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National Botanical Gardens: Embassies of South Africa’s Biodiversity and Culture

Volume 2 Number 2 - July 2005

Christopher Willis


South Africa has a network of eight National Botanical Gardens (NBGs) managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI, previously the National Botanical Institute or NBI). As from 1 September 2004, with the promulgation of South Africa’s new National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 2004, the NBI became SANBI, a parastatal organization under the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The focus of the NBGs is growing and conserving South Africa’s indigenous plants, conserving over 1,350 ha of natural vegetation and associated biodiversity within their boundaries and promoting and raising environmental awareness at home and abroad. The botanical gardens are centres of excellence for plants; they provide information, professional skills in horticulture and tourism and support national, regional and international networks for the conservation, sustainable use and appreciation of the flora of South Africa.

Living Collections

The eight NBGs–Free State, Harold Porter, Karoo Desert, Kirstenbosch, Lowveld, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria and Walter Sisulu NBGs–are located in five of South Africa’s nine provinces. The NBGs are situated in different parts of the country, ranging from predominantly winter-rainfall mediterranean climates (Kirstenbosch and Harold Porter NBG) to semi-arid climates (the Karoo Desert NBG, situated in Worcester, with an annual rainfall of 250 mm, is the only truly succulent garden on the African continent as well as in the southern hemisphere) and from summer rainfall subtropical to tropical climates (Lowveld and KwaZulu-Natal NBG) to South Africa’s interior plateau areas that can receive frost during the dry, cold winter months between May and August (Free State, Pretoria and Walter Sisulu NBGs). This range of climatic conditions means that different gardens are able to grow plants that might not be grown so successfully in other gardens without artificial structures having to be built.

The NBGs include natural vegetation representative of six of southern Africa’s seven biome units, namely forest, fynbos (characterized by the presence of ericas, restios and proteas), grassland, savanna, Nama Karoo, and Succulent Karoo. The only biome not represented is the Desert Biome, represented in Namibia almost exclusively by the Namib Desert.  Further, Kirstenbosch NBG was entrusted in 1957 with the management of both the Edith Stephens Wetland Park (3,42 ha) on the Cape Flats and the Tienie Versfeld Reserve (20,72 ha) near Darling in the western Cape. Both reserves are situated outside Kirstenbosch.

Each NBG has a dedicated collecting policy, with an overall Living Collections Policy covering all of the gardens. As there is some overlap between gardens’ collecting areas, many collaborative field trips are undertaken between gardens. Wherever possible the gardens try to grow plants that have been collected from the wild, after the necessary permits and permission have been obtained from the provincial conservation agencies/authorities and landowners.


In recent years maintenance or continuance plans have been developed by horticulturists for plant collections requiring special cultivation attention and techniques, such as some of the succulent plant groups (e.g. Haworthia spp.). Special collections that are currently held across the various NBGs include cycads, pelargoniums, haworthias, Lithops, Plectranthus, and various bulb species.

Descriptive notes and cultivation/propagation techniques for South Africa’s indigenous plants are currently made available electronically to the general public through a SANBI-managed web site, SANBI staff have, in addition, over the past few years also contributed towards a series of guides to the cultivation and propagation of various indigenous South African plants, known as the Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. Titles in this series, amongst others, have included Grow South African Plants, Grow Bulbs, and Grow Clivias.

Conservation Collections

A survey completed in 2002 of living collections across the eight NBGs provided some interesting results (Golding & Heilgendorff, 2002). Based on a preliminary data set of living collections in South Africa’s NBGs, the eight gardens together house some 8,500 indigenous plant species, 36% of South Africa’s indigenous flora (estimated at 23,420). The number of indigenous plant taxa per garden ranged from 347 taxa in the Free State NBG to 5,538 in the Kirstenbosch NBG (24% of South Africa’s flora), SANBI’s flagship garden. A total of 813 Red List plant species are represented throughout the NBGs, 384 being regarded as threatened (see Golding, 2002). The NBGs collectively hold 17% of South Africa’s estimated 2,301 (9.8% of South Africa’s flora) threatened plants. Low priority taxa (Rare and Lower Risk) accounted for about 50% of all the Red List species in the NBGs.

