Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hantam National Botanical Garden

Hantam National Botanical Garden

This is part of Sanbi (South African Biodiversity Institute), but a very different place indeed. The 6,200 hectares of land on the Bokkefeld Plateau, about 350km north of Cape Town, make it the largest Botanic Garden in the world, and it is specifically known for its incredible diversity of bulbous plants, which are about 40% of the flora found on the renosterfeld fynbos and succulent karoo. Some 1350 species have been recorded here, of which 80 are restricted or endemic, and often threatened with extinction. The village of Nieuwouldville (took me forever to spell and pronounce this one) has the truly geeky title of ‘Bulb Capital of the World’.

Main building/offices

Camel koppie 

The history of the place as a garden is very recent, as it used to be a sheep farm owned by the MacGregor family, going back to 1883. Sanbi acquired all land belonging to the farm in 2007, and actual management as a garden only started in March of this year.


Moraea tripetala

The retired last owner, Neill MacGregor is a man with great love for the natural environment and the foresight of practicing mostly sustainable farming, initiated by his father before him.  He developed an intricate system of grazing that he considered most beneficial for sheep and the plant diversity naturally found on this piece of land, and also eventually stopped growing grain all together. This meant that part of the land had never been plowed, and the rest only grazed for the last 25 or so years. If you consider how bulbs grow, these are very crucial aspects, as they are no annuals happily coming up from seed landing and sprouting on disturbed ground, but are perennials that need to stay in the soil undisturbed often for many years until flowering. Beside of most of the koppies (=fields) being used in this fairly gentle manner, one koppie next to the gate was always considered especially rich in bulb diversity and left undisturbed. This is now called ‘Neill’s Reserve’, to honor the man with the foresight of conservation during times when the ‘civilized world’ considered all things manmade and chemical superior to nature, which was (and by many still is) considered in much need for improvement by us humans.

sometimes the colors just distract you from the flowers!

Lachenalia sp.

The MacGregor family over the years accommodated many illustrious visitors such as Sir Ghillean, Director of Kew, who declared the farm a ‘botanical treasure of international importance’. In 1991 and ’94 Sir David Attenborough filmed part of ‘The Private Life of Plants’ here, definitely a classic in the plant geek world!

Eventually more Scientists and Botanists got involved in exiting projects on the farm, culminating in the three-year Conservation Farming Project, executed under the Sanbi umbrella. (The aims of the Conservation Farming Project were to assess the ecological and economic costs and benefits of various agricultural practices, including both conventional and conservation farming methods, and to promote land use practices that conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods for farmers and rural communities.)


Roellia sabulosa

Eugene Marinus, the current curator, was involved in this project from the beginning, and being out with him on the grounds revealed his intimate knowledge of the place, it’s wildlife and the plants. I do admire people like him who invest this much caring into the land, and compromise on many aspects of their private life and monetary wealth to do so. 

Goertia diffusa, mimicking visiting beetles

The flowering season here is short and completely depending on the winter rain, usually coming between June and August, with very little or virtually no precipitation for the rest of the year. In very dry years many of the flowers are reduced in size or might not show at all, staying dormant with their energy stored in the bulbs - tough life! This year there were good rains in July, but it has hardly rained ever since, and the place is very dry indeed. You walk over the koppies and the soil makes this dry crumbling sound under your boots. Everybody was hoping for some more rain while I was there, and there was a thunderstorm one morning, but we are not talking about any significant amounts here, it barely lowered the dust for a day. You see on the pictures lots of green and color – but imagine, by December this place is baked, with nothing covering the bare ground anymore!

Hesperantha cucullata and Bulbinella nutans


Eugene explained that the bulbs are layered to a depth of 4 feet, and a bulb count in a cubic meter of soil can yield 15,000 (!!!) bulbs. This incredible dense underground bulb-world results in a super diverse but still very sparse vegetation even in full growing season, and one can imagine this biome being extremely sensitive to any tempering, such as fertilizing, applying herbicides and pesticides, sowing of introduced (Australian) grasses and feed plants, sheep grazing, or even plowing.

The management approach for the time being is monitoring and recording. Many people (including Neill) consider controlled grazing an important component in keeping a maximum number and diversity, but Eugene and a few others think this might not necessarily be so. It will be interesting to see how this will play out over the years - the new more radical hands-off conservation against years of established farming practice. The fences are kept intact just so if the sheep have to be brought back…

Colchicum coloratum, called 'Men in a Boat'

At any rate he has only a staff of 4 men (remember the 6,200 h) and Colleen, who is doing the accounting and covering all sorts of other aspects of setting up a new Botanic Garden in within the huge and bureaucratic Sanbi organization.

Eugene and Colleen

One other remarkable thing here is the important presence of small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects as pollinators, seed dispersers and rejuvenators of the plants. There are currently several people studying bees, the hairy fly with a proboscis longer then their body (I call it the elephant fly, and btw, it is not described yet, one of many species here!), and an array of beetles.

Hesperantha vaginata being violated by too much beetles

Lapeirousia oreogena, pollinated by the hairy fly, the only insect that can reach all the way down the flower tube to the nectar!

Ant parade carrying disc flowers of Asteraceae


Look at those hind legs!

size matters...

Some of the 150 bird species are as spectacular as the Blue Cranes, and there is one lonely European Stork, which never made it on the journey north last March with his buddies. This guy looks truly forlorn all by himself, and one evening I discovered him in the middle of a large flock of African Sacred Ibis around a small pond, his colors being so very similar and only having much taller red legs, he was trying hard to blend in pretending to be a Ibis too.


Another important animal here being studied is the porcupine, which plays a vital role in the rejuvenation of the bulbs. They dig deep pits to find the mature bulbs for eating, and in the process leave a large amount of little bulbs and cormlets behind, a perfect set up for accumulating extra rainwater where these can grow to maturity.

Bulbinella doleritica, endemic to Nieuwouldville

My week here in Nieuwoudville came down to a crash course in SA bulbs, learning about winter/summer rainfall, how to change a farm into a National BG, and of course the local culture (my excursion Friday evening to the town’s only bar will be filed under experiences…). I did work helping labeling the books in the starting library, helped mounting and hanging educational posters, advised tourists where to find the bathrooms and visiting botanists where to find their plants, and I made some design sketches for a future picnic area and demonstration beds.

Ehrharta calycina, a beautiful SA Poaceae

And I met this botanist that, when I introduced myself as Dodo, exclaimed that he was studying my ghost for the last three years! It turned out that he is doing extensive fieldwork in Mauritius, studying the effect of missing seed dispersers e.g. Raphus cucullatus (Dodo bird) in the dynamics of present-day native forests in Mauritius, using the critically endangered tree Syzygium mamillatum (Myrtaceae) as model organism, focusing on seed germination, and the establishment and survival of seedlings of S. mamillatum – pretty cool isn’t it?

Babiana framesii


1 comment:

funebre said...

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