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The New York Botanical Garden Winter Lecture Series kicked off with Kirstenbosch: The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa

It was the first of the very popular New York Botanical
Garden (NYBG) Winter Garden Lecture Series and there was palpable plant anticipation
pulsing by the looks of the arriving audience – many whom I recognized as
horticulture and botany staff from area botanical gardens.
They were not there to see special guest Sigourney Weaver.
(who looked fabulous, by the way.)
No, these plant people were there for Professor Brian J.
Huntley, the internationally respected conservationist with nearly 50 years of
“field research and management experience in many African ecosystems, from the
sub-Antarctica to the equator.”
His biography is most impressive – and in fact, that is just
how Gregory Long, president of The New York Botanical Garden, introduced
Huntley, saying “He’s the most prestigious we’ve had here as a speaker.”
Long went on to point out he’d even had some of the Garden’s
tropical plants placed on stage to honor Huntley and his native South Africa. 

Huntley was the director of Kirstenbosch
and other major conservation and sustainability initiatives
including the lead on the Savanna Ecosystems Project, institutional development
for The National Botanical Institute, the South African Biodiversity Institute
and a consultant for the UN on conservation projects.
Plus, Huntley possesses that charming South African accent
so I could listen to him read the phone book (Google “phone book” if that is an
alien concept!)
To hear Huntley talk about plants with wit and wisdom was a
kind of “hort heaven.” 

My only tangible experience with South African plants is to
see them in the Conservatories of the New York botanic gardens, most often in
the warm temperate houses. Especially at Brooklyn Botanic Garden where I was
honored to have worked for many years. 
Elizabeth Scholtz, past president and Director Emeritus who not that
long ago celebrated 50 years at BBG, is a South African national, born in
Pretoria in 1921 and joined the staff of BBG in 1960. 
I have had the distinct privilege to have worked with Betty
Scholtz and cherish every moment in her office and mine, soaking up her stories
and experience.
At the book signing after the lecture, I asked Huntley why
Betty wasn’t present and he said they had indeed invited Ms. Scholtz but due to
some health issues and the winter weather, she couldn’t make it.  Our loss…
The plants Huntley showed were extraordinary. More than a
few elicited gasps and oohs from the audience.  

And remember, the attendees were plant professionals.  Not a jaded soul in the lot, though.
The drama of the plants’ color, shape and sheer diversity is
truly heart-stopping magnificence and unequaled. 

An accomplished speaker – Huntley told me his on a road trip
to help raise awareness and funds – and his presentation reflected his
sophisticated story telling.
His plant story was about Kirstenbosch – South Africa’s resplendent botanic garden.
It is undoubtedly nature’s story.
But there is also suspense and intrigue and redemption
provided by the human element that is key to the South African narrative.

To cover the expansive history of the country and its gardens
that celebrated its centenary last year (2013) Huntley told the audience his
talk would consist of three Episodes, along with important moments for bio
diversity. He would also offer parallels with our North American experience.
Huntley said there are distinct, different stories to tell
about each century, starting in the 18th Century. Episode 1:
1771-1815, Episode 2: 1895-1935 and Episode 3: 1990-2014.
I love garden history so I settled in for what promised to
be tales of plant adventure, flora bravado, horticultural treasures, botanical
exploration — lubricated by the powerful, influential and inspired
The Huntley talk didn’t disappoint.
It all started with the “discovery” of flora Capensis
(commonly called Cape Sundew) I have to put the quote qualifiers on because I
continue to find it rather arrogant that something was only found when the
European white men came upon something ignoring that native peoples had been
enjoying the “discovery” for quite some time, thank you very much J
When the Dutch pulled a ship in for water and Huntley says,
they ended up in the “hottest, hot-spot” for biodiversity on the continent of
Africa. “ The Kogelberg mountain area is stunning – and is ground zero of the
Cape Floral Kingdom there.
Floral Kingdom is not some fanciful name bestowed by a real
estate-inspired sales opportunist.
I have learned from Professor Huntley’s lavishly documented,
illustrated picture book and education tome: Kirstenbosch: the most beautiful
garden in Africa
xxx that is now autographed by him – that there are in
fact, six Floral Kingdoms in the world recognized by botanists.
They are:
1. Boreal in North America, Greenland what looks like Russia
/ China
2. Palaeotropic in central Africa
3. Neotropic in South America
4. Australasian
5. Antarctic
6. Cape
What is remarkable about the South African Cape Floral
Kingdom – separate from the plants, of course, is that every another Floral Kingdom
is very big – make that HUGE land mass. 
As in continents or cross-continents.
The significance of Cape in the Floral Kingdom list is that
in relative terms, it’s a very small area.
Surely god and Mother Nature blessed this place for a
reason, don’t you agree?
By way of comparison, The Cape Floral Kingdom has 16 times
the species density of the Boreal Plant Kingdom where we live. 
Plus, more than 68 percent of the Cape’s flora is found
nowhere else on the planet. 