Threatened species from the families Proteaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Aloaceae and Iridaceae are the most well-represented in the NBGs. They are mainly showy, well-known and highly attractive species that appeal to garden visitors. Of concern is that the majority (65%) of Red List species in South Africa’s NBGs occur in only a single collection. Horticultural protocols for individual threatened plant taxa need to be developed so that conservation collections can be held in several botanical gardens. Surveys set meaningful targets, particularly those linked to Target 8 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC).

Based on this preliminary review (Golding & Heilgendorff, 2002), South Africa’s NBGs are currently working on developing a plant conservation strategy, linked to the targets of the GSPC, together with other sections and programmes of SANBI, to serve as a framework for the various gardens’ conservation programmes.

Plant Records

An IT Review is currently being conducted for the new SANBI, with the garden records database a priority area for development. Attempts have been made in the past to develop a plant records database compatible with SANBI’s in-house PRECIS (National Herbarium, Pretoria (PRE) Computerised Information System) database. The ideal situation will be where each NBG, despite being in eight different centres, has direct access to a centralized, regularly updated, database system.

With each garden having relatively large areas of natural vegetation within their boundaries, they should, through appropriate partnerships with both amateur and professional biologists, continue to develop and refine existing checklists of biodiversity recorded in each NBG.


The NBG provide training for staff and other conservation workers in horticulture, tourism and service skills, which builds competence for conservation and making gardens environments for learning.

In line with national health and safety regulations, staff in all eight gardens have received training in various aspects of the national Health and Safety Act, chemical safety, fire fighting and first aid. In addition, horticultural skills training programmes (facilitated in mother tongue) for ground staff have now been implemented at all eight NBGs. In line with legislation regulating training in South Africa, these courses are nationally registered and offered by an accredited training provider. Training courses and workshops have also been presented to various staff on topics such as supervisory and personal skills improvement and financial life skills training. Service standards in the NBGs have also been improved through a nationally recognised SA Host Programme. Selected staff in the NBGs have also been assessed and registered with their provincial registrars as tourist guides, both on a site and regional level.

For several years now, SANBI has contributed towards the academic and in-service training of the next generation of professional horticulturists. Practical training (six months) in indigenous flora is offered to second and third year students who study horticulture through South African technikons.

At Kirstenbosch NBG, newly qualified horticulturists also receive training in the practical application of theoretical principles in horticulture, with specific reference to botanical gardens. The duration of the internship is two years. Since 2000, SANBI has accommodated 12 students, four of whom have been appointed as horticulturists in the various NBGs of South Africa.

A Kirstenbosch Scholarship is also provided every year to one qualified horticulturist with a special aptitude for botany and research work connected with indigenous flora. The duration of the scholarship is one year.


The NBGs work very closely with organizations and institutions in South Africa for the conservation and sustainable use of plants in the region.

For instance, the NBGs are very closely involved with, and supported by, the Botanical Society of South Africa, a non-governmental organisation. The Botanical Society of South Africa was established in 1913 to support the development of Kirstenbosch NBG and now works with the other seven NBGs. The members act as the ‘friends’ of the gardens and support both garden-based and in situ conservation efforts. The Botanical Society has also contributed significantly to the infrastructural development of South Africa’s NBGs, particularly in Kirstenbosch, where the largest branch of the society and it’s Head Office is based.

South Africa’s NBGs have also made a significant contribution towards supporting other gardens in southern Africa through the successful GEF/UNDP and USAID/IUCN ROSA-supported Southern African Botanical Diversity Network (SABONET) Programme. The project was aimed at upgrading facilities and strengthening the level of botanical diversity expertise throughout the subcontinent. The participating countries are Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Key partnerships have also been developed within the past five years with the Millennium Seed Bank (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K.) and a strategic partnership with the Ball Horticultural Co. based in Chicago, U.S.A.

Environmental Education

Education is defined as one of the key functions of a botanical garden. South Africa’s NBGs have been serving an education role for learners, teachers and the general public for many decades.

There has been major investment in Kirstenbosch, over the last 15 years, in upgrading visitor amenities with new garden management facilities, a conservatory, restaurant, nursery, herbarium, library and research facilities and since 2000, significant investment has also been made in upgrading facilities in the other seven NBGs. This has included new restaurants, visitors’ centres, new and upgraded parking areas, environmental education centres, function facilities and pathways. Combined, South Africa’s NBGs receive over one million visitors per annum, with Kirstenbosch receiving over 685,000 visitors. 

