Before emigrating from South Africa, Joan Wright was an avid gardener
and writer. She continues these interests, to our benefit, and has joined The
Central Coast Geranium Society and Central Coast Gardeners. Joan was
wise to move to the Central Coast, another Mediterranean climate, and, thus,
can enjoy the flowers she loves and mentions in this tribute.
Joan has written for a number of gardening magazines in South Africa.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH FLOWERS by Joan Wright
Plants brought by pioneers from many countries, together with local favourites, are
woven into the colourful floral history of South Africa.
“I found the poems in the fields and only wrote them down”
1 Poppy 2 Daisies 3 Delphinium 4 Dianthus 5 Lavender
6 Nigella 7 Roses 8 Scented Geranium 9 Watsonia
Gardening is a love affair with the flowers that cling to mountain slopes and carpet
woodland floors; that brighten meadows and brave windswept shores; flowers that have
been gathered over the centuries and brought into our gardens and into our hearts.
There’s an enchantment to these simple flowers; flowers that together with the floral
beauty of other lands provide a link with the past, a tie with the present, a bond with the
The plants that South Africans grow could well represent a map of the Flora of the
World, a United Nations of Plants where Persian roses wear petticoats of South African
scented geraniums, watsonias thrust their way through the meadow flowers of Europe,
and gold Californian poppies and orange Namaqualand daisies unite to brighten winter
They came from Europe, Asia and Britain, those early settlers, bringing with them their
cultures and their traditions, their hopes for the future and their memories from the past.
Their possessions were few, but among these were seeds, bulbs and cuttings of plants,
some edible, some for herbal remedies, and others treasured for the memories of beloved
As the ships of the Dutch East India Company travelled to and from the East in the 17th
century, they called in at islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and at the Cape of
Good Hope for fresh water and supplies. Ships captains and crews, diplomats,
missionaries and botanists brought plants, cuttings and seeds from their countries and
from the spice route and some of these were given to the Governor of the Cape, or traded
with the settlers.
“On this day has been picked the first Dutch rose at the Cape from rose trees brought
back in the past year.”
–Governor of the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, 1 Nov 1659
Gardeners and botanists, artists and poets have long had a love affair with the beauty of
the rose, but it was also highly regarded for its medicinal qualities and use in perfumery.
The Dutch rose (Rosa centifolia) referred to by Jan van Riebeeck, was also known as the
Provence rose, and featured in many 17th century Dutch and Flemish flower paintings. As
well as the Provencal rose, there are records of red and white roses growing at the Cape
French Huguenot refugees fleeing from religious persecution arrived in the Cape of Good
Hope in 1688 and brought with them grape vines and a pink Damask rose, known as the
Huguenot Rose, which was often grown as a boundary hedge.
Wild roses from China and Japan arrived in the Cape from the East in the late 18th
century. In 1793, the China rose known as ‘Old Blush’ was sent from China to Sir Joseph
Banks, Director of Kew, and from there travelled to many countries including France,
where it was grown in Josephine Bonaparte’s garden at Malmaison and painted by
When the British arrived at the Cape, they brought roses they had grown in their gardens,
and from hedgerows along country lanes. Among these was Shakespeare’seglantine, the
sweetbriar rose, but because of its invasive habit, this rose has fallen from favour and is
now listed in South Africa as an alien plant. Other old roses that survived through the
years have been rescued from old or abandoned gardens and from ancient churchyards.
Roses were not the only floral contribution from Europe. South African gardens are
richer and more varied because of the inclusion of many European flowers. Of these,
carnation and delphinium, the white anthemis daisy and red corn poppy (Papaver
rhoeas), blue grape hyacinth (muscari) and love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), Anemone
coronaria and silene,Iris germanica, lavender and rosemary are some of our much loved
‘Pinks’ (Dianthus caryophyllus), arrived by a more circuitous route, having travelled
from southern Europe to England during the Norman invasion. Sweet William (Dianthus
barbatus) that grows on the hills of Normandy is thought to have been taken to England
by Carthaginian monks, and from there travelled north to Scotland with Flemish weavers,
and then to foreign lands.
Acers, flowering cherries, jasmine, hibiscus and hydrangea,Iris kaempferi and
chrysanthemums that beautify our gardens and gladden our hearts, travelled from East to
West on those early trading ships. We know from early records that hydrangeas and
camellias, magnolias and azaleas, bamboos, liliums and wisterias were growing in South
African gardens in the 19th century.
The original kitchen garden, laid out by Jan van Riebeek, was enlarged by Simon van der
Stel when he arrived as Commander of the settlement in 1679. Here he grew not only
local plants, but also those from Europe and the East Indies.
When French Jesuit missionary, Father Guy Tachard, on his way back from Siam visited
the Cape in 1685, he wrote,“We were mightily surprised to find one of the loveliest and
most curious gardens that I ever saw . . . full of fruit trees, roots, pulse and herbs, and
with some of the most esteemed flowers of Europe and others that we know not.”
The local flowers must have brought great joy to those early plant hunters, botanists and
settlers, and they would continue to delight later immigrants in a land so richly blessed
From early spring, while snow still covers the mountaintops, the first wild flowers thrust
their way through rocky outcrops, and appear in the still brown grasslands and on
hillsides blackened by fire. The floral show continues, each season seeming to outshine
the previous, until once again the first snows of winter fall and the countryside sleeps.
It is not difficult to imagine the daughters of settlers, wearing pinafores and sunbonnets,
picking the flowers that grew around their modest homes. And as the wagons moved
slowly across grasslands, through boggy ground and up mountain passes, little
Voortrekker girls in theirmoederkappies (Dutch bonnets) might have gathered posies of
wild flowers for their mothers.
Those early bunches could quite possibly have been of pink proteas and ericas, blue
agapanthus, yellow gladioli and orchids from mountain slopes, scarlet fire lilies, mauve
dierama and scabious from hillsides, gold gazania and ursinia daisies from rocky ground,
fiery kniphofia and white arums from vleis (damp ground), and orange clivia and indigo
streptocarpus from forest floors.
“It is not a matter of „wild‟ plants or „cultivated‟ plants at all; but simply a matter of
ensemble; harmonious grouping of compatible forms."
--R.E. Boddam-Whetham,A Garden in the Veld
Our gardens of today are evidence of love affairs with both wild and cultivated plants
from many lands. Primroses from English lanes grow happily in the company of our
Cape primrose (streptocarpus); the blue of the summer sky is echoed in the flowers of our
native plumbago and Japanese hydrangeas, and scarlet aloes and Mexican poinsettias
brighten the winter landscape.
It is not always the grand gardens that we remember, but those made under difficult
conditions, gardens made with courage and with love. The little squares of gardens laid
out in the shadow of a mine dump; patches of green in a dusty Karoo town; pockets of
brightly-coloured flowers among rocky outcrops; and seashore plantings buffeted by
Time has shown that not all plants introduced into our country are desirable, but given
our wonderful climate and a world of plants from which to choose, if we take those that
are adaptable and acceptable and combine them with the floral treasures of our land, there
are endless possibilities for creating beautiful and uniquely South African gardens; truly a