Executive Director Martin Quigley Visits South Africa

January 14, 2018

By Martin Quigley, Executive Director 

     Fulfilling a long-held desire to visit South Africa, in November I was able to travel there, through the generosity of the Ray Collett trust. I accompanied Martin Grantham of San Francisco State University, a renowned expert in South African vegetation, and his husband, Ken Gray. They have travelled regularly to the Western Cape, so it was a luxury for me to have them organize the itinerary. Capetown and the surrounding towns were sparkling and beautiful—like “Santa Barbara meets Europe” in architecture and ambience.

     The Western Cape is very similar to the California Central Coast in climate, although we have a longer dry season. They also have a fire-dominated landscape, with much more frequent fires than we have here. The day we arrived, our intended route to the east was abruptly closed, as a large fire swept down the mountainsides, jumped the freeway, and reached the ocean at the beach community of Gordon’s Bay. It felt like home.

     The predominant vegetation around the coastal mountains is fynbos (pronounced “fayn-boss”), considered the most species-dense plant community in the temperate world. It is mostly low-growing shrubs and herbaceous perennials, annuals, and many species of bulbs. Local botanists can glance at any natural area and tell how many years it has been since the last fire, based on what’s blooming at the moment.

The Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden is among the world’s most famous gardens, and its collections are 100 percent native to South Africa. We spent several days there, talking to curators and exploring the extensive grounds and greenhouses. It was hard for me to control my excitement, and we were welcomed with great hospitality. This was also true at Stellenbosch, a University garden with a global collection—even featuring California specimens. There are nine national botanic gardens in South Africa, and we were lucky to visit five of them, including the Karoo Garden, which holds many of the succulent species found in the drier inland valleys to the north and east.

    We hiked up several coastal ranges, through sandstone formations and very steep gorges, to plateaus above. So many of the spectacular plants were familiar to us as commercial specimens we see here in California, and it was very exciting to see so many “garden plants” growing in the wild. So many flowers, so little time.