With renowned botanist and horticulturalist Ernst van Jaarsveld at the helm, a splendid succulent garden and a veldkos garden of indigenous edible plants are underway at Babylonstoren…
Words and Pictures: Anita de Villiers
For Dr Ernst van Jaarsveld, the ultimate dream job came his way at a time when retirement to Kleinmond on the Overberg coast was beckoning. Not that he didn’t fully live his passion for all things botanical up to then, but the new horizons that came with his retirement job, sat right there at the end of the proverbial rainbow.
Over the years, Ernst has become a household name to the big family of nature and garden enthusiasts who know his regular and numerous articles and columns, plus the books he has authored that include the popular Waterwise Gardening in South Africa and Namibia. His association with Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town stretches back 42 years, where his position was that of horticulturalist and later also curator of the conservatory.
It is from here that media mogul Koos Bekker offered to transplant Ernst to the ground-breaking gardens of Babylonstoren in the Drakenstein Valley between Franschhoek and Paarl. Babylonstoren is the visionary project of Koos and his wife Karen Roos, one that fuses elements of the historical and horticultural to create a cultural and botanical legacy. The gardens are designed along the lines of one of France’s most beautiful gardens, Prieuré d’Orsan.
The horticultural blueprint for Babylonstoren is the Company’s Garden in Cape Town that the Dutch East India Company commissioned Jan van Riebeeck to create, to supply passing ships with fresh produce. Van Riebeeck kept a detailed diary of the garden during the ten years (1652-1662) that he was Commander of the Cape.
At Babylonstoren, a great and interesting variety of fruit, vegetables, herbs and ornamental plants are grown. Ernst’s first task was to establish a succulent garden, a project very much in line with his extensive knowledge and years of research on indigenous succulents and other drought-adapted plants.
The succulent garden is divided into four blocks representing the Robertson Karoo, Hantam Karoo, Eastern Cape and Simonsberg, the mountain that towers over Babylonstoren. Adhering to the finest detail of nature’s blueprint for each area, Ernst is carting in lorry-loads of rocks and stones that hold each area’s ancient geological history in their shape, formation and texture. He takes great care in positioning the rocks, to replicate the way they naturally occur in the areas of origin. The stacked rock formations in the Hantam Karoo block seemingly placed one on top of the other by a giant hand are ironstone (dolorite) rock, formed about 200 million years ago and typical of the Karoo.
“The rocks come from a geological era of enormous volcanic activity, and nature delivered us these interesting formations,” explains Ernst. “With time they gradually weather, although much slower than sandstone. When they split, you can often see a blueish inner surface, like some of the rocks I’ll show you in the Robertson Karoo block.”
Another interesting aspect of the Hantam garden is the shattered pieces of shale that cover the ground, so typical of the Hantam Karoo, that high plateau around the town of Calvinia. Afrikaans poet C Louis Leipoldt wrote a poem called ’n Handvol Gruis uit die Hantam (A Handful of Grit from the Hantam) in which his love and nostalgia for this part of the Karoo are expressed. This detail of nature providing a cover to facilitate the preservation of moisture in the ground, would surface again a few days later during a workshop at Babylonstoren on waterwise gardening.
After all the groundwork is done the plants are planted, from the tall quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) in the Hantam zone, to the tiniest vygies (Mesembryanthemaceae, called mesembs for short) in the Robertson zone, and all the varieties and species in between. With time, each block will draw insects, birds and reptiles, evolving into a microcosm of its mother zone.
As we walk around the Robertson block, Ernst picks a few dried-out fruits from a vygie plant, popping one into his mouth and swirling it around. “You will see what happens to this thankful little fruit when it gets a bit of moisture. The structure of the vygie’s fruit is the most complicated in the world’s plant kingdom,” he says.
“The fruit has a capsule with keels. So the vygies wait for rain and then the moisture activates the keels to press the capsule to open and eject the seeds. The classification of all vygies, of which there are about 1800 species, is determined by the structure of the capsule. This one has five cages with five keels.” And lo and behold, after a few minutes, Ernst spits the tiny fruit into the palm of his hand and it has transformed into a little star.
