News and opinions from Operation Wildlife and Associates

Botanical Ambassadors winning Friends

House boats on Amsterdam canals sporting South African aloes, succulents and geraniums in pots on deck?   Yes, there are Dutch citizens with gardens of only half a dozen potted plants living on the water in stationary boats, some of their treasured plants recognized as expatriates from our sunny veldt!   And walk along the streets of this and other Dutch cities to see on floor level window sills inside many apartments potted plants soaking up the little sun that comes their way.  

Ever so often the plant is South African, receiving sympathy for its brave coping with the contrasting climate to its natural origins by being lovingly tended, but also deserving praise for pleasing owners with the occasional flower that is mustered in season!

Who says all of our ambassadors earn salaries paid by our taxpayers?  Some receive full citizen rights and exemplary treatment, with hardly any remaining knowledge of their origins, when they left our shores and what passports accompanied them.   Their owners may well expect them to cheer for Dutch sports teams with no ‘uitlander’ tendencies. 

So plants have the same globetrotting tendencies of some humans.  And while some become unwelcome squatters (‘krakers’, I believe they say in Holland) that invade and mess up the local vegetation, others behave well as successful garden plants, learn to speak foreign languages from the whisperings of their green finger owners and may by now have forgotten their South African roots, so to speak! 

What’s done is done and while exporting plants is much more controlled these days, avoiding the contamination that has bitten so hard in many cases across the earth, the distant colonial botanical past has introduced plants as guests, impostors, immigrants or conquerors in strange places.  The links thus made serve to welcome us as tourists doubly when we visit strange destinations to hear our home language or see our home vegetation comfortably and prosperously established in alien territory.

I had a friend from the Mafikeng area that as a child played in dongas on a farm there, using the leaves of locally growing Strelitzia plants for sword fights in the Zorrow tradition.    There is doubt as to whether this plant grows in the western parts of the country and my friend has unfortunately passed away, so determining exactly which species he knew there or where to find it today has become a problem.  But Strelitzia reginae has moved on from South Africa to many countries, also for example adorning special features of Disney World and Disney Land in the USA.  Similarly, in the streets of Santa Monica in Los Angeles Podocarpus falcatus trees grow commonly as the popular fern pine; few will recognize the name yellowwood there or even know where the tree originates from!

Of course, many of ‘our’ plants are not truly ours alone: we share many with Africa and even beyond.  Did you for instance know that Protea lacticolor, some South African ericas, yellowwood and other of ‘our’ plants grow indigenously in the rain forest up the slopes of Mount Kenya on the equator?

But what if some of our most treasured plants may be one day only found on alien lands, completely lost to their natural home?  More ambassadors seeking asylum?  Are we sufficiently aware and respectful of what some of our local vegetation has achieved internationally and deserve from us?  The Chelsea Flower Show trophies for SA fynbos and other exhibits may have attracted attention, but let us remember what value there is around us and how delicate our natural vegetation is in so many both densely and sparsely populated areas.  Let us protect what we have when we clear areas for development.  Let us remember this when we encounter littering, burning or roughshod quad biking over what may so easily be lost forever.

Written by Ivan Latti
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