Durban Botanic Gardens

The Durban Botanic Gardens (DBG) traces its origins to colonial times, when it was founded in 1849 for the introduction and trial of potentially useful commercial crops. At the entrance to the Durban Botanic GardensThe gardens later developed collections of sub-tropical trees, palms and orchids. The Durban Botanic Gardens remains a classic botanic garden, reflecting the universality of the plant kingdom. It has, for over 100 years, had a fine mixed arboretum of African, Asian and American trees. The Gardens are a few minutes walk from the bustling Warwick Triangle, site of one of the largest retail medicinal plant markets in the country. The Gardens hosts approximately 500 000 visitors per year, many of whom are foreign tourists.
From A new history of the Durban Botanic Gardens (Durban Parks Department, 1996) by Professor Donald McCracken.

On the lower slopes of Durban’s Berea ridge lies the city’s brightest jewel, the Durban Botanic Gardens. It is the city’s oldest public institution and Africa’s oldest surviving botanic gardens. When Durban, or Port Natal as it was once  called, was little more than two dusty streets with shabby wood-and- iron buildings some enterprising locals met in what is now the Royal Hotel. The year was 1848 and their purpose was to participate in the quest of the newly re-established Kew Gardens in England to establish a series of botanic gardens across the globe which would assist in the introduction to regions of plants of possible economic value, and which might also supply Kew botanists with plants new to science. It was an exciting project.

Edward Moreland, Dr Stanger and other members of the Natal Agriculture and Horticultural Society came out of the hotel, saddled up and role off across the great vlei, or marsh, to the east of town in search of a suitable site for their experimental garden. The site originally selected for Durban’s first botanic gardens was on the flat land at the end of the Berea ridge besides the Umgeni River, near what is today Quarry Road. Here in December 1849 Dr Charles Johnston began work on planting out plots of ‘economics’. Town was a good four kilometres away and the area was still rather wild: hippo and crocodile lived in the river and African python and mamba romped among the Euphorbias, a few of which still survive today on the slopes of the nearby Berea.

Dr Johnston was eccentric. On one occasion he punched a magistrate on the nose because he would not allow him to talk to an accused forger in the docks. Perhaps Johnston was not the best choice as a curator and within a year he had vacated his large allotment by the river for a medical practice.

Onto the stage now came a fiery, hard drinking Scot called Mark McKen. He was a first-rate plants man and plant collector, who had hands-on experience working in the old Bath Botanic Gardens in Jamaica.A new start was made and in 1851 the Durban Botanic Gardens was re-established nearer town on its present site. Twenty- five acres were soon increased to 50.

McKen, rough and ready though he was, began to establish a serious garden of plants of economic value: sugarcane, cinchona, tea, coffee, rubber and pineapples. For a number of years (1853-1860) he went off to run a Tongaat sugar estate, during which time a succession of unsuitable curators came and went. The only notable exception was the gentle able Robert Plant, who was soon to die of malaria at St Lucia while plant hunting: South Africa’s only true martyr of botany.

McKen returned to the Botanic Gardens in 1860 and remained there until death 12 years later. Known locally as “the professor”, McKen became on of the South Africa’s classic plant hunters and many of our indigenous plants still carry his name in their scientific nomenclature. And slowly he cleared the thick Berea bush. Just as well for the visitors perhaps. The Natal Mercury carried the following piece on 12 July 1854: “On Friday night inst, another lion of large size visited the neighbourhood, having been traced from the entrance to the Botanic Gardens, along and through the Berea to the estate of Henry Milner, Esq, where near the site of the intended sugar mill, it attacked and devoured the greater part of an ox…. The same lion (doubtless) was heard roaring on Saturday night, behind the Berea on Mr Cato’s farm.”

Soon the elephant and lion were gone and the porcupine and stray Nguni cattle were all that annoyed McKen – except perhaps for the general public. McKen’s plant hunting continued, sometimes in the company of other plant collectors such as William Gerrard, and always accompanied by his dedicated Zulu staff. (McKen went to the trouble of learning isiZulu). Sadly we don’t know the names of these African plant hunters, some of whom went from the gardens on their own in search of what is called novelties. Robert Plant often sent his African staff deep into tsetse-fly country to carry back floral jewels from the botanical treasure house of Maputaland. On one occasion he wrote to England to a famous trader in rare orchids that he had sent to St Lucia Bay one of his men who had never returned – ‘probably died of coast fever. He was one of my best hands and I regret his absence very much’.

And what of the Durban general public? Truth tell few visited the gardens then, with the gardens then, with the exception of the school children who made their way across the vlei to pick mulberries when they had ripened, if the gorgeous birds of the Berea had not got to them first. (The Gardens have always been noted for its birds and butterflies). There was, however, one time in the year when the town came to the Gardens: the annual show. Then all Durban, black and white, flocked to celebrate. Yellowwood plank tables laden with goodies were set up under awnings of wagon sail and festooned with ships ‘flags’. Races were held, horticultural and agricultural produce was judged and cups awarded. A ploughing match was organised, and in the evening a grand dinner was held in the Royal Hotel.