It is the scientist speaking, known and respected worldwide for his extensive research and knowledge about Southern Africa’s indigenous plants. But by no means does Ernst resemble the stereotype of the dry academic. His passion for nature and the way he translates his scientific knowledge into advice on plants and guidelines on gardening, is enlightening, as is his homage to the humble vygie: “I am crazy about vygies because they are such thankful plants and their diversity is enormous.”
Ernst points out the elephant’s foot (Dioscorea elephantipes), a climber plant that stores its water and food in a huge roundish tuber exposed mainly above the ground. “The tuber is toxic, it will set your heart a-galloping and you can get into serious trouble,” Ernst explains. “But the indigenous people knew how to prepare it to get rid of the toxins.”
This spectacular plant grows to a height of 1.5 metres, with the round tuber resembling the foot of an elephant. Its interesting shape and texture make it a sought-after garden and container plant around the world because “each plant has its own character; they are like people,” Ernst says. “Each one is unique.”
The ability of succulent plants to adapt to a hostile environment in order to survive, specifically plants that grow on rocks, was the subject of Ernst’s PhD thesis. For ten years he had researched, collected and studied rock plants of Southern Africa. To the top of Namibia’s Brandberg, down the cliffs through which the Umfolozi River cuts, these are some of the places that this man ventured to find a total of 220 succulents and bulbous plants that grow exclusively on rocks.
Ernst’s account of his findings sounds like a 21st century treatise along the lines of Darwin’s Origin of Species. He had classified the rock plants into three groups – hanging plants that have succumbed to gravitation; singular plants that grow on rocks; the group that clings to rock faces. Because these plants do not stand the danger of being grazed by animals, they do not need, as Ernst describes it, “so many teeth to defend themselves, and have smoother leaves and are less bitter and poisonous.”
However, to ensure maximum survival, they have adjusted the way they propagate. Ernst cites the Kaokoveld klipblom (Dewinteria petraphila) that has two propagation systems. “It has the usual system of beautiful white trumpet-shaped flowers and seeds, and then it also has fine tendrils at the base that grow away from the plant, down into deep crevices. When I carefully removed these tendrils I saw that they too have tiny flowers, but are self-pollinating. If the mother plant dies during extreme drought, there are seeds that she has deposited deep in the crevices as insurance against extinction.”
The idea strikes me that there is an analogy to be drawn between the klipblom and the people of this country: we have deposited our reserves deep into the crevices of this beautiful land. And we have scientists like Ernst who continue to discover and research our natural heritage. All the veins that his life’s work has flowed into are finding new and exciting channels in his wide-ranging projects at Babylonstoren.
“Koos is very supportive of my research and I can continue with that,” says Ernst, who is busy updating his PhD research data that he wants to incorporate into a book. His unique collection of plants brought from Kirstenbosch to Babylonstoren are soon to be housed in a newly built greenhouse that will form the nucleus of his research at Babylonstoren.
The groundwork for his next project – to establish an indigenous, edible plants or veldkos garden – is underway, and an aloe garden is also on the books. A huge bonus for the public is the workshops he regularly presents on a variety of gardening subjects, such as waterwise gardening.
I join him and a group of visitors on a walkabout to the newly established cycad garden with its variety of species small and tall; the prickly pear maze where Ernst used his pocket knife to skin a few of the juicy fruits; the snake pathway along the stream where plectranthus and clivia flourish in the shade of giant oaks, and a field of vygies that stretch their fat little fingers towards the blue-blue sky.
“My career has been and still is a big adventure for me,” says Ernst. “I never really stop doing research and I am so thankful for this opportunity. I said to my wife that life begins at sixty.”
Good Reads by Ernst van Jaarsveld
- Succulents of South Africa
- Gasterias of South Africa
- Wonderful Waterwise Gardening: A Regional Guide to Indigenous Gardening
- Waterwise Gardening in South Africa and Namibia
- South African Plectranthus