In terms of a timeline, Huntley pointed out with a humorous
jab of one upmanship, that Leendert Cornelissen, a carpenter and sawyer,
formerly of the Dutch East India Company, secured the rights to the land that
would become Kirstenbosch: the first botanic garden in South Africa in 1657 – a
whopping 72 years before Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia –the oldest botanic
garden in North America that opened in 1728 on the banks of the Schuylkill
(I feel like I must be the only hort fan who didn’t know
about Bartram’s Garden. Why is this?  I
must visit Bartram’s Garden this garden season.)
It is horticultural humor to learn that the career of
Kirstenbosch’s first “curator” and burger councilor ended when he was accused of
every day “behaving in a more and more debauched manner, by drinking,
celebrating, fighting, brawling, swearing, etc…”
Noted next was Paul Hermann, the first professional botanist
to visit the Cape, which he did on his way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1672.
Hermann’s work ended up on Linnaeus’ desk years later and
the father of taxonomy is quoted rhapsodizing how it was that Hermann had seen
in a few days more African plants than all the botanists previously had seen
anywhere.  “Oh Lord, how many, rare and
wonderful were the plants that presented themselves to Hermann’s eyes!”
enthused Linnaeus. 
Huntley put it simply: “The Cape is the birthplace of South
African botany.”

William Burchell, is celebrated in the history of
Kirstenbosch as the most prolific collector in South Africa in the early 19th
century—about the same time as Lewis Clark were making their explorations of
North America.  Burchell is credited with
collecting, more than 63,000 plant, animal and geological specimens to his
South Africa must’ve been some party in those early
Huntley told a story about a
collector from Kew, James Bowie charged with securing floral wealth from the
Cape for the gardens in England was noted for “getting pleasure and slaking”
presumably a bit too often.
Huntley continued with portraits and profiles of other plant
adventurers, botanists who contributed to the first Episode of Kirstenbosch.
I didn’t want Episode 1 to end. 
I’m fascinated by this
period of horticulture for several reasons: the mix of the foibles of man and
their outsized personalities, garden history, the recognition that plants
mattered so much: affording great wealth and beauty. And the excitement of the
plant adventurers and discovery.
However, Huntley had to move ahead to Episode 2 and the narrative continued.
Episode 2 1895-1935
The story of Kirstenbosch officially gets underway in
February, 1911 when Henry Harold Welch Pearson, professor of Botany at the
South African College with a passion for cycads, and ultimately the founder of
Kirstenbosch, set out with his botanical comrades “to look for a site for a new
botanical garden.” Their search took them up the lane that ended at the “avenue
of Moreton Bay Figs and Camphor trees planted by Cecil Rhodes in 1898 which he
bequeathed to the nation after his death in 1902.
Huntley’s book quotes Pearson exclaiming, “’This is the
place.’  The rest is history.”
Huntley pointed out that Pearson could’ve worked anywhere in
the world – he was very well respected and knowledgeable, the inference being
that South Africa was gifted with a top-tier horticulturist who also was an
outsize promoter of what a botanical garden should be, having published a
seminal work on the topic in 1910. 
Pearson appointed the Kew-trained Jimmy Mathews as the first
Curator of Kirstenbosch. He served the Garden for 23 years, most notably helping
to formulate the look of the garden. 

