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Darling Wildflower Show: Our Oldest Wildflower Show

Darling Wildflower Show: Our Oldest Wildflower Show

? 10-minute read

This story was first published in the August 2017 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.

A hundred and two years old this spring, the Darling Wildflower Show celebrates with its roots firmly in the conservation values laid down in the past. And a new generation of leaders taking it into the future.

It’s total sensory overload when you walk into the Darling Wildflower Show. Gorgeous blooms to the left, more to the right and a riot of colour straight ahead.

Even overhead, once you manage to lift your eyes heavenwards, there are a number of arrangements of delicate blue flax dangling from the beams of the big hall. It’s raining outside, but not on this parade of floral extravagance. We hardly know where to look next, but finally end up at the tables of labelled specimens against the opposite wall, and realise that this banquet of flowers includes some very special blooms – the Darling froetang or Romulea eximia presents its endearing pink petals, while the wine cup (Geissorhiza radians) looks positively royal in purple and red livery.

Take a look at our West Coast flower report for the latest flower spotting updates.

Spot some wine cup flowers at the Darling Wildflower Show

The aptly named wine cup (Geissorhiza radians) surprises with an occasional white variation.

Humble Beginnings

The show started out as a blompot (vase) flower-arranging competition in the old town hall 102 years ago, after the local dominee’s wife, Suzanne Malan, teamed up with farmer Frederick Duckitt of Waylands farm to form the Darling Wildflower Society. The display of the district’s God-given abundance of flowers has become a community-driven conservation initiative and tourism success story that’s served as a role model for other towns.

Wilfred Duckitt welcomes flower tourists to the Darling Wildflower Show

John’s grandfather, Wilfred Duckitt, welcomes spring-flower tourists to Waylands farm, which has been open to visitors for over 100 years.

What Makes Darling So Special?

Darling is a botanical hotspot where renosterveld, rietveld, sandveld and strandveld intersect, providing a wealth of floral biodiversity within the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve. It’s an integral part of the unique Cape Floral Kingdom and boasts more than 1 200 species of flowering plants, including about 80 endemics.

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The show has been held virtually every year since 1917, with a couple of exceptions during war years, and the time when a fierce Berg wind withered the blooms on picking day. Generations of families have been involved and, in the foundation phase of the first half-century, the chairmanship passed from Duckitt father to son.

Wildflower conservation is a big part of the Darling Wildflower Show and John Duckitts work

“My dad was chairman for 17 years, but I put a stop to that and we made it a rotating position that changes every three years,” says John Duckitt of Waylands farm, where an 80-hectare conserved section is opened to flower tourists every spring.

Farmers and Flowers

John’s grandfather Wilfred was big mates with Marthinus ‘Tinie’ Versveld, who donated a portion of his farms for the conservation of threatened renosterveld flowers. The Tinie Versveld Wildflower Reserve has never been ploughed. “They didn’t call it conservation in those days, but they put their heart and soul into it. Farmers were natural conservationists
and worked with the natural cycles.”

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Like many of the farmers, John continues the tradition, putting his cattle and sheep on the fields after the flowers have bloomed, so that the livestock tramples the seeds into the ground and excretes fertiliser for the next season.

The Oude Post Duckitts of orchid-nursery fame have preserved a section of their farm as a wildflower reserve, as has cousin Mark Duckitt of Rondeberg Private Nature Reserve. His wife Carol and cousin Jen Meyer have documented the farm’s flora in their own herbarium on Rondeberg, with copies in the Darling herbarium.

Mark and Carol Duckitt of Rondeberg Private Nature Reserve welcome flower tourists during the Darling Wildflower Show

Mark and Carol Duckitt of Rondeberg Private Nature Reserve continue the family tradition of conserving the wildflowers on their farm.

Rondeberg is a key supplier of sandveld flowers to the show, and Mark personally picked more than 100 bunches of beautiful chincherinchees (Ornithogalum thyrsoides) on his farm to sell at last year’s show. “There were so many it looked like it had snowed on the hills.”

As a hybrid of Duckitt (her mom) and Versveld (her pa), Helene Preston has an inbred passion for plants. She was the driving force in establishing the first branch of the citizen scientist group, Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) and was inspired by Pixie Littlewort (nee Versveld) working with the Bolus Herbarium at UCT. This group of amateur botanists has tracked down and recorded some 2 000 plants, many so rare as to have been thought to be extinct.

Helene Preston heads up CREW who work with the Darling Wildflower Show

Super-sleuth Helene Preston leads the local
CREW group of citizen scientists, tracking down and documenting rare and endangered wildflowers in the Darling area.

“At the moment we’re sleuthing an erica last seen in the 1930s, according to records in the Blus Herbarium,” says Helene, who helps identify plants for the specimen table at the annual show, and serves on the committee.

