Marie-Lais Emond
2 minute read
14 Jun 2014
9:00 am

Other Side of the City: A passion for palms

Marie-Lais Emond

Nearing the Pretoria Palm Consortium on the western side of the city, Pawel and I run up against a railway line.

Pictures: Pawel Kot

Alongside it trails a tired line of tall but rusty palms in mid-demise. We look at each other.

The red brick colony around the corner from Mendes Café couldn’t be more of a lush contrast. The outer world disappears as we enter an inner, warm-vapoured one, where we almost hear plants breathing. A blond-moustached Adrian van Rensen, in paisley braces, leads the way, stopping to relate wry tales about the trees, their and his global journeys. He’s amused and amusing in his fun fronded world, an extension of his extravagant hobby.

We encounter now-rare zunkhas from Bolivia and Brazil, get close to chummy bottle palms. Adrian has travelled the palmy lands, his favourites in and around the southern Americas, lectured internationally, edited collector’s magazines, brought home the seeds or plantlings and raised them to fuel his lust for further trips to more places of palms.

Pictures: Pawel Kot

Pictures: Pawel Kot

Here we stare up at a pale Syagrus picrophylla as cats wend their bodies between more exotic trunks I follow the smooth length with my eyes to the very top, up in the sunlight, the growing bud, happily intact. That’s what people want to eat, the heart of palm. Palm hearts are bland, nonsensical things on a plate, hardly worth having a whole palm tree destroyed, to reap. Like having a whole rhino destroyed to spoon some horn powder into a toothmug.

Along from Ravanalas from Madagascar and Thai fishtail palms is a once-dairy and in it is Adrian’s artist wife, Tersia, with another artist, Leigh Voigt, together working on a book of botanic illustrations. Over lunch we meet Leigh’s artist brother, Carl Jeppe.

Lunch is not from Mendes Café. It’s Leigh’s favourite, KFC. From the Palm Centre, presumably near that railway line. Adrian is despatched to “pick some salad”. He returns with lettuces, herb leaves and tomatoes – no palm hearts.

When we emerge, moving beyond more palms, Adrian smiles shyly, beckoning. The palms are over there. Here are hosts of bromeliads and a range of agave plants, many rare and self-created, striped, speckled, zany hued. Adrian’s new botanic loves take him now to Sarasota and New Orleans. He smiles over his botanic bounty. Yes, he provides plants, seeds and seedlings for other growers but I know the rabid gleam of a collector’s eye.

  • Pretoria Palm Consortium, 459 Frederick St, Pretoria West.  Contact Adrian van Rensen: 083-353-8828


Each week Marie-Lais Emond scouts another urban reach, tasting, testing alternative aspects to pique our curiosity about places and people we might have had no idea about.