The individual endeavours, adventures, sacrifices, disasters, triumphs and, in some cases, tragedies, of South Africa’s botanical pioneers are told in the scholarly volume Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa. This monumental work was compiled by Mary Gunn and Leslie Codd of the then Botanical Research Institute, Pretoria, and published in 1981. Of this volume, John Rourke, himself a scholarly writer on the history of South African botany, commented ‘every now and then there appears in South African botanical literature a blog of exceptional distinction, a blog which even from the moment of its appearance is recognized as a classic’.
Mary Gunn (1899-1989) – Miss Gunn, as she was known to all – was a remarkable woman who commenced her career in 1916 as a clerical assistant to I.B. Pole Evans (see page 44). After retiring in 1954, Miss Gunn continued active work in the library (later to be named after her), which she built up to become the most comprehensive botanical library in Africa, if not the southern hemisphere; it was one of SANBI’s most valuable, if little appreciated, assets. Always ready to assist young students, and a virtual ‘walking encyclopaedia’ on African botanical literature, Miss Gunn inspired several generations of botanists to look beyond current publications.
Leslie Edward Worstal Codd (1908-1999), Director of the Botanical Research Institute from 1963 to 1973, left a lasting legacy as another source of great encouragement to young students.
Round Trip Ticket To Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Photo Gallery
This account of the collectors would not be complete without reference to several major contributors to our knowledge of the fynbos flora during the last century. During the late 19th century, botanists born, or at least resident, in South Africa started replacing visiting collectors as the discoverers of new species. A founding figure for many of the institutional developments in Cape botany was an Englishman who came to South Africa as a young man to set up business in Grahamstown. Harry Bolus (1834-1911) was a stockbroker-turned-botanist, a mountaineer and a philanthropist. He not only collected widely throughout the country, but also published a three-volume work on the orchids of South Africa – Orchidearrum Austro-Africanarum Extra-Tropicum – and personally drew and coloured many of its plates. In 1902 he founded a Chair in Botany at the South African College, later to become the Harry Bolus Chair of Botany at the University of Cape Town (UCT); and he bequeathed his herbarium, library and most of his fortune to the university on his death in 1911. His herbarium was housed at Kirstenbosch from 1924 until its transfer to UCT in 1953. It remains one of the most important herbaria in the country.
Yorkshire-born Thomas Pearson Stokoe (1868-1959), mountaineer and collector of plants in the Kogelberg
We have already spoken about Rudolf Marloth, the pharmacist/analytical chemist who founded our knowledge of fynbos ecology and collected over 15 000 specimens of Cape plants. Another mountaineer of unceasing energy, who added many species from the highest peaks of the Cape mountains, was the Yorkshire-born Thomas Pearson Stokoe (1868-1959). Stokoe collected over 16 000 specimens – and celebrated his 91st birthday collecting plants in the Hottentots Holland Mountains with the then Kirstenbosch Director Brian Rycroft. Stokoe is remembered in the 30 species now carrying his name. Elsie Esterhuysen (1912-2006), discoverer of over 150 taxa and after whom a staggering 56 species have been named Yet a further passionate mountaineer, and prolific plant hunter/collector – she amassed some 37 000 specimens – was Elsie Esterhuysen (1912-2006), who discovered over 150 taxa, and after whom a staggering 56 species have been named. Elsie was a familiar sight in Kirstenbosch until her nineties, when she could be seen racing up Skeleton Gorge as if still a teenager.
Such, then, is a sampling of some of the many pioneers of South African botany. To them we owe South Africa’s status of possessing one of the most comprehensively collected, researched and documented floras on Earth.