It is written that Pearson and Mathews sensitivity to the
concept of Genius Loci or the “spirit of the place” allowed them to let the
landscape speak for itself. The “natural sweeps of lawns, wooded glades, flowering
beds and mountain vistas” were allowed to dominate the garden’s master

His team hewed the rock from the site. In a nod to Pearson’s
love of cycads, he created the Collection above the Dell with a focal point for
the cycads and gymnosperms.
Today, there is a gymnosperm in situ – that is more than
2,000 years old! 

Robert Compton is credited with taking the Kirstenbosch garden
from concept to reality.
He served as Director of the National Botanic Garden,
Kirstenbosch from 1919 to 1953.
Huntley tiptoed around the garden design issue.
While acknowledging he was speaking to an audience filled
with landscape designers, he said Compton advanced the strategy that there
would be NO design process at Kirstenbosch. 
He thought the grandeur and diversity of its setting make
any sort of improvement seem foolish, according to Huntley.

Episode 3 1990-2014
This era is focused on Sustainability, Conservations Science
and African Connections.
Huntley ‘joked’ that when he was appointed the Director of
Kirstenbosch, it was a big year – that he was fortunate to have luck and timing
on his side.
There were macro trends he could take advantage of.
As the adage goes, “Fortune favors the prepared.”
So it was for Huntley.
There were strategic opportunities he seized.
And then there was luck…
Huntley was appointed CEO of the National Botanical
Institute NBI) in January 1990.
On February 11, 1990 the day Nelson Mandela was freed from
prison after 27 years in captivity. 
I have written about Mandela’s love of gardens and how
gardening in the Robben Island prison gave him comfort and focus. (And a place
to hide his memoir.)
Officially, Mandela visited Kirstenbosch in 1996. He first visited the
garden as a student.
Huntley told us a story about how it came about that they
named a special plant after the first President of the South African democracy.
Huntley said the Ambassador to Italy called, telling them
that the Italians were going to name a plant in Mandela’s honor.  But the native South African plant they were
considering was more of a weed.
Huntley laughed recalling that he instructed that the South
African Ambassador should tell the Italians that if they named that plant,
there would be an international incident!
Alternatively, Huntley and his team set about to quickly
identify an appropriate plant.
A staff botanist suggested the bird-of-paradise Strelitzia reginae a South African
native plant – that is also a stunning beauty and a fitting tribute to Nelson
It was agreed. 

Renamed ‘Mandela’s Gold’ the plant and botanical
illustration was presented to Mandela on a special Garden visit, August 21,

‘Mandela’s Gold’ is also the logo of the NBI.
Huntley convened a meeting of his fellow botanists, hosting
their first meeting at Kirstenbosch in 1992 to plan a co-op project to build
regional capacity in plant taxonomy and herbarium management and became known
as SABONET (South African Botanical Diversity Network)
Today, they’ve been able to update their native species
checklist to more than 50,000.
In terms of Conservation,
Huntley stated they must revisit or return to their history and the pioneering
botanists who sought to collect, preserve and respect the plant kingdom.
“Our vegetation is the richest in the world,” he said. “Yet
so much of it is being swept out of existence altogether unless provisions are
made for their preservation.”
Using ICUN criteria, they have analyzed more than 20,000
indigenous species to learn that 65% are endangered and in the Cape Floral
Kingdom, 13% are endangered with more than 26% under threat.
In a curious twist of what might be termed “boomerang
horticulture,” the native Erica verticullatae was collected for emperor Franz
Josef and remains in cultivation in Vienna and is part of the Gene Book there.
In the intervening year, the plant became extinct in South Africa mainly due to
the loss of the plant’s natural pollinators.
Now, Erica has come home. 
The NBI has gotten seed from Vienna and is propagating the heather again
in South Africa. 
Huntley described how Pearson, the founder of Kirstsenbosch,
often remarked that he’d see their native plants in the window boxes throughout
the capitals of European cities yet back home, no one used or displayed the
Native South Africans sought out the exotic plants from
distant locales. 

