University of KwaZulu-Natal Botanical Garden
A Living Educational Facility
The traditional role of botanical gardens as a living documentation of flora is being challenged by the increasing need for conservation education. While the historical faculty for botanical research is continued in modern botanical gardens, emphasis on public leisure is now surpassed by the importance of public awareness regarding the conservation of the earth's flora. The urgency of plant conservation, as well as promotion of these values in communities, has added new dimensions to the function of botanical gardens. A successful botanical garden is therefore one in which visitors are offered an enjoyable and informative experience, besides providing a facility for academics. The University of Natal's Botanical Garden on the Pietermaritzburg campus in KwaZulu-Natal, despite its comparatively small area, is one garden that is playing important roles in research and education to meet these requirements.
The need for a botanical garden at the University arose because of increasing research momentum in the conservation and micro-propagation of indigenous plants, conducted in the former Department of Botany. Research and environmental education are recognised as principal functions of botanical gardens (Botha et al. 2000), and the University of Natal Botanical Garden was established in these capacities.
The garden was aimed primarily at the enhancement of botanical research at the University. Of importance equal to its role in research, was the aim to provide a living educational tool for students and local communities. Integral to these objectives was the conservation of genetic diversity through plant propagation.
Plans for a botanical garden were conceived in the early 1980s, and in 1983, following completion of a new complex for the Botany and Zoology departments, a section of the lawns in front of them were earmarked for the purpose. The Department of Botany Botanical Garden project was fully initiated in 1987, financed by the University. Supplementary funding came from private research grants secured by Head of Department Professor Johannes van Staden. Initial developments were accomplished over a ten-year period, and in 1999, extensions to the garden were approved, bringing the grounds to approximately 3 ha. In the same year, the garden was renamed the University of Natal Botanical Garden, to coincide with restructuring within the University and the establishment of the Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development (RCPGD).
Collections and Facilities
The garden includes both indigenous and exotic plant species to serve all spheres of botanical research and education undertaken at the University. Approximately 500 labelled specimens in beds exemplify the diversity of species propagated in the garden. It has been designed to include several plant collections, such as cycads and ferns, and replicated ecosystems within "feature" gardens. These include a small carnivorous plant garden with a Sphagnum peat bog, a pond garden, and the popular evolutionary garden of primitive plants, "dinosaur footprints", and fossils. Specimens held at the University of Natal Bews Herbarium, associated with the School of Botany and Zoology, complement living collections in the garden.
The specialised indigenous medicinal garden was developed to service increasing ethnobotanical research and teaching conducted at the University. As many species are used for a variety of purposes besides medicine, the recently established economic garden and arboretum will augment the existing collection. These collections focus on conservation priority species, notably those with potential for small-scale agriculture.
Similarly, the arboretum will include threatened indigenous trees and grassland species. The medicinal garden clearly illustrates how a living plant collection fulfills many roles in teaching and research: it provides a reference for identification of commonly used plants, serves as a testing ground for successfully propagated species, and a source of material needed for laboratory investigations. Staff and students of Ethno-Economic Botany courses run by the School of Botany and Zoology use it extensively. Furthermore, the medicinal garden provides an important collaborative link between traditional health care practitioners and academics. In addition to outdoor facilities, the Oxalis, Gesneriad, Succulent, Bromeliad and Orchid collections are housed in climate-regulated greenhouses. Various other greenhouses accommodate specialised growing conditions, such as high light intensity or humidity, and a system for hardening off micropropagated plants. Research material is largely held in these greenhouses, while indoor and bedding plants are kept in shade houses. A well-equipped garden laboratory is used for so-called "dirty" laboratory work. The entire garden complex comprises seventeen houses with an area of approximately 1,700 m≤.
A University Committee, comprising representatives of the RCPGD, School of Botany and Zoology, Campus Administration, and Estates divisions manages the University of Natal Botanical Garden. Professor Johannes van Staden, Chair of Botany and Director of the Research Centre, horticulturalist Mr Colin Hills, and technical staff member Mr Martin Hampton meet immediate management responsibilities. Four gardeners are responsible for maintenance, that is, more than one staff member per hectare, which represents an impressive staff, compared to many other botanical gardens in southern Africa, where lack of funds inhibit sufficient staffing (Botha et al. 2000).
In line with University policy, the botanical garden is managed and maintained according to environmentally sound principles and emphasis is placed on inexpensive practices. The use of chemicals is avoided, all compost is produced in situ, growth media are prepared in the potting shed, guinea fowl are kept as natural pesticides, and there is no direct water output from the garden. The entire garden is irrigated; plans are in place to complete the conversion of remaining beds to automatic systems.
All water features are run on wastewater collected and piped to the garden from RCPGD distillation units and incubators. Ponds were designed to preclude overspill of aquatic plants grown for research and teaching programmes. Outflow is directed through a series of traps into a settling pond, thereby preventing contamination of the natural watercourse that runs at the periphery of the garden. Besides diverse plant species, the garden is a habitat for wildlife, such as mongoose, leguaans and other reptiles, and an expansive variety of bird species.
The University of Natal Botanical Garden is in every endeavour a "working" garden, providing excellent facilities for academic research, teaching, and public education. Formal infrastructure, such as greenhouses and the garden laboratory are primarily used for research, while the informal facilities are used more frequently for teaching, both in situ and in supplying material for practical classes. These services are provided to the broader plant science community at the University, including disciplines in agronomy, botany, horticulture, and zoology. The garden is open, with permission, to all members of the University and the public. Among the many regular visitors are interested members of the public, horticultural societies and gardening clubs from throughout KwaZulu-Natal, school groups, and academics and students from this and other tertiary institutions. The garden plays an important role within the contexts of both academic and community education.
Informative signboards are placed along paths traversing the garden and an information kiosk at the entrance allows self-guided educational visits. Owing to the expense of formal labelling, a unique numerical database system has been implemented, according to which specimens are numbered and further information accessed electronically. This inventory system corresponds to the need for modern data management in botanical gardens (Botha et al. 2000).
The role of this botanical garden, as a source of genetic material for the conservation of threatened plants, is fulfilled by a dynamic approach to plant sharing. Specimens might be purchased and exchanged with other establishments, established from micropropagated material, or secured on field collecting trips by botanists from the School of Botany and Zoology and RCPGD. Indeed, many specimens in the garden are the result of research undertaken by academics in the University. Research conducted at many botanical gardens remains largely unpublished and inaccessible (Botha et al. 2000). Owing to the academic nature of research conducted at the University, results are placed in the public domain as a matter of course.
The history of this botanical garden has proved that development and improvement is ongoing; projects are continuously improving the quality of service provided to the academic and public community. Plans for the future include improvements to the already impressive infrastructure, guided trails, further planting, and completion of the recent extensions. The Committee upholds an open-door policy on input from users of the garden. Experts from the University and horticultural communities work closely in achieving such goals. Because botanical gardens must attract visitors and offer an enjoyable learning experience, the garden is landscaped to provide aesthetic, yet practical access to all collections.
The University of Natal Botanical Garden is an outstanding example of a living educational facility fulfilling the three principal functions of a botanical garden in the new millennium: research, education, and conservation.
óby Olwen Grace & Johannes van Staden
SABONET News 6.3: 232
D.J., WILLIS, C.K. & WINTER, J.H.S. 2000. Southern African Botanical
Gardens Needs Assessment. Southern African Botanical Diversity
Network Report 11. SABONET, South Africa. ISBN 1-919795-54-5.