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The Garden Route Botanical Garden in George, South Africa

Volume 3 Number 4 - June 2000

Yvette van Wijk and Claire Wallace

This garden was the brainchild of the Garden Route Botanical Society. Since then a Trust has been formed, Management Committee set up, garden plans drawn up, three successful annual plant sales held, and enough funds to make a good start on the garden itself. Sterling work has been done over the past year in clearing, preparing and planting.

The City of George is situated at the heart of the Garden Route, just 4 hours from Cape Town by car and 3 hours from Port Elizabeth. The town is nestled below George Peak and the highest peak in the Outeniqua Mountains, Cradock Peak. These mountains which stretch away to East and West form a magnificent natural backdrop to the gardens which lie at their feet. Hiking trails for the fit and walks for the not so fit are being made into the mountain fynbos area adjacent to the gardens.

The Southern Cape encompasses an amazingly varied area from the limestone areas of Gouritz & Still Bay, the coastal karoo of Mossel Bay, the wet Tsitsikamma afro montane forests from George to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, dry coastal forests and scrub, coastal fynbos and mountain fynbos, renoster fynbos of the Little Karoo, succulent Karoo, the mountain ranges of Langeberg, Outeniqua, Tsitsikamma, Langkloof, Kamannassie, Rooiberg, Great Swartberg and Small Swartberg, many major river valleys and estuaries and the only natural Lakes area in South Africa and all accessible within a 2 hour drive by car from George. In addition the area has been under-researched as except for the Saasveld Technikon, there are no Universites or other major tertiary education institutes between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. This means that the Southern Cape Herbarium and the Garden Route Botanical Garden have a really vital role to play in the area as poorly controlled development is rampant at the moment. The Garden and Herbarium will fulfil a valuable research and resource function, and be an essential introduction and for all visitors, national or international, to the wonders and beauties of the rest of the Garden Route, Southern Cape, and its flora.

Year 2000 has started with a BANG! R250,000 was donated by a George resident and botanist, for a building in the garden to house the Southern Cape Herbarium and Botanical & Environmental Education Project (BEEP). The Garden Trust can make a further R130,000 available and the Botanical Society branch R30.000. This is almost enough to start the very exciting building that has already been designed and will cost about R700,000

The garden has huge potential, it is nestled at the foot of George Peak, which is a magnificent backdrop. It is a 12 hectare piece of land which was set aside as a reserve in the 1800's when 2 dams were built there to send water down into George via a series of stone-lined furrows. The dams are still there and one has become a shallow wetland while the other is a lovely stretch of open water; they both abound with bird life, while the furrows were uncovered almost intact when the garden was cleared of rubbish and aliens. A good network of well-made paths and stone bridges over the furrows was also unearthed and funding from the Leta and Roland Hill Trust (WWF) has paid for many new paths.

The Southern Cape Herbarium has performed miracles in its present position in the George Museum, where it is crammed into a windowless store-room. In the new building it will have windows, light, and fresh air and wonderful views of the mountains and the garden. The original local herbarium (Forestry and Saasveld Herbarium) was sent to the National Botanical Institute, Pretoria in 1992. Jan Vlok, Yvette van Wijk and Di Turner among others negotiated for its return and in 1994 the Southern Cape Herbarium was started to house the specimens and to ensure that the broader community as well as the environment would benefit from the presence of a Herbarium devoted to the flora of the Southern Cape. The Green Trust was approached in 1996 and part-funded the Herbarium and its Botanical & Environmental Education Project (BEEP), from July 1996 to July 1999, and subsequently approved further support from August 1999 to July 2002. The Herbarium successfully raises funds for running costs and improvements by offering courses and putting on yearly Wildflower Show in October.

The Garden Route Botanical garden aims not only to present and interpret indigenous flora in a natural setting, but also give information and encourage the use of local plants in a formal horticultural sense. A pergola with a different local climber on each pillar labelled with the name and growing instructions, a maze of many different local hedging plants using San symbols in its design and an ethnobotanical area showing the historical use of plants by all local cultures are only a few of the many exciting and innovative plans.

Together, the concept and the personalities behind the Southern Cape Herbarium, the Garden itself, and the Botanical and Environmental Education Project, present a formidable resource. With local, national and perhaps international support, this should become an important, informative and vital place, to visit and enjoy. It is also an extremely worthwhile project to become associated with, to sponsor, to support, and to help fund.

The IMITHI Project

The Municipal Clinics in Knysna asked Southern Cape Herbarium for help as they were so short of medicine and funding. The initial meeting in 1997 was attended by a very wide range of interested people, many clinic staff as well as some traditional Herbalists farmers It was decided to call the Project IMITHI which means both “Tree” and “Health” in Xhosa, and has a good ring to it.

Since that first meeting, many small informal community meetings in Knysna and its environs, and some workshops with Clinic staff, doctors and local people, have been held. Historically the different racial and cultural groups in South Africa have shared and swapped their knowledge of herbal medicine with a healthy indifference to social and political barriers and without the corrupting influence of the possibility of huge financial gain, these workshops and meetings have followed this pattern. The plants discussed are sometimes indigenous to the area, but often introductions from the colonial past. At the moment the clinics are making and using the simple plant remedies which have evolved from the discussions, while an interesting and valuable database is evolving from the information gathered.

One workshop was arranged by the Provincial Health Department in George. Held at the Conville Clinic in George it was attended by 22 different Clinics and approximately 80 people, from as far afield as Beaufort West and Heidelberg, an area covering approximately 200 square kilometres. The participants were mainly from the new Community Health Committees, ie: they were not the clinic nurses and staff themselves but the people who are responsible for interfacing between the Clinics and the Communities they serve. The majority were interested in encouraging people to learn about, and use, the Imithi remedies, in order to cut down on the unmanageable numbers who are visiting the clinics for minor health problems, which could be safely treated in the home. Each area was encouraged to hold workshops locally in order to learn more about the project, and decide how to implement it, to best suit their circumstances and cultural preferences. Due to lack of funds it proved difficult to facilitate this owing to the vast distances between areas, however some funds have recently been allocated for travelling costs by The Green Trust/WWF.

Yvette van Wyk (Southern Cape Herbarium) gave a keynote address to the National Congress of Community Nurses in Cape Town in September 1999, which was enthusiastically received. The necessity for such a project was confirmed by many of the professionals present. It was stressed that this is not a project identifying plants for exploitation by pharmaceutical companies or for pure research, nor is it in opposition to, or in place of the use of modern allopathic medicine where it is clearly indicated. It is a quest for the most basic, safe, and affordable, first aid / primary care remedies, traditionally used by all cultures and still used by many individuals in the area. It addresses a desperate need for clinics to make, grow, use and teach about, cheap, safe, and effective remedies.

Contacts made at the Congress in Cape Town will be followed up and some form of official recognition or at least sanction will be sought. This could result in booklets being produced in as many official languages as possible and distributed widely to clinics, while the making of a video is being planned to demonstrate the making and use of the remedies. These will be distributed widely to clinics as well as being sold to raise funds. It must be noted here that many clinics are struggling to operate with hardly any conventional medicines at their disposal due to budget cuts. It is evident that conventional medicine will probably not be affordable to the masses in Southern Africa, let alone the rest of Africa, in the near future or perhaps ever.

This project is being facilitated by Yvette van Wijk through the Southern Cape Herbarium, which is partially funded by The Green Trust (WWF).

Written by Yvette van Wijk (Green Trust Executant for the Southern Cape Herbarium)