Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Encounters With Kenyan Succulents

Volume 1 Number 1 - April 2004

Abel Barasa Atiti





The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) Nairobi Botanic Garden has a number of plant displays now accessible to the public and schools. These have been developed on different landscape themes at its Museum Hill site. One such theme is the rock garden on which several species of succulents are thriving. The Succulent Garden, as it is best described, lies adjacent to the popular Snake Park and Aquarium displays at NMK. It is thus the most frequently visited plant display of the Nairobi Botanic Garden.

Consequently, it was the focus of recent guided tours that were implemented during the months of June to August last year. The Succulent Garden provides a rare opportunity for visitors to encounter some of the plants that have developed survival strategies of storing and minimizing water loss. This article describes how, through guided tours, information on local uses of succulents was communicated to tourists with a view of inspiring them to participate in plant conservation.     


Succulents are represented in about 30 families of plants. Kenya alone has about 350 different types of succulents, of which 170 are displayed at the Succulent Garden. Also known as ‘fleshy xerophytes’, succulents grow mainly in dry areas. As a result, they have developed a number of strategies that allow them to survive environments where water is generally in short supply. All succulents have a thick layer of flesh or cuticle covering the upper-most layer of the plant tissue to minimize water loss. They have adapted to store as much water as possible in their roots, stems or leaves.

Local communities in Kenya have used succulents in various ways. A number of Euphorbia species are widely used for timber, hedging and marking boundaries. The sap or latex from several aloe species has known medicinal uses and from some succulents it has been used as an ingredient of arrow poison for hunting. Various succulents are also used as food and as decorative plants. Some communities have regarded those with strange shapes as magical plants. One such succulent is the Adenia globosa, the centerpiece of the Succulent Garden. This relative of the passion fruit has a swollen stem (‘water tank’) in which it stores water.

Nonetheless, many uses of plants by local people are dying out as Western lifestyle encroaches on Kenyan towns and villages. Sharing some of these uses through interpretation and education programmes at the NMK Nairobi Garden may help promote indigenous uses of succulents and other plants. This was one of the aims of the guided tours we conducted at the Succulent Garden last year.    

Sharing Some Local Uses of Succulents with Tourists

With assistance from NMK volunteer guides, I was able to conduct a number of guided tours for both local and international visitors at the Succulent Garden. In order to achieve this, I first trained volunteer guides on how to conduct interpretive walks with a focus on succulents. Guided tours at the Garden were flexible and responsive to the needs of tourists, as no prior bookings were required. They were only offered to interested tourists who did not expect a formal, academic atmosphere. To capture their attention, guided tours were made entertaining, interesting and relevant to their needs. Use of technical language was avoided as much as possible when interpreting succulents. Visitors were connected to the succulents through a number of stories regarding their uses. Notably, interactions with local visitors enabled us to gather more information on the uses of succulents. Questions were used to provoke them into thinking of solutions to conservation problems facing plants in general and succulents in particular.

Through a thematic approach, uses and characteristics of succulents were shared with the visitors during the guided tours. Here are some of the themes that were focused on.

  • You can make beer here! This theme was used to address the importance of a number of aloe species in traditional beer making. The process of making honey-beer using leaf extracts from specific aloes was presented.
  • This plant can poison you. At the heart of this theme was the tallest and largest succulent (Euphorbia candelabrum) at the Garden. Like most members of the Euphorbia family, this tree possesses a poisonous latex or milk that is dangerous to open wounds and eyes. A drop in the eye is known to cause blindness.
  • It smells like a rat! This theme seemed to attract a lot of curiosity from the tourists. It was used to introduce one of the tallest aloe (the Rat Aloe) growing at the Garden. The leaves of this rare aloe (Aloe ballyi) contain poisonous chemicals that smell of rat. It is one of the few poisonous aloes in Kenya.
  • An aloe with many uses. One of the aloes (Aloe secundiflora) growing at the Garden is currently being over-exploited due to its many uses. It has a reputation as the ‘Aloe vera’ of Kenya. By relating it to the famous Aloe vera, uses of this particular aloe were made meaningful and relevant to the tourists. While the many uses of Aloe secundiflora were acclaimed, the danger of it becoming extinct in the wild was also pointed out. This aloe is used as food in some communities in times of famine. In incidences of a lack of appetite, the sap from cut leaves is sucked. Some people use its stewed roots to treat tuberculosis, eye inflammation, headaches and malaria. It is also widely used to treat poultry diseases and pests.  

Stories on local uses of succulents presented thematically as outlined above seemed to inspire visitors to want to find out more on the importance of succulents.

Communicating Principles of International Trade in Plants

Guided tours provided a useful forum to sensitize tourists on illegal trade in wild plants. They were used to communicate the principles and practices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as they relate to botanic gardens. Tourists were informed that international trade in succulents requires a permit. The three CITES appendices (I, II, III) were introduced and explained. In this way, we played a role in creating awareness of CITES and, also underscored the essential function of botanic gardens in the conservation of the world’s flora.

Wild plants in Kenya are increasingly threatened by overgrazing in rangelands, commercial over-exploitation and habitat destruction. Through interpretation and education programmes (guided tours) at the NMK Nairobi Botanic Garden, it is hoped that tourists will be inspired to participate in international plant conservation efforts and initiatives.


Le Jardin Botanique de Nairobi du Muséum National du Kenya (NMK) dispose maintenant d’un grand nombre de parterres qui sont accessibles au public et aux scolaires. Ils sont aménagés suivant différents thèmes paysagers sur le site du Muséum Hill. L’un de ces parterres est un jardin de rocaille où prospèrent plusieurs espèces de plantes succulentes. Ce jardin de succulentes jouxte les populaires parcs aux serpents et aquariums du NMK. C’est donc le parterre le plus visité du Jardin Botanique de Nairobi. Par conséquent, il a été l’objet de nouvelles visites guidées qui ont été organisées du mois de juin au mois d’août l’année dernière. Ce jardin de succulentes fournit aux touristes l’opportunité de découvrir quelques-unes unes des plantes qui ont développé des stratégies pour stoker l’eau et réduire les pertes hydriques. Dans ce court article, je montre comment, au travers d’une visite guidée, des informations sur les utilisations locales des plantes succulentes sont communiquées aux touristes dans le but de les faire participer eux-même à la conservation des espèces végétales.


Los Museos Nacionales de Kenya (NMK) y el Jardín Botánico de Nairobi tienen diversas colecciones de plantas accesibles al público y a las escuelas. En el Museo Hill se muestran  diferentes temáticas y tipos de paisaje. Un tema es el jardín rocoso donde se muestran diversas especies de suculentas. Próximo al parque popular de las serpientes y el acuario, ambos en los NMK, se encuentra El Jardín de las Plantas Suculentas, la colección más visitada del Jardín Botánico de Nairobi. Por esta razón, en esta colección se centraron las visitas guiadas entre junio y agosto del año pasado. El jardín de suculentas proporciona una rara oportunidad a los turistas para encontrarse con plantas que han desarrollado estrategias para almacenar y evitar la pérdida de agua. En este breve artículo muestro cómo a través de las visitas guiadas comunicamos a los turistas la información de los usos locales de especies de suculentas con el fin de motivarlos para participar en la conservación de las plantas.

About the Author

Abel Barasa Atiti is the
Education Officer at the
National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi Botanic Garden,
PO Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tel: (+254) 20 3742131
Fax: (+254) 20 3741424