Renovation of the South African Garden

I recently visited UC Santa Cruz’s Arboretum & Botanic Garden for a preview of plans to renovate the Arboretum’s South African Garden. Executive Director Martin Quigley and Nursery Manager Martin Grantham presented these plans to a small group of interested supporters of the project.

The South African Garden holds the Arboretum’s impressive collection of plants from the Cape Floristic Region, the smallest of the six recognized floral kingdoms of the world, is an area of extraordinarily high diversity and endemism. The Arboretum’s other major gardens focus on California, Australia, and New Zealand.

Among the South African Garden’s extraordinary Leucodendrons, Leucospermums, and Proteas, several other native plants also deserve a gardener’s attention. One example is the Bush Aster (Felicia amelloides), which offers striking sky-blue and sunny yellow flowerheads, held well above the leaves.

Purple Blossoms
Bush Aster (Felicia amelloides )

Interested persons can see examples of the Arboretum’s South African collection by visiting the Arboretum’s website and searching for “South Africa.” 

The South African Garden was established early in the Arboretum’s history, which dates from 1964. Its development continued over several decades, but slowed markedly after the retirement of Ron Arruda, then the curator of the South African Collection. Due to budgetary limitations, a new curator could not be hired, so other staff provided minimal maintenance and development.

The arrival of Martin Quigley, three years ago, and Martin Grantham, last fall, brought a combination of vision and expertise to the South African Garden. Quigley brought a strong background in botany, horticulture, landscape architecture, plant ecology, and related fields. Grantham, a new addition to the staff, but about nine years ago he produced impressive “observations and ideas” for the South African Collection. Together, they soon generated an imaginative plan for renovation of the South African Garden.

Over the years, the South African Garden had developed a remarkable collection, but the typical visitor could easily feel confused by its arrangement of unfamiliar plants. While there might be a horticultural rationale to the grouping of plants, each plant seemed unrelated to its surroundings.

One notable exception has been the grouping of several species of Cape Heaths (the large genus Erica), comprising perhaps the largest collection of these plants outside South Africa. The Erica collection provides a valuable opportunity to compare diverse species and enjoy their flowering in late winter/early spring and mid-summer.

The renovation plan for the South African Garden envisions several focal displays. Visitors can anticipate these unique presentations:

Silver Tree Grove. These small trees (Leucadendron argenteum) are relatively short-lived, but their silvery, silky leaves provide a memorable effect. A gathering of these trees will be quite charming,

Pelargonium Field. Gardeners often have been confused by the relationship of geraniums and pelargoniums. There are historical reasons for the confusion, but today’s taxonomists tell us that these are different genera within the family Geraniaceae. Here’s a short explanation from “Geraniums are herbaceous perennials of the Northern hemisphere that can be also found in Africa and South America. Pelargoniums, on the other hand, are subshrubs from the southern hemisphere and occur naturally almost entirely within South Africa.” The Arboretum’s plan includes the creation of a Pelargonium Field that will both help to identify true pelargoniums and suggest the great variety of plants that are native to the Cape Floristic Region. It also will provide a pleasing display of colorful blossoms and attractive foliage.

Restio Maze. One of the exceptional plants of South Africa are the members of the genus Restio, which includes more than 160 species. These are rush-like plants that likely “originated more than 65 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, when the southern continents were still part of Gondwana.” This genus includes a great variety of species, as one might expect. The Arboretum’s plan includes the development of a maze comprised of several different Restios, designed to showcase the variations within the genus and offer visitors an opportunity to commune with these dramatic plants. A maze and a labyrinth differ in important ways. By some accounts, a maze presents a challenging puzzle, while a labyrinth offers tranquility. We will have to discover the Arboretum’s Restio Maze when it ready for visitors. Today, it consists of plowed circles defining a coming attraction that is fifty-feet in diameter, with ten-foot wide pathways. Fortunately, Restios grow relatively fast, so it won’t be very long before we could explore this maze. It surely will be the first of its kind!

This plan for renovation of the Arboretum’s South African Garden is still evolving, so expect to see additional features in the coming months. The Arboretum has a long history as a horticultural treasure for the Monterey Bay area and California, and this new arc of development will increase its value.

Meanwhile, the South African Garden continues to invite a casual stroll on a pleasant day, and a resource for broadening one’s horticultural experience. The Garden’s plants all grow well in the Monterey Bay area, and a selection is available for purchase at the Arboretum’s garden store.

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