG team of 2023, staff and interns.

SUBG’s living collections provide academic teaching resources as well as key research and reference material. Multiple MSc and PhD students have made use of them and many research papers are linked to plants cultivated in the garden.