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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 June 2014 by Tim Ingram

'The Naked Botanist'

'The Naked Botanist'

This diary has something of the aspect of reportage if you view it more than as simply personal musings. One of our hopes in Kent is that we might have more special meetings like this described below, which show that our interests extend into the way plants and landscapes are understood and conserved, and how this can inform our gardening with plants and discovering them in the wild. If we do find sufficient interest then this talk may act as a forerunner to future ones from practising botanists, conservationists, growers and academics.

Botanical & Horticultural Discovery in the Cape Floristic Kingdom - David Gwynne-Evans & Fran Siebrits (talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 20th June 2014)

"In this dry uncompromising district, grows one of the most beautiful little shrubs of the Bushman country. It was Mahernia [Hermannia], not more than a foot in height, and covered with large scarlet bell-shaped flowers, elegantly turned downwards; the emblem of modesty united to beauty: chance having guided my steps to the only spot where it grew; nor was it ever afterwards, during my travels, met with again."

The quote above, by the 19th Century traveller William John Burchell, and the accompanying pictures of Hermannia species, have come from David Gwynne-Evans who has studied the genus Hermannia in detail for his Doctoral thesis, and is making an ambitious tour around the UK and Europe to publicise the Cape flora and attract more interest in its conservation and study.

 

'The Naked Botanist'

After a very long drive from Scotland, where David and Fran had talked at Logan and Edinburgh Botanics on the Flora of South Africa, they made it down to sunny Kent. All gardeners will know of the immense richness of this Floristic region which covers only 0.5% of the continent but includes 20% of the total African floral diversity: over 19 000 species occur in South Africa in its widest sense and a good half of these in the much more restricted Cape Region in the very south and west, which covers an area less than half that of the British Isles. This is a botanists' paradise but at the same time inevitably a flora continuously under threat from development, ignorance and economic pressures. David's hopes and thoughts on how this flora can be conserved and shared with the 'man on the street' are of course idealistic, but they can be no other way for anyone who has studied the flora extensively and is aware of its detail. As well as showing us a very great range of plants, and describing their wider ecology, he also suggested a number of ways that further conservation measures could be put into place or strengthened. One simple example, which is as true of the UK as well, is the corridors alongside roads, which if widened and left to develop naturally provide for the ability of plants and animals to 'migrate'. This is little different to the huge value of hedgerows, inter-connected woodlands, and areas of wild flowers around fields in the UK, all of which must be important in conservation terms.

The paradox is that much of the Cape flora, especially the Fynbos - and identical to other Mediterranean-like regions - is naturally adapted to change and disruption by fire and the huge diversity of plants also means that many are extremely local and much more likely to be under threat from development and restriction of range. In similar environments elsewhere, as in California and Australia, gardeners have developed an increasing interest in cultivating the natural flora rather than introduced species, and this must also be a factor in increasing overall awareness amongst the man on the street.

We have quite often had talks from members who have visited South Africa, for example the Drakensberg and the amazing flowering of Namaqualand, but it was especially rewarding to listen to a field botanist with an interest in the flora across many different localities, and we were introduced to as many completely new plants as to species more familiar. David pointed out the 'unbelievable' scent of Gladiolus watermeyeri which was retained over several years in a reference book into which he had pressed flowers. He described some of the specific relationships between individual flowers and their pollinators; the different solitary bees attracted to Diascia spp.; many of the ground flowering flora pollinated by rodents; an intriguing insectiverous plant, Roridula gorgonias, which has an association with spiders; Disa uniflora, pollinated by particular butterflies that see red; and a number of plants with very long floral tubes pollinated by 'long proboscis flies'. The diversity of plants implies also a diversity of fauna associated with them.

Some extraordinary species like the 'woody iris' genus Nivenia have always intrigued me, regarded as the base of the iris family; we were shown Drosera regia, the largest sundew in the world; and a number of genera which have a much wider distribution across Africa (for example Hermannia, Pelargonium, Senecio and Erica), divided north and south by the mesic gap of the tropics and the northern deserts, but linked geographically and ecologically, even if tenuously, by the mountainous terrain of East Africa.

This really was a fascinating and well received talk which highlighted how botany and gardening - and conservation - are not so far apart, and simply how wonderfully rich and interesting this region is to anyone whose attraction to plants is wide ranging and quite botanical.

We wish David and Fran well in their further tour of Europe and hope that they might return and share their experiences with us in the future.

(I would like to express our thanks to the Forum of the Scottish Rock Garden Society which enabled contact with David and Fran, and gave us the opportunity to invite them to visit our Group in Kent).

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