PLANT SEEKERS – Dr Dawn Gould

SPRING IS IN THE AIR!

As each day passes one begins to notice more and more new plant growth.  Cape Town has had the pleasure of watching rain fall resulting in the Municipality, despite the drought, lowering – slightly – the restriction of the usage of tap water per person per day.

Zantedeschia aethiopica, also known as the arum lily

The small improvement in nature’s bounty of more rain has, in our garden, caused plants/shrubs to grow and blossom and has definitely brought forth more flower heads than last Spring. EG : Zantedeschia aethiopica, also known as the arum lily. Strelitzia reginae, Bird of Paradise flower and the Protea cynaroides, the King Protea. Along the roads and small open spaces many tiny wild flowers are beginning to show off their beauty.

More than two centuries ago local plants came to the attention of European botanists, horticulturists, gardeners and plant collectors when the Portuguese sea farers managed to successfully round the Cape of Good Hope thus opening a sea route to India. This important event energized the wealthy, the aristocrats and botanical gardens to send men to investigate nature.

Two of the earliest of these very successful plant seekers were Francis Masson (who discovered, amongst others, the above mentioned plants) and Carl Peter Thunberg.  Masson worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England and was sent, in 1772, to the Cape to collect plants, seeds, bulbs. At the end of 1774 having covered three trips into the interior he returned home.  However, during two of these journeys he was accompanied by Carl Peter Thunberg who it was said that while a student at Uppsala University, Sweden had been a favourite of the great scientist Carolus Linnaeus, who had devised a system of the classification of plants and animals.  Later, still working at Kew Masson would return to the Cape from1786 to 1795 for further collecting.

Carl Thunberg arrived at the Cape as a surgeon in the employ of the Dutch East India Company. He climbed Table Mountain and sent back to Europe carefully packed specimens.  After having travelled with Masson to various parts of the Cape his collection grew hugely. In later years Thunberg would become a highly thought of and well known scientist and an author of the subjects of his travels .  In 1815 the Swedish King honoured him with the Commander of the Order of Vasa. He died on 8 August 1828

Scottish born Francis Masson continued working, travelled to other countries and wrote a book on South African succulents.  He died 23 December 1805

In the long term the work these two men, and many others, carried out on South African botany meant that their knowledge was brought to the attention of the world.   This not only resulted in the spreading of botanical knowledge, but also caused the country to become a significant commercial and tourist centre with visitors flocking to see what had long ago been found and studied.