Sunday, February 16, 2014

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 naturalists.

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 River.

(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 credit.

South Africa must’ve been some party in those early years.  
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 plan. 

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 Mandela. 
It was agreed. 

Renamed ‘Mandela’s Gold’ the plant and botanical illustration was presented to Mandela on a special Garden visit, August 21, 1996.  

‘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 natives. 
Native South Africans sought out the exotic plants from distant locales. 

While I find this disturbing, I also don’t think it is uncommon. 
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 globally. 
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 relationships.
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 mud!
NYBG hosts Wilkie, Thursday, February 20, 2014 10 am to noon. 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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