While I find this disturbing, I also don’t think it is
It’s a sad but true fact that people all too often want what
is rare – in many areas of collecting and displaying – from cars to clothes to
food to plants. 
Exotics seem to offer excitement in the way a rare gem does.
Plus the owners find the imported plants provide a certain amount
of bragging rights.  From the time of
early plant explorers to today, one can crow about their rare plants.
The sadder irony is that the native plants may all too soon
be the rare “exotic” and even import not just in South Africa but
Far too many nurseries and big corporate plant breeders are
leading us to a mono-culture of far too few choices and selections because they
find it efficient and profitable.  Just
like in the edibles/food world…
But there is Inspiration and Education.
Huntley noted the Botanic gardens series of books that helps
gardeners and plant lovers to better know about their native plants.
One can also visit their website:
This is the South African National Biodiversity
Institute  (SANBI) sponsored hub for
plants and vegetation of South Africa.
It’s like a travelogue or a Star Trek/Plant Trek – because
the plants shown here, especially the Plants of the Week, are so extraordinary
and beautiful and fascinating to learn about.
Caution: One can readily get lost going down the rabbit hole
of plant discovery on this site! 
I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the Erica recurvate or Drooping round headed
heath – it looks like a clutch of baby hummingbirds.
It is a critically endangered heath…. 

Enjoy the history, the botanical art and the conservation
and propagation notes for the wowsy plants here.
The Educational element of the Kirstenbosch recognized they
needed to extend their reach to the citizens and not just the traditional
middle-class, white, middle age population.
Therefore, in the 1990’s the Garden started a vigorous
program to bring school children to visit and to link an environmental, green
program to the school’s curriculum.

Huntley shared a charming anecdote about Nelson Mandela’s
visit at the Garden to speak to the school children. 
He observed Mandela had written his own talk – in long hand
– no speechwriters. This so impressed Huntley, that a man of Mandela’s stature
deemed this topic and this place so important and special and that he wrote
from his heart…
Mandela captivated his audience with his recollections of
his garden in prison at Robben Island and the importance of gardens…
Huntley went on to review the research work there which is
most impressive – and the financials as it relates to the Garden. 
The take away on this last point is that botanic gardens are
cultural beacons – they are places where we can visit and build enduring, lifetime
They offer insight into the mysterious, exotic, fascinating,
inspiring, and beautiful world of plants.
We haven’t scratched the surface of what we can learn from
the plant kingdom.
We need plants and we don’t know them.
We are just discovering how plants communicate. 
Just because we don’t yet speak “plant” shouldn’t mean we
don’t try to learn of their world and ways.
More on this dynamic soon…
Botanic gardens also provide community, food news, children’s
programs, education, cross cultural experiences with other fine arts including
the dance, music, and sculpture.
Huntley said Kirstenbosch launched an outdoor concert series
that draws thousands of fans to the Garden for an experience close to heaven.

Check your local botanic gardens to discover a rigorous,
enchanting schedule of harmonic garden art, fine art, education and community.
Next up in the Winter Garden Lecture Series is Kim Wilkie,
landscape architect, who will talk about sculpting landforms and his love of
NYBG hosts Wilkie, Thursday, February 20, 2014 10 am to
or call 800-322-nybg (6924)
Each lecture is $31/$35 (Member/Non-member)
Or you can purchase the series.
See you at the Garden.


Brian Huntley with me, & he is autographing my copy of Kirstenbosch The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa  

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