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Meet four passionate plant experts

Text Gill Cullinan Production Rene Slee Photographs Julia Saker

FLORIS HAASBROEK, DISA GROWER, STELLENBOSCH, WESTERN CAPE

With a keen interest in indigenous flowering plants and unable to resist a challenge, Floris Haasbroek started cultivating disas as a hobby 23 years ago. Since then he has been growing them and making his own hybrids using the in vitro-sterile agar method for germinating and raising the seedlings. ‘The most exciting part of breeding disas is planning the crosses and seeing the seedlings, after three years, come into bloom for the first time,’ he says. ‘And each one is unique.’ The normal flowering period for most disas is from November to February, but by using an early flowering Disa tripetaloides from KwaZulu-Natal, Floris has cultivated some hybrids that start flowering in August.

One of the challenges for disa growers is that the mother plants flower once and then die. If they don’t propagate themselves vegetatively beforehand by producing off-shoots, then the plant is lost. ‘The only way to save such plants,’ says Floris, ‘is by meristemming [artificial propagation]. Growth hormones are used to induce plantlet formation on sections of young flower buds under sterile conditions, which produces plants identical to the mother plant.’ His advice to beginners is to seek hybrids with a proven record of propagating themselves vegetatively. ‘Disas are a feast for the eye and living with them can be a most wonderful and fulfilling experience,’ he says. His favourite is a pure yellow, named Disa Unimeyer ‘Hildagonda’s Gold’, which he bred from the rare, pure yellow mutant form of Disa uniflora, and which was awarded a silver medal at the 19th World Orchid Conference in Miami, USA, in 2008.

DUDLEY MORGAN, FUCHSIA GROWER, BEDFORD, EASTERN CAPE

Inspired by his father’s fuchsias, Dudley Morgan became interested in cultivating the plants as a teenager in South Wales. Father and son exhibited their fuchsias at local flower shows, and so began a lifelong interest. ‘I have been growing them intermittently for the past 50 years,’ says Dudley. ‘Intermittently because at different times of my life I have been interested in the culture of other genera of plants, such as large-flowered chrysanthemums, perpetual flowering carnations and roses.’

Dudley moved to South Africa 30 years ago, and during this time he has always grown a few fuchsias on his veranda. But a serious interest was rekindled when he retired six years ago, and now almost all of his time is devoted to them. So what is it about fuchsias that has captivated him? ‘The way in which they lend themselves to artificial selection, which has produced, and is still producing, a very large number of different cultivars,’ he says. ‘You can get infinite variations in form and colour of the flowers and leaves, and in the habit of the plant in terms of its growth pattern. Also, they are easy to propagate and not difficult to grow.’ Dudley’s biggest challenges are produced by the vagaries of the Eastern Cape climate with its hot berg winds, drought and extremes of temperature. His advice to other growers is to pay attention to detail, and not to overwater. ‘I owe a great deal to Mrs Beth Middleton, who is well known in fuchsia circles and whom I regard as my mentor,’ he says, ‘as well as to my wife, Christine, who does everything from stock control to structural engineering when we build shade houses.’

BARBARA LONG, OLD-ROSE GROWER, FORT BEAUFORT, EASTERN CAPE

Barbara Long, chair of the Heritage Rose Society, has 560 old roses and David Austin English roses in her Fort Beaufort garden. Her passion for old roses was ignited when she attended her first Rose Show in 1992 in Somerset East, after which she started researching the history of the rose. ‘The beautiful portraits of the old roses in Gwen Fagan’s book Roses of the Cape of Good Hope really inspired me,’ she says. ‘I came to realise that these roses, with their character and beauty, were so different to the modern roses.’ So in 1993 Barbara replaced all the modern roses in her garden with 78 heritage roses bought from Ludwig’s Roses. ‘My biggest sadness was that Ludwig’s at that time was slowly going out of old roses, and many of the beautiful, voluptuous old roses are no longer available.’

Barbara is drawn to old roses because of their grace and elegance, their exquisite blooms, their wonderful fragrances and their toughness. ‘They require far less maintenance than the modern rose,’ she says, ‘and they live for hundreds of years. Most old roses are shrubs or climbers and the average old rose grows 1.5m by 1.2m. I love the species roses (single) for their simplicity and beauty. The old teas are fascinating because of their changing colours in different weather conditions. Their fragrances range from myrrh, raspberries, apples and cloves, to honey, litchi and spices, and their colours include soft shades of pink, apricot, lemon yellow and buff as well as lilacs, mauves, purples and burgundys.’ She has no favourites, she says: ‘I am passionate about them all.’

ROWLAND WILLIAMS, DAHLIA GROWER, PNIEL, WESTERN CAPE

At the age of 54 Rowland Williams had a stroke. ‘That first month was so bad that I thought I was going to die,’ he says, ‘and when I came out of hospital I didn’t know what to do with myself.’ Pigeon racing was fun for a while, but after two years his interest waned. Then he asked a friend for some tips on growing dahlias and, as his passion for the plants grew, the neat lawn and roses in his four-by-six-metre Pniel garden steadily made way for dahlias. Now, 12 years later, visitors from as far afield as Mossel Bay and Heidelberg in the Western Cape stop to ask for his secret. What makes his dahlias grow so big and so beautiful? ‘I don’t know,’ he laughs, ‘perhaps God is blessing me.’

Rowland thinks that Pniel’s dark, rich soil, which he feeds with compost and bone meal, might be one reason, and it could also be the fact that he spends three quarters of every day working in the garden. Gardening is a challenge as he has the use of only one arm, but his family is very supportive. ‘My grandson, Alron, helps me,’ he says, ‘and my wife helps me a lot.’ The dahlias are at their best during December and January, he says. During the growing season, he gives them Sea Grow plant food once a week: ‘This is my recipe for success, and it’s time to share it.’ Rowland is hesitant to admit to favourites, but he is fond of a large yellow dahlia named England Dynasty and a round, red one called Spartacus. He finds it rewarding that his garden inspires so many people, and he regularly gives plants to would-be dahlia growers. ‘It’s just the way I am,’ he says.

This article was originally featured in the May 2012 issue of House and Leisure.