Whenever I visit the Kruger National Park, I long to bring home a sausage tree or a baobab tree in my boot. And some vivid-pink impala lilies. What a surprise, then, to find Skukuza Indigenous Plant Nursery, and be able to do exactly that.
Tucked on the outskirts of Skukuza Rest Camp and Skukuza Staff Village, and around the corner from the golf course, the five-hectare nursery is set under a huge canopy of trees and is easy to miss. I’m so glad I didn’t.
“We like people to take a wander here and ask us for advice,” says Meurel Baloyi, manager of the nursery. “Our purpose is to educate, and offer a piece of Kruger to take home.” Meurel’s eyes light up as she walks me around the nursery, discussing plants and their uses.
Working with rangers
She gives example of the Warburgia salutaris, the pepper-bark tree, and wild ginger, Siphonichilus aetheopicum, both of which are used by traditional healers – the bark, leaves and roots of the pepper-bark to treat flu, and the roots of the wild ginger for treating colds and asthma.
“Because of the harvesting of wild plants they are now Endangered, and the nursery propagates them as part of a local distribution and engagement project with local communities,” says Meurel. “For instance, last year we gave away more than 12 000 warburgias to local people, which will hopefully reduce the pressure on our wild populations.”
She explains that, at the nursery, they are always looking at what they can do to protect the biodiversity of the park but that this means working with local communities. “People also come in to Kruger to harvest illegally, and it’s in our interests to propagate and encourage the communities to grow their own trees.”
The Skukuza nursery started in 1973 when a botanical garden was planted next to Skukuza. It also supplied indigenous plants to all the Kruger camps. Although the botanical garden no longer exists, every camp in the park now has indigenous gardens, and staff are supplied with indigenous plants for their gardens in Kruger, and at their private homes. But now the main purpose of the nursery is to provide Kruger camps and the local communities with plants, as well as educate people on the benefits of indigenous plants
“We harvest seed from across the park and work with field rangers, teaching them how to collect the seeds,” says Meurel, who is about to go up north to Olifants to look for ironwood seeds. She stops to chat to Samuel Munzhele, one of her plant mentors who has been in the nursery for 27 years. Seeds are sold at the nursery (and not outside the park) and advice on propagation is freely available.
Experiments with germination
You’ll find 170 plant species laid out in sections, with aloes and succulents in sunshine, and some of the smaller baobab and marula seedlings in shade. It’s divided into sections – such as succulents, waterwise plants, trees and shrubs – but, although you’re more than welcome to stroll about on your own at the nursery, it’s worthwhile asking the staff for advice as you might miss something.
George Mabuza, one of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (a group of unpaid volunteers that give their time to national parks), works in the nursery, and has been an Honorary Ranger for more than 20 years. “I’m a retired school principal and live just outside the park,” he says, showing me a Lowveld bitter-tea (Vernonia colorata), with white, fluffy flowers that attract butterflies.”
Meurel explains that the nursery works with a number of organisations, depending on the need. For example, the international Organisation for Tropical Studies, which focuses on the responsible use of natural resources, is experimenting alongside the nursery with trees such as marula, leadwood and knobthorn to research their medicinal properties.
“We are also experimenting with different ways of germinating seeds,” says Meurel. “Originally we thought a marula seed needed to go through the stomach of an animal to germinate effectively. However, we find it works just as well to soak the seeds. Some seeds need to be soaked longer than others. We have also experimented with opening the seed cases of leadwood trees to see if that aids germination, but it doesn’t make any difference. And a baobab should be planted in shallow soil while marula seeds need to be planted deeper.”
Impala lilies and baby baobabs
The Wetlands Board Walk is a lovely sector of the nursery. We wander through the rehabilitated wetland with a malachite kingfisher flashing through the trees. “Many of these trees have medicinal properties but be careful of eating the leaves of this,” says Meurel, pointing out the toad tree, with a glint in her eye. “If you do, locals believe you might well have twins.”
Not everything is for sale at the nursery, as it is not allowed by law to sell plants classified as Endangered. “It would create a market for these plants that cannot be controlled,” explains Meurel. But there is a wide choice of indigenous plants and seeds for sale.
I buy my fill of impala lilies and baby baobabs but wish I could take some rhino-dung compost (collected by the nursery from the rhino-holding boma, and only used in the nursery) as I am sure my plants will feel more at home.
Words Sue Adams Pictures Sue Adams and Melanie van Zyl