New environmental education centres have been built in the Walter Sisulu, Pretoria, Free State and Lowveld NBGs, allowing dedicated education staff to be housed and garden-based programmes to be hosted in the various NBGs. This has allowed the expansion of the formal education programmes to gardens beyond Kirstenbosch.

During the past ten years, outreach greening programmes have been developed and expanded to extend beyond the boundaries of the botanical gardens. Much of this focus has been on working together with local communities, using indigenous plants, to ‘green’ disadvantaged schools in township areas around the gardens in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg.  

In recent years, since its first democratic elections took place in 1994, South Africa has become known as the ‘rainbow nation’, due to it’s many diverse cultures, languages (South Africa has 11 official languages) and peoples. In order to promote and share this cultural diversity with visitors, South Africa’s NBGs have been developing demonstration gardens with associated buildings in many of the gardens to promote the association of various cultures with South Africa’s indigenous plants. These range from water wise gardens, useful plants and medicinal gardens to traditional huts and a traditional cooking shelter (used in the arid Richtersveld area in the north western corner of South Africa) in the Karoo Desert NBG. 


Interpretation has received increased support in South Africa’s NBGs in the past five years, and several gardens currently have dedicated Interpretation Officers. Each of the gardens has dedicated interpretation themes and plans that assist in guiding their interpretive work. The overall slogan for interpretation in South Africa’s NBGs is ‘indigenous plants enrich our lives–let’s care for them’. Each of the gardens’ natural areas includes an interpreted self-guided hiking/walking trail.

Although the gardens do not have collections of animals maintained in enclosures or cages, the interpretive signage certainly does promote the links and dependence between animals, people and plants. Interpretive labels in the various gardens include a range of indigenous South African languages, particularly the languages spoken in those areas where the gardens are located. Languages generally used in interpretive signage are English, Afrikaans and the local African language spoken. These include Siswati, Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho.

Both standardized permanent and temporary interpretive signs are used in South Africa’s NBGs. SANBI has also standardized the directional signage used in the various NBGs.

Since 1976, Kirstenbosch and other gardens in the national network have been participating in the world-renowned Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show held every year in London, UK. To date the Kirstenbosch/SANBI exhibition has won 26 gold medals at this annual show. Participation by SANBI in this event is currently made possible through a generous public-private sector sponsorship involving Old Mutual SA, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial Government. This sponsorship has enabled young horticulturists from the NBGs to experience and participate in the show on an annual basis.

Corporate Strategic Plan and Business Plans

Each of the NBGs prepare, on an annual basis, business plans linked to the objectives of SANBI’s Corporate Strategic Plan. These plans help the gardens define their programmes and activities for the forthcoming year. More recently, targets for South Africa’s NBGs have been set within the latest SANBI Corporate Strategic Plan (2005–2009). These include the following:

  • 45% of South Africa’s plant taxa represented in NBGs.
  • Maintenance or continuance programmes in place for all conservation collections within NBGs.
  • Increased income (10% per annum) through new tourism related infrastructure and programmes in NBGs.
  • Possible sites for new gardens in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape provinces evaluated.
  • 50% of South Africa’s threatened plants in NBG collections and/or the Millennium Seed Bank (UK).
  • 90% of Critically Endangered South African plant taxa in NBG collections and/or the Millennium Seed Bank (UK).
  • 100% of Extinct in the Wild South African plants held in NBGs and/or MSB.
  • NBG plant collections computerized.
  • Gap analysis of plants in cultivation in NBGs and South Africa’s flora.
  • Collecting areas for NBGs reviewed.
  • Review the implementation of the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation within NBGs.
  • Back-up collections of threatened plants cultivated in NBGs stored in the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). 
  • Continued implementation of integrated threatened plant programmes in each NBG.

As part of a broader institutional review process, progress with the implementation of the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation (IA) by South Africa’s NBGs was reviewed for the first time in 2004. Results from the survey indicated that on average across the eight NBGs, 53% of the activities listed in the IA are being implemented.


Golding, J, 2002 (ed.) Southern African Plant Red Data Lists. SABONET Report No. 14, SABONET, Pretoria, South Africa

Golding, J.S. & Heilgendorff, J.P. 2002. An evaluation of the extent to which the NBGs contribute to the ex situ conservation of South Africa’s threatened plants: Results. Occasional report of the Directorate: Biodiversity Policy and Planning.