On 20 April 1872 the professor died, leaving his wife Margaret and their six children destitute. The community tried to rally round and help them out. But who was to run the gardens now? Kew Gardens was approached and soon there arrived from the great botanic gardens at Glasnevin in Ireland a young German called William Keit. A kind and gentle man, Keit’s task proved impossible. He was a foreigner in this most English of colonies. The Botanic Gardens had been planted out without rhyme or reason and the plants had not been labeled by McKen. (Knowledge was power.) Soon Natal was in the middle of an economic depression, and the Gardens had to be run on a meagre budget. Then the drought came and finally, with the breakout of the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879. Keit’s African workforce slipped away to join the regiments of the mighty Zulu army of Cetshwayo. Once Keit’s children died and others were sickly. By 1881 he was up against the ropes and despite praise from the noted floral artist Marianne North and encouragement from Kew Gardens he was forced to resign his curatorship. (Keit was not destroyed. He established himself as a nurseryman and soon was Durban’s first director of parks, in which role in the 1890’s he planted the famous palms along the city’s embankment).

The Botanic Gardens seemed doomed. And yet fortune smiled upon it. From nowhere emerged a local farmer and rural trade store owner, John Medley Wood. A self-trained botanist, Medley Wood was quiet but determined. His curatorship, which lasted 31 years, from 1882 to 1913, saw the Botanic Gardens enjoy its colonial heyday. Perhaps it was because Wood was regarded as a local; perhaps because he was an excellent botanist (the father of Natal botany), perhaps Natal at last recognised what a jewel it had in its Botanic Garden – whatever it was, by the 1890’s the Durban Botanic Gardens and its Colonial Herbarium was one of the greatest botanic gardens of the British Empire. Along its shady paths flourished numerous and shrubs from across the globe, many from India and the Americas. But it would be in the field of indigenous KwaZulu-Natal flora that the Durban Botanic Gardens would earn its place in botanical history. Medley Wood became the greatest of south-east Africa’s plant collectors. In 1895 he discovered a previously unknown cycad in the Ngoye Forest in Zululand.  It was later named Encephalartos woodii in his honour, and two specimens planted in the garden at the time are still to be seen.  Only male specimens had ever been found but Encephalartos woodii has been grown successfully from cuttings in a number of locations and is thus no longer the rarest plant in the world.

The reserved man from Mansfield in England worked day and night in classifying the flora of his adopted home. And in return the scientific world saluted him. Kew dedicated a volume of famous Curtis’s Botanical Magazine to him, and in 1913 this frail 86 year John Medley Wood received a honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town. Medley Wood retired.

But all was not well for his Gardens. A new, harsher age was approaching: South Africa, now politically united, was less innocent. And to make things worse the First World War approached. Botany was not popular. There had been a gradual drift in the public’s mind, some years earlier a Durban paper published a letter which ran: “You must not take our Botanic Gardens seriously. Of course, we must have Botanic Gardens as a child must have measles: and although with us the complaint is chronic, it is such a mild form we don’t know we’ve got it.”

Medley Wood died on 26 August 1915 and William Keit on 27 August 1916. An era had passed. Already the Durban Botanic Gardens had been transferred from the Durban Botanic Society, the successor to the Natal Agriculture and Horticulturist Society, to the Durban Municipality. The Gardens’ herbarium was transferred to the state and run from Pretoria. Sunken gardens and pretty flower beds heralded its decline into the public park. The old Boyd of Glasgow Victorian conservatory was not painted – the broken panes of glass were not replaced and so the structure began to rot. The large Victorian lilies died and were not replaced. Science no longer held sway at the Municipal Botanic Gardens. And then the tramway and the road came, cutting the Botanic Gardens into two. Finally, bit by bit, land was ‘alienated’: a reservoir, municipal flats, a car park and Parks Department offices. Overhead the yellow-billed kite witnessed the slow death of the botanical pride of Africa.

The utilitarian approach of two world wars and apartheid took the zest out of our Botanic Gardens. That they survived at all is largely thanks to men like Frank Thorns and Ernest Thorp, and later to Kenneth Wyman and Errol Scarr. But the advent of a new age has also seen the renaissance of the Botanic Gardens, Christopher Dalzell as curator, a Trust and ‘Friends’ have heralded new hope and definite signs of a revival.  Now it is one of Durban’s premier tourist attractions with the Gardens’ collections of indigenous cycads (including the unique Wood’s cycad), of palms and of bromeliads, all growing alongside trees planted by McKen, Keit and Medley Wood.

History is a dialogue between the past and the present. The spirit of long-gone botanists and plant hunters mingle in the modern gardens. As of old the oriole, goshawk, paradise flycatcher and Natal robin look on. One hundred and fifty years later the Durban Botanic Gardens retains the vigour and the enthusiasm of those pioneers who rode out from the Royal Hotel to found Durban brightest jewel. Professor Donald McCracken is Chairman of the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust.

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