While the Darling Wildflower Society’s focus is conserving the area’s precious fynbos, the show is it’s public face, says Con Meyer, who married into the Duckitt family and served as show convenor for 10 years after he and his wife Jen retired to Rondeberg 15 years ago. “The show is our income stream and is run by volunteers. Every single farmer in the district conserves flowers and contributes to the show with blooms from their farms.”

Con has grown the craft and food market at the show to give visitors greater variety. More live entertainment and wine tents of local cellars will add zing to the centenary show, with the usual kiddie play area and tractor rides to a pristine vlei at Oude Post to see rare Red Data species. “There’ll be a treasure hunt for specific flowers run on a cellphone app to get the younger generation involved.”

During the Darling Wildflower Show the Darling Hills are covered in blooms

At times the Darling Hills are covered so thickly in chincherinchees that it looks like snow.

Looking to the Future

The pride and passion for their amazing plants seems to be bred into Darling’s sons and daughters. “You get born into it, “Martin ‘Ysbeer’ Halvorsen tells me over a delicious seafood lunch at Lulas, a new restaurant on Yzerfontein’s beachfront. The grandson of Tinie Versveld, he serves as vice-chair of both the Darling Wildlife Society and the Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve. “I grew up in a family where conservation was a way of life. My mom is 87 and there’s lots of show history in her head.”

You can find the Darling froetang at the Darling Wildflower Show

The Darling froetang or Romulea eximia blooms abundantly in the Darling Renosterveld

Now new young blood is taking the show into its next century. “The retired folk on the committee all know the drill and have the knowledge. I come with fresh ideas, so it works well,” says Innes Linder, the dynamic young chairman of the Darling Wildflower Society. “To be honest, I don’t know much about flowers, but I’m learning all the time. My eyes are open when I go into the veld now that the interest is there.”

Innes’ expertise comes in the form of online marketing. Three years ago, he was asked to build a website for the society. “And before I knew it, I was the chairman.” He laughs as he slings a guitar around his neck and goes on stage with his popular Swartland band, Klassik, to entertain visitors in the beer and wine tent at the 99th show.

Dynamic new chairman of the Darling Wildflower Society, Innes Linder, takes to the stage in the beer/wine tent to entertain visitors with his popular Swartland band, Klassik.

It helps that his uncle is Dr Peter Linder, the well-known professor of botany at the University of Zurich, who happily shares his knowledge with Innes on botanical rambles, and is coming to speak at the centenary show.

Innes’ wife Michelle is in charge of marketing and pitches in to help where needed on show day. Glamorous Charisa Langeveld sells bunches of the cheery chincherinchees that dot the hills around Darling. “We promote awareness to farmers and educate people not to trample the flowers in the fields or to pick them,” said Charisa at last year’s show.

Charisa Langeveld is one of the many volunteers who helps out each year at the Darling Wildflower Show

Charisa Langeveld is one of the many volunteers who pitches in to help with the show.

The biggest concern for the next 100 years is whether there will still be flowers – and it’s not just climate change that’s a threat. “We’ve got to look after the farmers who provide the flowers,” says Mark Duckitt, ever the pragmatist. “The flowers are safe as long as the farmers are solvent,” he points out, referring to the number of farms that have been sold in recent times, and to encroaching development along the West Coast. The trick is to promote sustainable use of resources in the environment along with the social needs of man, “among all these wonderful veld types”, maintain Martin Halvorsen.

The Darling Wildflower Society is laying a solid foundation for the future, with plans for a conservation and education centre, complete with a ‘rescue’ garden that will provide a home for themself as well as for other conservation bodies. They’ve bought a plot adjacent to the showgrounds with funds raised over the past few decades and every ticket sold at the show boosts the kitty to erect the building.

“We show people what’s in the veld so they will conserve it,” says John Duckitt. “The show promotes a consciousness about what’s worth preserving.”

Enter our spring flower competition

Enter our spring flower competition and you could win big.

Handy Contacts

Darling Wildflower Show

This year’s show runs from 20 to 22 September this year.

+27 (0) 84 916 1111; [email protected]

Darling Tourism

+27 (0) 22 492 3361; [email protected] 

Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve

+27 (0) 83 708 4007

West Coast Flowers Hotline

+27 (0) 72 938 8186

Flower Hotspots

  • Contreberg Flower Reserve off the R307 from Mamre
  • Waylands Wildflower Reserve entrance off the R307 from Mamre
  • Oude Post Wild Flower Reserve off the R307 outside Darling
  • Darling Renosterveld Reserve on the koppie beside Kalkoentjie Street
  • Groenekloof Nature Reserve beyond the graveyard next to the Darling SPCA
  • Tinie Versveld Wildflower Reserve off the R315 to Yzerfontein

An essential guidebook is West Coast SA Wildflower Guide by John Manning

Words Marion Whitehead

Photography Marion Whitehead and John Duckitt

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