A garden in Eden


In the face of mounting financial and logistical challenges, local botanical enthusiasts remain the impetus behind the survival of the ecologically and historically important Garden Route Botanical Garden. Their tenacity is paying off as raised awareness and new developments pave the way for optimism.

 WORDS Francini van Staden PHOTOGRAPHS Lisa Greyling

Nestled in the shadows of the Outeniqua Mountains, the garden’s history is inextricably linked to George’s beginnings. Home to the town’s first structured water source in the early 1800s, the garden’s dam remains its key feature, and is an important urban habitat for birds and small animals.

Garden Route Botanical Garden curator Dayne de Wet says the need to protect local flora became clear towards the end of the 20th Century when urban expansion gained ground. “The area surrounding the dam seemed ideal as a starting point and in 1986 the Van Kervel Gardens – named for the town’s first mayor Adriaan Geysbertus van Kervel – were declared a nature reserve.”

Initially managed by an advisory committee to the municipality, the gardens became overgrown with invasive alien plants and were plagued by rubbish dumping. However, local greenies stepped up to the challenge of reviving the grounds.

Extensive collaboration with the Botanical Society of South Africa and local authorities followed, and the Garden Route Botanical Garden, which incorporated the Van Kervel Gardens, was officially opened in 1998.

“And so started the tedious work of clearing all aliens and rubbish from the grounds. The garden has been built up by a handful of volunteers, one tree at a time, to the lovely place which it is now.”

Ecological importance
Dayne says the 17-hectare garden is much more than a nurtured botanical garden. “It is in effect a nature reserve that sustains more than 100 bird species, over 40 butterfly species and even mammals, including bushbuck, porcupine and caracal. One cannot otherwise but recognise the ecosystem health of this green lung.”

As a regional botanical garden, it showcases the indigenous flora of the Southern Cape. While aloe, restio and medicinal plant collections are nurtured, two Cape Floral Kingdom biomes – indigenous forest and fynbos – occur naturally in the garden.

The garden is also an important link between the Outeniqua Mountains and George’s open space network. As a green space, it has inherent ecological attributes such as wind and noise filtering, water resource protection, floodwater control and biodiversity conservation.

Fostering flora
In 2001, garden management started collaborating with the Southern Cape Herbarium to strengthen ties between biodiversity, conservation and society.

Run entirely by volunteers, the herbarium offers key support to the garden, including ongoing labelling of plants and a weekly named flower display.

Former herbarium trustee Dr Niels Jacobson says the focus lies with local flora. “We don’t know how many flora species occur in the Southern Cape region, but to date herbarium volunteers have collected 11 000 specimens.”

The collections are kept at the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre in the garden and are used to generate an understanding of the region’s flora, its distribution and conservation status. “In the past flora collectors have generally overlooked the Southern Cape and therefore information on local species is fragmented. This information forms part of the national inventory of South African species, which in turn assists in the conservation of our biodiversity heritage, and ultimately benefits us all,” says Niels.

Recording and preserving the Southern Cape collection also bears international significance, according to volunteer Veronica Tyndall. “Our botanical records are ultimately taken up in the international plant database via the South African National Biodiversity Institute. It is necessary to remain inquisitive and to explore our floral kingdom, otherwise extinction will surely follow.”

Financial predicament
While the George Municipality contributes a nominal amount to the garden’s monthly operational costs, its custodians have long since realised it will require major fundraising if the garden is to remain open and possibly be expanded. In recent months the Southern Cape Herbarium and Botanical Garden Route Trust has increased its fundraising and awareness efforts, which have already shown some dividends. Membership figures have more than doubled from 200 to 500, but would need to reach about 2000 annually to ensure long-term financial security. Newly elected Trust chairman John North says the new Board of Trustees has set up a business development portfolio to help match potential donors and investors with strategic projects in the garden, and to develop new projects such as a camping evening for families. “George has a population of about 200 000, and the garden should draw a larger number of members and offer a lot more to its visitors.”

New developments and planning
The garden, which already fulfils an important educational role, will soon be able to extend its mandate following an announcement that the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism will be contributing R10-million towards the development of an environmental education centre.

The Trust has more extensive plans than what the initial government funding will cover, but the project has been designed in such a way that elements can be added as funds become available. The project will eventually include a new herbarium, an auditorium and conference centre, a science and information unit, and a laboratory. The information and laboratory units are specifically aimed at schools.

“Within the broader context of environmental matters, the centre will be designed according to green building principles and will incorporate solar energy, water harvesting, wind energy as well as alternative building materials,” explains Dayne.

The Trust is also working towards a landscape master plan that will inform long-term planning for the garden. Developed by local landscape architect Hannes Stander, the plan incorporates a high activity zone, such as the environmental education centre, and low activity zones where the focus will be on conservation and research.

Besides strategic planning, Hannes says a key aim of the landscape master plan is to create movement through the entire garden with pathways and landscape art that draws people beyond its original features. The master plan will also inform funding applications and the garden’s business plan.

Optimistic future
From humble beginnings, the garden is now formally affiliated with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). This affiliation paves the way for botanical collaborations, management assistance for the garden and herbarium, staff development, research undertakings and future expansion in line with SANBI requirements.

Dayne says despite financial difficulties, the trustees, steering committee and volunteers remain optimistic about the garden’s future. “We are looking into expanding the garden to the west, which will then create an official corridor between the garden and the entire open space network at the edges of George’s mountainside boundary. In a way, the garden is already acting as a green corridor, but work can be done to formalise and expand this. We are consulting with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, who is the owner of the adjoining land, in this regard.”

Visit the Garden Route Botanical Gardens
Garden hours: 7am-7pm (September-April) and 7.30am-6pm (May-August)
Office hours: 8am-5pm Monday-Thursday and 8am-2.30pm on Fridays
Entrance is free.
The garden includes the dam, a wetland, manicured lawn and bird hide. Pathways and benches ease the way.
A weekly 5km Park Run, every Saturday at 8am, is a free timed run.
The Moriarty Environmental Centre offers a botanical library, meeting facilities and public botanical displays.
Herbarium volunteers offer plant identification services.
Environmental education initiatives are managed by the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA), which is housed at the centre.
Outreach initiatives include “Kos en Fynbos” which organises food gardening competitions in suburbs across George and National Science Week activities in the garden.

You can help
Become an annual member – R100 per adult, R50 per child with discounts on offer for seniors and student. Dog membership at R40 per annum was recently introduced to enable the garden to cater for four-legged friends.
Make a donation, it’s tax deductible – request a tax certificate from office administration if needed.
Support summer concerts, plant sales and other fundraising initiatives.
Become a herbarium volunteer.
Contact: 044 874 1558 info@botanicalgarden.org.za