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100 years of supporting botany: A historical perspective of the NWU Botanical Garden

Sowing the seed The seeds of the NWU Botanical Garden may be traced back to 1925 when Mrs Mildred (Millie) Radloff was appointed as the first Botany lecturer at the Potchefstroom University. She was responsible for all lectures, practical sessions, and collecting fresh plant material for practical sessions. The NWU Botanical Garden would eventually grow …

Sowing the seed

The seeds of the NWU Botanical Garden may be traced back to 1925 when Mrs Mildred (Millie) Radloff was appointed as the first Botany lecturer at the Potchefstroom University. She was responsible for all lectures, practical sessions, and collecting fresh plant material for practical sessions. The NWU Botanical Garden would eventually grow out of this need for new plant material for students’ practical sessions – and it remains one of the key functions of the garden to this day. The seed of the Botanical Garden was only planted a few decades later, however. The Botany lecturer at the time, Prof. Antoon Goossens, started it in the early 1960s. He shared the vision of his predecessor, that “botanists cannot be trained in plant taxonomy without fresh plant mate-rial”. At the insistence of Prof. Goossens, Dr Wynand Louw was appointed as a taxonomist and Botany lecturer on 2 January 1962. One of his first tasks was to develop a garden to grow samples for practical lectures. Dr Louw identified a piece of land in the northern part of the campus and started creating a “veld garden” to supply the fresh plants over the next eight years, until he left the PU for CHE in 1970.

The period of growth

The idea of developing the veld garden into a real botanical garden came in 1971, with the appointment of Dr Daan Botha, a Plant System-atics lecturer, as the curator of the herbarium. In 1972, he appointed the garden’s first horticulturist, Mr Derick Pitt, to help develop and maintain the park. Mr Pitt left the garden within a year of his appointment and Mr Bert Ubbink, a horticulturist at the University of Pretoria, was appointed as the first permanent curator in 1973. Ubbink was responsible for the design, layout and the construction of the pathways and the water ponds throughout the garden.

A period of decay

During the early 1990s, the university drastically reduced its funding of the Botany Department and the botanical garden. The maintenance was transferred to the campus garden service and the garden curator was redeployed to the technical services department on campus. This was the start of a period of neglect in the history of the garden. Over the next decade, the grounds and buildings deteriorated to a state of dilapidation and an overgrown piece of veld.

The revival of the garden

The recovery of the botanical garden started in 2003, with the appointment of a new curator, Mr Peter Mortimer. Under his leadership, the garden’s period of revival began. The deteriorated structures were repaired and new flower beds were designed and constructed.

An era of new growth

When the PU for CHE and the University of the North West merged in 2004, the North-West University came into existence. Prof. Anette Combrink became the rector of the Potchefstroom Campus (2004–2009). Combrink recognised the important role of the botanical garden in community education, capacity building and promoting the image of the NWU. After the appointment of Mr Martin Smith (2007–2011) as the garden curator, Prof. Combrink made funds available for further improvements in the botanical garden. Mr Smith and his team made huge improvements to the design and layout until 2011. The current curator, Mr Chris van Niekerk, was appointed on 1 November 2011 and the vision to expand the plant variety and make the botanical garden a multi-disciplinary experience, remains its primary focus.

In the garden

Besides the indigenous plant species, the “Byderhand Tuinverse” project by Prof. Franci Greyling of Creative Writing at the North-West University is unique to the garden. This site-specific digital literature project involved fifteen poets who wrote poems and children’s poetry for the NWU botanical garden. The poets read the poems digitally and typographic animations and musical arrangements complement the reading. The project includes 15 “totem poles” with motifs from the poems by the landscape artist, Strijdom van der Merwe. The Martie Coetzee Geology Collection, which includes five geological rock themes – Impact, Early Earth, Garden of Gold, Karoo Walk and the Circle of Life, is also housed in the garden. Improved safety for visitors, like the safety railings around the water-fall, and ponds and a new greenhouse to accommodate the growing collection of succulents, were recently added. The latest project, a “Bonsai-en”, will soon be completed and involves a display of bonsai trees in the section adjacent to the art gallery in the garden.

The future

There are plans to ensure that the NWU Botanical Garden remains relevant in a changing world. They include:

•Expanding scientific research and conservation capacity

•Offering a digital service to provide instantly-available plant and other information

•Focusing the plant collection on local grassland species, grown in specialised gardens, linked directly to ecological/botanical projects.

The aim is to ensure that:

•The species richness of the garden is related to the species patterns observed in our local natural grassland ecosystems

•The collection focuses on the ecological quality of populations, rather than the number of plants in the collection. To achieve these goals, the NWU Botanical Garden would require a drastic increase in funds towards research and conservation.    

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