Promoting excellence through collecting, preserving, and popularizing plant biodiversity.
Many people ask; "What exactly is a Botanical Garden and why is it relevent to us as a University and, in a greater context, science and society?"
We can answer using our own experiences as an illustration;
A Botanical Garden is not just a garden, while aesthetic issues are important as in a traditional garden, it is primarily a living scientific reference collection and, as part of a thriving educational community, an educational resource too.
Diversity is the key; most gardens rely on only a few species planted for looks and design considerations alone. A Botanical Garden sets out to collect and maintain as many plant species as possible, in our case, these collections have been targeted towards our educational needs and our indigenous flora. As a Botanical Garden filling the needs of a community of researchers, we collect and curate as much living material as is practical since having material on hand for investigation and teaching often negates the need for field work and related requirements such as permits for collection of plant material in the field, not to mention the associated time and cost of these!
Educationally speaking plant material for under- and postgraduate practicals is cultivated mainly within the Botanical Garden. This material is used during roughly 40 practical sessions annually by no fewer than 700 BSc undergraduate students from ten departments and as an integral part of the BSc Honours in Taxonomy course offered by the Plant Science Department. Honours, MSc and PhD students regularly make use of the plant material cultivated with the Botanical Gardens for their projects and approximately 40 staff members from about 10 departments benefit from plants specifically grown and housed for these purposes. The use of the material provided by us is not restricted to the Facility of Natural and Agricultural Sciences but is of use to researchers in other fields such as Veterinary science, other Universities (nationally and internationally) and other institutions such as the CSIR.
Great Botanical Gardens are often closely associated with a particular Herbarium, in our case we are privileged to be associated with the H.G.W.J. Schweickerdt Herbarium (PRU) as both form part of collection based scientific endeavours and in a very real sense can be seen as complimentary parts of a larger whole, the Herbarium dealing with preserved and recorded plant material, the Botanical Garden being concerned with living and likewise recorded plant material.
A Botanical Garden (and its Curators) should be a focus of botanical and horticultural expertise. We are closely involved in the environmental management and landscaping of the larger campus communities, as our Curators are part of the process in new development and new garden designs on all of the University’s Campus’ through a close relationship with the Department of Facilities Management.
Conservation is key in a Botanical Garden, we maintain one of only three ex Situ plant breeding programs for endangered species of Encephalartos in South Africa, and of the estimated three thousand species of indigenous and exotic plants in our larger collections many of these are rare, endangered or even extinct in the wild.
As part of our collection and conservation efforts, we maintain a seed and pollen bank and close association with other Botanical Gardens around the world through visits, electronic communication and plant material exchanges, often with much knowledge transfer too!
We belong to the Kew based Botanical Gardens Conservation International and are an internationally recognized scientific Botanical Garden.
Many Botanical Gardens also carry out plant breeding programs for horticultural promising species, historically the Manie van der Schijff Gardens were instrumental to introducing Syzigium pondoense, a very rare Pondoland endemic, into wide cultivation as a garden ornamental. Also too; a previous Curator of this Garden, Mr. At. Koeleman was instrumental in pioneering Aloe hybridizing and forming the South African Aloe Breeders Association, a very important and long lasting contribution towards popularizing South African indigenous plants in horticulture.
We also horticulturally test new commercial varieties and species of indigenous and exotic plants for institutional planting and novel horticultural scenarios. The Aloe cultivar testing beds scattered on Hatfield Campus have been invaluable in the “water wise” gardening program of the University, and tests of cremnophytic and succulent species for green walls and green roofs is ongoing on the Plant Science building walls and balcony gardens.
New developments and the introduction of new methods; this is vital for the educational, maintenance and aesthetic purposes of the University. A Botanical Garden is not and cannot be a static entity, to be maintained as stands. New developments and displays must always be in the pipeline and new collections planned for to keep it a vital and living educational resource. In our case, while we are an old and established Garden, changing conditions in each area of the Garden opens up new display and collection opportunities that need to be utilized. A prime example of this must be the Rainwater Harvesting Garden and the massive amount of interest it has attracted since its installation in 2013.
Community outreach programs can and should also be planned and carried out, we have provided plants for upliftment projects many times and have also made Moringa oeifera trees available to the staff and contractors of the University. We also form part of the student feeding initiative of Sci-Enza and provide land and provide some of the labour to help grow the vegetables that this project requires.
Educationally too the Curator can be expected to fulfill the role of a lecturer /public speaker and demonstrator to students and faculty, our Curators have not only been of use to the Plant Sciences Department but also the Architectural Departments Landscape Architecture students and students of the Department of Consumer Science. Our senior Curator, Jason Sampson has also recently completed an outreach speaking tour in California and Denver, communicating some of the ground-breaking “Green” developments of the Botanical Garden and University.
With challenges such as global climate change and urbanisation threatening biodiversity, Botanical Gardens are fast becoming more relevant than ever. Botanical Gardens provide the perfect vehicles for relevant research, especially with regard to conservation and climate change, and promoting green consciousness to the public and within universities.