Our relationship with plants is one that continues to intrigue us. As botanists and gardeners we grapple with the complexities of living more sustainably while contemplating a place for plants in a future of climate change and increasing urbanization. Our pre-occupation with the indigenous-exotic dichotomy – whether natives are better than aliens – is the background against which this book is set. While there may be no consensus, we cannot ignore the potential benefits of plants in our urban ecosystems, whether garden, park or school ground, and the need for a more pragmatic approach.
As advocates for indigenous plants, a trend that appears to be gaining momentum in South Africa, the authors provide practical advice on where to start and what plants to choose. Given South Africa’s varied climate and diverse vegetation types, there is a helpful guide to ‘garden biomes’ and an overview of the sorts of plants that can be found in each. With over 300 plants to choose from there is no limit to finding the ‘right’ plant or in exploring new plant choices. And if you don’t really know what your are looking for, answering a few wimple questions quickly establishes your criteria for both function and form.
Whether it’s a small tree or a shrub with fragrant white flowers that you are searching for, the key is to follow the symbols – a quick survey that makes having a read through text unnecessary, at least in making a preliminary selection. With colour photographs for each plant and close-ups of diagnostic features such as flowers, fruit and bark, it’s easy to choose plants for aesthetic reasons too. Detailed descriptions assist in refining the list of potential candidates while horticultural tips – from propagation plants, either from seed or cuttings, to growth requirements – ensure that first-time gardeners have the basics for creating a thriving indigenous garden.
With years of botanical and horticultural experience the authors have handpicked plants for their aesthetic, use and performance values. In a way plant trials and ‘pre-testing’ take much of the risk out of an otherwise random selection – giving those new to the indigenous gardening scene greater confidence in experimenting with an indigenous plant palette.
Organised by plant form (tree, shrub, herbaceous, perennial, annual and accent plant), size and flower colour, the catalogue of plants is easy to navigate. And because there is a dedicated page for each plant species, there is a generous amount of information on the plant’s morphology; use, whether artifact or medicinal; folklore; natural distribution; and propagation and cultivation.
Given the comprehensive nature of the description and easily identifiable symbols, the task of selecting for shade, wetlands, wildlife, flower colour, flowering season and habit is relatively simple. The introductory pages extend the guide’s usefulness in gardening terms and would certainly appeal to horticulturist, nurserymen, and landscape designers. Here readers are introduced to plant cultivation, learning how to propagate from seeds and cuttings and some of the limitations imposed by Plant Breeder’s Rights (in the case of hybrids); the role of birds and insects in the garden; and the importance of soils, mulch and pest control in gardening ecologically.
In its second edition – the first having been published more than ten years ago – the format of the book remains true to the original. Revision in the form of new selections and new names, however, bring this edition up-to-date with horticultural trends and taxonomic literature. Species that have proved difficult to cultivate or obtain through nurseries are generously replaced with those more suited to a diversity of garden types. Among the tried-and-tested are some new additions including Wild Wormwood (Artemisia afra), the Confetti Bush (Coleonema pulchellum), Assegai ((Curtisia dentate), Diascia), hybrids, the Flame Lily ((Gloriosa superba), Millettia grandis), and African Sage ((Salvia chamelaeagnea),). A separate indicator sheet, depicting the keys used throughout the book is something of a bonus. It avoids the frustration of having to flip back and forth to check what something means.
The book retains it s original appeal as a ready-made selection of hardy garden plants. With information readily at hand and icons that read as sort of short-hand, the authors present a simple scheme for choosing plants for the garden. Anecdotal evidence – don’t plant the weeping boerboom near parking lots – makes this an essential reference. It is gardening wisdom you won’t find on a nursery plant label.
As one of only a handful of indigenous plant guides geared for gardeners, the book is likely to remain a popular choice. There are, however, instances where plant names are misspelt and where the addition of annotations would certainly have been useful in locating major cities and towns in the map of garden biomes.
The focus of the guide is on plants as ‘specimens’ rather than vegetation structural or plant community. While this may be helpful in choosing material to ‘fill the gaps’ in the garden, if you’re looking to establish an ecological garden or structure that evokes naturalistic plant groupings you would need to look elsewhere for creative inspiration.
With a diversity of flowering plant species that represent close on 10% of the world’s total and one which is the envy of gardeners across the globe, South African gardeners are spoilt for choice. There are bound to be differences in opinion when it comes to compiling a shortlist. But as this revision shows, there is always room for change. If anything the book does what it sets out to do – encourage gardeners to explore and experiment with indigenous plants. We may start with a few but our collections soon grow and we wonder why others shouldn’t be on the list too.