Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Adventure Trips

Early founders of South African botany This illustration of one of the very few surviving San cave paintings depicting plants shows a group of hunters with aloes, believed to be Aloe ferox and A. broomii.

The medicinal properties of Aloe ferox have been appreciatedfrom the earliest times. Painting in oil by Eric Judd, from the Kirstenbosch Biennale, 2004

Today we know that the Cape has been occupied by humans for some 200 000 years: first by the San, who were hunter-gatherers, and later by Khoikhoi pastoralists. Little is recorded of their original observations on, and uses of, plants. One of the very few depictions of plants in many tens of thousands of rock paintings and petroglyphs is that of a group of hunters with aloes, which are believed to be Aloe ferox and A. broomii, from a site in the eastern Free State. Little else of botanical detail has survived the steady decay of what were once rich galleries of rock paintings. Fortunately, much of the knowledge of South Africa’s first peoples was passed down from the Khoikhoi to Bantuspeaking pastoralists who, in turn, came into contact with, and were employed by, Dutch-speaking farmers occupying ever wider areas of the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. William Burchell, whose travels from 1810 to 1815 covered a vast area of the Cape interior, documented some of the extensive knowledge he gained encountering rural peoples. Many current plant and place names -kukumakranka, buchu, karoo, ganna – are derived from the original San and Khoikhoi languages, sadly now long extinct.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Adventure Trips Photo Gallery

In this chapter we must, inevitably, deal with many ‘firsts’. The first person to collect and record details of plants while in the field at the Cape was the missionary Justus Heurnius (1587-1653), who visited in 1624 while on his way from Holland to Batavia. The first professional botanist in the Cape was the German Paul Hermann (1646-1695), who stopped off in 1672 on his way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a ship’s medical officer. Hermann built up a herbarium of both Cape and Ceylon plants, and returned to Holland in 1680 to take up the post of Professor of Botany and Director of the famous Botanic Garden at Leiden. His collections, reaching the attention of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus many years later, left the great Swede overwhelmed (see passage quoted at the head of chapter 3).

The botanical and zoological exploration of South Africa really began with Simon van der Stel (1639-1712), Governor of the Cape from 1679 to 1699, who led an expedition to the fabled Copper Mountains of Namaqualand in 1685. This major expedition lasted five months, with many adventures en route. Of interest are the frequent sightings of, and encounters with, large game such as black rhinoceros, elephant, lion, leopard and hippopotamus – pointing to high populations of these species in the Western Cape at the time. The expedition included a German artist, Heinrich Claudius (16551697), who documented the animals and plants encountered, and was the most prolific illustrator of the Cape flora during the 17th century.

In 1751 Rijk Tulbagh (1699-1771) became Governor of the Cape. Like Van der Stel, he was an intelligent, progressive personality, interested in natural history, and actively encouraged the exploration of the interior. Despite having arrived at the Cape as a 16-year-old cadet, he must have educated himself in many disciplines, for he was able to conduct an active correspondence with Linnaeus on varied topics – in Latin. Botanical collections prospered during his term of office, but he was to miss the great awakening of Cape plant exploration by just one year, dying as he did in 1771.

The first documented records of South African plants come from the year 1605. Some years earlier, specimens of two strikingly attractive plants, Protea neriifolia and Haemanthus coccineus, had been collected in the Cape, and ended up in the hands of two leading botanists of the Low Countries. The Flemish botanist Charles de l’Ecluse (1526-1609) – who is credited with the introduction to the Netherlands of tulips from Turkey and the Levant, laying the foundation for the ‘tulipomania’ bulb cult of the 17th century – illustrated P. neriifolia, which he described as ‘an elegant thistle’, from material gathered on the Cape coast, possibly at Kogelbaai, in 1597. A fellow Flemish student at Montpellier, Mathias de l’Obel (1538-1616), published an illustration of Haemanthus coccineus from material probably collected on the slopes of Table Mountain in 1603. Both illustrations, published in 1605, were heavily lined woodcuts (characteristic of the medieval herbals), a genre that was about to be superseded by the beauty and delicacy of copperplate engraving.

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