As we gazed upon thousands of poached plants that had recently been repatriated into a remote botanical garden just south of the Namibian border in South Africa, the complexity of our current environmental moment really struck me. In one of the most undeveloped and remote places I’ve ever experienced, the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, the human hand is ever present. Not only the hand of the Indigenous Nama people, whose ancestors walked through those desert sands tens of thousands of years ago, and who still live there today, but also a much more destructive modern, global human hand: poachers hunting rare stone plants and other succulents to ship overseas, miners seeking diamonds with no regard for the environmental cost, energy developers willing to destroy endangered habitats to avert the electricity crisis in South Africa, and the ever present effect of climate change, which has caused mass die-offs of some of the rarest plants of the area. Ten thousand miles away from home, seeing those smuggled Conophytums and Haworthias, industrial diamond mines, and standing dead forests of Aloe peirsonii, I was reminded of so many of the same issues we face here in California.
Only four other places in the world share the wet-mild winter / hot-dry summer climate of California. These areas contain unique habitats, known as Mediterranean Type Ecosystems, and are home to incredible biodiversity. All five regions (including California) are considered biodiversity hotspots, meaning they have exceptional and unique plants and animals that are also highly threatened. Of the world’s five Mediterranean regions (California and NW Baja California, Chile, Southwestern Australia, the Mediterranean Basin, and Western South Africa), South Africa takes a special place. It’s a hyper diverse flora, with incredible levels of endemism (e.g. plants and animals that only are found there.) It’s so unique that this small region is classified as one of the world’s six floristic kingdoms. On the ground this is made clear by the head spinning number of species you encounter. Every ten minutes down the road there are new plants to look at.
At TPF we often focus on the hyper local, but to make the best decisions for how to have the greatest impact on our community and region, it can be helpful to look beyond our shores. With the unique climate of the world’s Mediterranean type regions come unique challenges and opportunities. These sister lands can offer insight into the very real and existential environmental threats we face, and the solutions, glimmers of hope and ideas that we need to enact to protect our planet.
I returned from South Africa a few days ago, from a trip that had been postponed since 2020. As part of the Chanticleer Scholarship (which I’m honored to have received in 2019), I was there to present on horticultural conservation work that TPF is part of at a conference of conservationists, scientists, horticulturists and environmental advocates working in Mediterranean type climate regions. After the conference, I arranged a field trip to visit native plant nurseries, botanical gardens and natural areas, with the hope of learning and cross pollinating ideas between California and South Africa.
My travelling companions were two Cape Town botanists who work in environmental consulting, trying to minimize and mitigate the environmental damage that occurs during urban development. Their day to day work was very much aligned with many of the issues that we face here in Southern California. In the home of some of the world’s most unique habitats, human pressures are even further dividing the already highly fragmented and fragile ecosystems of Western South Africa. Many parallels could be drawn between the cities of Cape Town and Los Angeles. Where we have relatively intact mountain ecosystems surrounding LA, but very little of our lowland coastal sage scrub habitat left, the same is true for Cape Town. Table Mountain, with its incredible views, preserves intact habitat, but in the lowlands, the Cape Flat Sand Fynbos vegetation is severely fragmented, with less than 1% of its original area remaining.
In the Richtersveld, 500 miles and hours of bumpy dirt roads north of Cape Town, the beauty was astounding. We found the incredible Halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) growing on rugged hillsides overlooking desert washes. Those washes looked incredibly similar to the kind you’d see in Joshua Tree. Even the plants, totally unrelated but through convergent evolution looking analogous to our Palo Verde, Smoke Tree and Ironwood, evoked the familiar California desert. As beautiful as it was, it seemed that this region may be a canary in the coal mine. As I mentioned, we saw drought and heat induced mass die off of many plants. The curator of the botanical garden, who has lived in the region his whole life, spoke wistfully of days gone, where flowers were much more abundant, and the aloes thrived. In my day to day at work TPF, the immediate and obvious threat of urban habitat loss takes center stage. But this glimpse into a remote and undeveloped landscape reminded me that even in areas protected from habitat destruction, climate change looms.
Throughout our travels and conversations, one theme kept percolating. If the human hand is present in the most remote places we visited, and nearly fully dominating the urban environments, then the human hand is the only thing that can save and restore those places. One of the most important tools in this process will be horticulture. The native plant community in South Africa is strong, and their dedication to learning how to cultivate and restore their plants is inspiring. This happens at many scales. From incredibly dedicated professionals, to citizen scientists, to gardeners using small plots of land to restore damaged habitats, it is a labor of love. It’s a community effort to right the wrongs of the past several hundred years of environmental degradation. I’m happy that we have the same community here in Southern California. But in both places, this community needs to grow. If we can’t learn how to live in harmony with natural systems there is great risk not only to the ecosystems and environments we live in, but also to us.
There’s so much more I could say about this trip and ideas and insights I picked up on, but I’ll leave it here for now. If we run into each other here in Sun Valley I’m happy to talk with you about South Africa, and how it compares to Southern California. If you’d like to see photos from my trip, check out my Instagram page @vegetablekingdoms, where I posted quite a few photos of the amazing plants, landscapes and gardens that we visited. Many thanks to Stuart Hall and Evan Millborrow for being such fantastic hosts and guides to their amazing country, and thanks to the Chanticleer Garden for supporting this trip.
Fantastic photos , information and insight. Wish this information could go viral so more people could be exposed. Thanks for all you do and sharing.
Thank you Diane!
Are you suggesting that we can incorporate these S African plants in our native CA plantings? Even near our oaks maybe??
I wouldn’t say I recommend that. Lot’s of South African plants are already cultivated in Southern California (Aloe, Bird of Paradise, etc) but most of these come from the summer rainfall regions of the country. Planting those under oaks is not a good idea because summer water is not great for native oaks. The winter rainfall areas where I visited (the Fynbos ecosystem in particular) have very acidic soils and those plants typically aren’t very happy here. And as beautiful as they are, South African plants don’t provide habitat for California wildlife. So my personal recommendation is sticking with natives under oaks.
Sounds like an amazing trip.. any chance of organizing it for other SA plant enthusiasts?
Hello Arti, that is an idea we’re toying with!
I was in Southern Africa just recently six weeks. This trip didn’t include visits to many botanical gardens. Unfortunate that so many succulents and cycads, et all have been and are being poached for export to the world beyond SA.
I love the analogy. Must have been great.