New directions in research
Ninety years passed before Pearson’s vision of a well-equipped research facility at Kirstenbosch was realised in the Kirstenbosch Research Centre.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Map Download Photo Gallery
Joseph Mathews, at right, and Alec Middlemost, Assistant Curator, admire the pond in the main lawn. Mathews published numerous articles on his horticultural research into growing indigenous plants, which, with taxonomic studies led by Compton, dominated the research programme at Kirstenbosch for its first seven decades.
For the first 60-plus years of Kirstenbosch’s history, research was a poor cousin to the main focus of the Garden – indigenous plant horticulture. The Garden’s first Director, Harold Pearson, was an internationally respected scientist who dedicated his energies to the establishment of Kirstenbosch as well as practising as a full-time professor; and Robert Compton, who succeeded Pearson as Director, developed the herbarium that was to carry his name and contribute so much to our knowledge of the Cape flora. The energies of Brian Rycroft, Compton’s successor, were largely channelled into expanding the network of National Botanical Gardens across the country. When Kobus Eloff was appointed to succeed Rycroft, the research team at Kirstenbosch numbered just two taxonomists. Eloff was successful in attracting external funding, and with it a team of young scientists – several of these making major contributions to developing the science programme.
But the first real change arrived in 1990, when the research strategy for the new NBI changed course from an essentially inward focus of documenting the flora of the Cape and the threats to its plant species, to addressing the emerging needs and opportunities of a rapidly changing socioeconomic landscape.
In spite of the decades of political and academic isolation, trade embargoes and social ostracism to which apartheid South Africa was exposed, international scientific cooperation continued through collegial avenues, just as it had across Europe during the Napoleonic wars, across South Africa through the South African war, and across the world during the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, South African ecologists played an active role in the developing fields of fire ecology, invasive species biology, landscape change and the management of threatened habitats and endangered plants. This exposure to emerging trends in ecology and conservation led to the newly established NBI adopting a much broader sense of opportunity than previously thought important or even appropriate to the research programmes of a botanical institute. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, introduced new global agendas in environmental policy, management and research, with new focuses on topics such as desertification, climate change and biodiversity.
Environmental problems and collective solutions
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