We have already noted the interest of royal gardens in our flora – an 18th century passion for plants that became a driving fashion in middle-class European homes in the 19th century. The pelargoniums sent to Kew by Francis Masson were soon being hybridised, creating a stunning variety of colour and flower forms, and being planted in millions of window boxes in homes and village squares across Europe. The popularity of our mesems, nemesias, streptocarpus, gladiolus, watsonias, freesias, ixias, dieramas, agapanthus, arctotis, gerberas and strelitzias, and so many more, has led to some of these plants being considered native in their new countries – even adopted as city icons, as in the case of Strelitzia reginae, the floral emblem of Los Angeles.
But not all of our plants have remained welcome in their new homes. Who would have thought that the beautiful arum lily, prized by so many for festive occasions in Europe, would become a plague in New Zealand? Or that one of our most threatened species Gladiolus caryophyllaceus would raise the ire of residents of Perth, Western Australia? These and others such as the ice-plants, agapanthus, bietou and veld grasses are viewed by some as invasive aliens.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Trips Photo Gallery
During the 1990s, Kirstenbosch hosted many meetings of an international team of experts that initiated the Global Invasive Species Programme (GISP), which is aimed at preventing – or at least reducing – the spread and impact of aggressive alien plants and animals around the world.
The passion with which some people react to alien species suggests they have forgotten the good intentions behind their introduction. In 1880, the Colonial Forester planted pines on the slopes of Table Mountain to ‘cover the mountain’s naked appearance … an offence and eyesore to Cape Town’. It was Joseph Mathews himself who introduced the now infamous kudzu vine to Kirstenbosch, remarking in his Annual Report for 1919: ‘A few plants of the Kudzu vine have been planted out’, and in 1920 ‘This season’s growth of the Kudzu vine has reached 30 feet’. Fortunately, the vine died soon after this report.
One of the leading personalities in the GISP team was Kathy MacKinnon, ecologist at the World Bank, and another of Kirstenbosch’s many influential friends. MacKinnon was quick to remind us of our contribution to the global problem of invasive species, and the Kirstenbosch team responded promptly with a fascinating, and telling, theme garden on ‘Weeds South Africa gave the world’ – a sobering reminder of the dangers inherent in plant introductions from distant lands, as Pearson had so perceptively pointed out in 1910:
‘It is hardly necessary to say that there is a risk in introducing a new plant from another region. It might prove itself to be a good servant, but there is always the possibility that, if it is not carefully looked after, it may become a bad master. ’
The Kirstenbosch bus has brought over 200 000 school children to Kirstenbosch since it was first sponsored by the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman’s Fund in 1996.
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