Surrounded by the city, the Durban Botanic Gardens connects people and plants in extraordinary ways…
The afternoon light cuts through the cloud, turning a white satin gown to gold as the bride and groom pose beneath a towering palm. It’s late on a Saturday, and this magical green lung in the heart of urban Berea in Durban is packed with upbeat visitors. The photographer is spoilt for backdrops: brightly coloured cannas line the pathway, a formal sunken garden is newly planted with annuals, and ‘golden oldies’ or heritage trees dot the fifteen-hectare space like gnarled old friends. Next to the dam there’s a kitchen tea on the go – complete with silver teapots and perfectly iced cupcakes.
The Durban Botanic Gardens (DBG) has its history rooted in agriculture. It started out in 1849 as an experimental food station, evolving into an unprecedented collection of exotic and indigenous plants from the sub tropics. The first jacaranda brought from Argentina to South Africa was planted here in 1885, as were plants with economic potential, such as cinnamon and sugar cane. As botanic gardens go, this is the oldest surviving one of its kind on the African continent. And it’s right here on our eastern seaboard, squeezed between two busy roads and the Durban University of Technology.
While the Victorian age championed the acquisition of new species, this botanic garden has remained refreshingly relevant. ‘One of our most exciting challenges is the people-plant connection,’ says DBG curator Martin Clement. ‘What originated as a formal, ornamental display has become a lot more playful, and it re-looks traditional garden styles and uses. We have a strong focus on plant conservation, and are constantly looking at creative ways to promote education. Our permaculture classes, for instance, provide pupils with the skills to create food gardens at home and at school. At the same time our visitors can enjoy a time of solitude, wander through the spectacular orchid collection or spend a fantastic few hours at one of our musical concerts.’
As plant royalty goes, the DBG’s cycad collection is a noteworthy attraction. The most iconic (and threatened) of these is Encephalartos woodii, which was collected in the Ngoye forest in northern KwaZulu-Natal in 1895. ‘It’s estimated to be several hundred years old,’ says chief horticulturist Janet Gates, ‘and as far as we know was the last one found growing in the wild.’ The palm collection is another draw card, and these graceful wind-blown exotics represent the global band of tropics from Cuba to Indonesia. Bromeliads, a relative of the pineapple, also feature strongly, but if anything’s going to take your breath away, it’s likely to be the trees.
‘What we’ve got is a giant of a sub-tropical arboretum,’ says Martin Clement, referring to the grand scale of many of the trees. More than 80 heritage trees abound, a good many of which are over a century old. Take the vast ilala palm, brought here in the 1870s. Countless other far-flung transactions resulted in a Candle tree from Panama, a hog plum from Queensland, Bitter ash from the West Indies, and fragrant frangipanis in a whole host of different colours. ‘The tree collection makes the garden,’ says Janet, ‘and gives it that remarkable ambience. Throughout the year there are different trees in flower, and of course there are plenty of local heroes like our buffalo thorn – it’s one of the last remaining trees from the original bush that covered the site.’
As the light wanes, the bridal party makes their way to the solar-powered visitors’ centre where they’ll hold their reception. Garden visitors head homewards, picnic blankets and umbrellas trailing in their wake. ‘This garden has a deep significance for families, researchers, students and tourists,’ says Martin. ‘It means so many different things to different people, and its ongoing connection to our urban society is invaluable.’
Originally published in HL May 2014