Plant science students help set up educational trail to raise awareness about plant life on Mamelodi Ridge

Posted on June 28, 2023

Two plant science honours students at the University of Pretoria (UP) are on a mission to establish a trail for school learners aimed at educating Tshwane residents and preserving the natural splendour of the green mountain ridge rising above Mamelodi.

The project – which is being coordinated by students Lynadia Samuel and Jessica Berry – reflects the growing support that UP botanists and others are giving Mamelodi residents in raising awareness about this almost unspoilt natural haven above one of Tshwane’s largest residential areas. Samuel and Berry will build on work already done by last year’s cohort of honours students from UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

“This work forms part of an elective community engagement module, called BOT 789, Plants, People and Planet, that they choose to complete as part of their honours year,” says project leader and Department Head Professor Nigel Barker.

The trail will start at the indigenous medicinal plant nursery of the Mothong African Heritage Trust in Mamelodi West. The nursery was established more than 20 years ago by local traditional medicinal healer Dr Ephraim Mabena.

He says many Tshwane residents only catch a glimpse of the greenery of Mamelodi Ridge as they pass along the N4. It is an extension of the Magaliesberg mountains, with which it shares the same geology, and therefore also similar plant life. It is home to wildlife such as spring hares, and occasionally smaller antelope. Although generally intact, its natural beauty is being threatened by illegal dumping, some cattle grazing, and the unsustainable harvesting of trees for fuel wood.

Prof Barker says the envisaged educational trail is part of collaborative efforts with selected Mamelodi educators to raise awareness about the area’s value to society. It will contribute to school syllabus content on biodiversity and the environment.

The trail will start at the indigenous medicinal plant nursery of the Mothong African Heritage Trust in Mamelodi West. The nursery was established more than 20 years ago by local traditional medicinal healer Dr Ephraim Mabena, who says he was inspired after being visited in a dream by his ancestors. He uses the plants grown in the nursery in his practice, and provides some to other medicinal healers. He sees the nursery’s efforts as a way of conserving indigenous plants and promoting ethical rather than unsustainable wild harvesting of natural resources.

“I was given instruction to convert an illegal dumping site into a friendly environmental place,” Dr Mabena said in a UP video recently. “I was told I must go and say thank you to these mountains. Nature plays such an important role in our lives: religiously, politically, and otherwise.

“We must learn from and protect these plants. When we look at these plants, they are a mirror to oneself,” says Dr Mabena, who has received numerous accolades for his work related to medicinal plants. His relationship with UP started in the 2000s, when he was approached by medicinal plant researcher Professor Namrita Lall to help exchange ideas with her students.

Prof Barker says he was inspired by Dr Mabena’s passion for sharing his knowledge and conserving Mamelodi Ridge for future generations. “The work we are doing is built around special relationships and friendships, ones that are in turn built around a mutual love for plants and botany… It’s important to raise awareness of botanical gems such as Mamelodi Ridge. Among other things, it provides examples of indigenous food plants that people used in the past.”

Only 2,3% of the Gauteng province is being formally conserved. It is therefore hoped that Mamelodi Ridge could in the future be included into the greater Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve or be formally recognised in some other way as a conservation area.

“I hope we will be able to formalise medicinal and other plant research projects, and extend the informal biodiversity survey work that we have been doing since 2021,” Prof Barker says.

The surveys were started by botanists associated with UP and the National Herbarium in Pretoria after it was discovered that only around 250 plants from either Mamelodi Ridge or Donkerhoek, a ridge further to the east, were at that stage included in the National Herbarium database.

Prof Barker invited members of the public to contribute to citizen science survey efforts by reporting sightings of plants along the Mamelodi Ridge to the dedicated Mamelodi Magalies Ridges iNaturalist page, which has recorded 418 observations of 173 species by 20 people since its creation in 2021. 

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