Sunday, 12 September 2010

Kirstenbosch Biennale Report: Sunday Times, 12 September



Aloe, goodbye


By Tiara Walters  (Report in Lifestyle, Sunday Times)


The 2010 Kirstenbosch biennale has revived the Victorian art of botanical illustration to sow seeds of awareness about some of the world's most threatened plants - South Africa's own flora. Tiara Walters investigates

The botanical artists who called at the Cape of Good Hope during the golden age of exploration would have found a seemingly inexhaustible ark of undiscovered flora and fauna to record for science. Whole herds of quagga galumphed among suikerbos, snapdragons and spiderheads, and South Africa was still a wilderness patronised by real Hemingway types - not the ersatz mik-and-druk imitations of the present.
For the artists aboard ships like the HMS Beagle - whose 1836 Cape Town sojourn is permanently on display in the exhibition Darwin and the Capeat the Iziko South African Museum - the world would have been the modern equivalent of finding another planet heaving with uncharted life.
But now - no thanks to the Hemingways of yore - there's not much free-roaming galumphing going on among the plants of the Western Cape lowlands. So the focus of botanical art has shifted from documenting new species to recording the last of what's left in a natural world devastated by agriculture, urbanisation and alien invaders.
"Mostly through an increasing awareness of the threats that plants and other organisms face," says Kirstenbosch ecologist and botanical artist John Manning, "there has also been something of a revival of interest in botanical art". This had been dead to much of the world after technology like the increasingly sophisticated microscope proved it could determine a plant's identity more accurately than an illustration or lithograph.
"Also, some influential people, like Dr Shirley Sherwood, have focused on supporting botanical art, giving it a seal of approval for people who'd otherwise overlook it."
But if Sherwood, a wealthy British patron of the arts, has been credited for single-handedly reviving botanical art internationally through her eponymous gallery at Kew gardens, then the Kirstenbosch Botanical Art Biennale has become the art form's principle showcase in South Africa. This year the event is putting the spotlight on threatened plants.
More than 2570 of South Africa's 20456 flora species, which make up 10% of plants on earth, are threatened. About 400 - many of which occur nowhere else on the planet - are critically endangered and a further 76 are probably extinct.
The biennale is also featuring rare and narrow-endemic flora, that is - flora with an unusually small distribution - a whole species of protea sandwiched into a single ravine, for example; bulbs limited to a small patch of Cape sand flats; a rare grouping of cliff-dwelling aloes.
On the biennale's opening morning last Sunday, a variety of Capetonians headed to the conference centre at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, home to woolly-jumpered botanists who paste stickers like Jou ma se fynbos on their rear windows. Golden-agers in espadrilles, beatniks in sun hats drooping like flaccid flying saucers and garden strollers gone astray pored over the 200 art works by 50 botanical artists from all over the country. They moved reverentially among the plant portraits - eyes narrowed and lips slightly ajar at the realisation that the plants on the walls are so threatened they might not see them again.
"We're exposing plants to the general public who may be totally unaware of their threatened status. It's raising awareness," said Linda Hampson, a botanical artist who is exhibiting the Vryheid aloe (Aloe reitzii, variety vernalis).
Each year the biennale judges - a coterie of fine-art dealers, curators, botanists and botanical artists - award several gold, silver and bronze medals, and this year there have been 17 recipients across the categories. Hampson was a bronze-medal winner and explained that "esteemed" botanical art is "all about the accuracy. It's what the camera cannot see. A camera tends to flatten out plants, but you need to have the roundness of each little flower showing and it's just a little different drawing it by hand."
Hampson's Vryheid aloe is so rare that only four scientists have ever seen it in the wild, according to Kirstenbosch conservation project manager Erich van Wyk, who in 2003 spent days scouring a 10km² piece of farmland on foot and by vehicle before finally tracking down the plant on a steep, rocky slope somewhere between the middle of nowhere and nĂªrens in KwaZulu-Natal.
IN PERIL: (Clockwise, from top) Kirstenbosch nursery and plant collections manager Anthony Hitchcock with the Outeniqua pincushion; Janice Haug's painting of the Albany cycad; Linda Hampson with her aloe drawings and, inset, Kim Michele Squire Johnston's carrion flower
IN PERIL: (Clockwise, from top) Kirstenbosch nursery and plant collections manager Anthony Hitchcock with the Outeniqua pincushion; Janice Haug's painting of the Albany cycad; Linda Hampson with her aloe drawings and, inset, Kim Michele Squire Johnston's carrion flower
Aloe reitzii vernalis in pastel and oil-based pencil by Linda Hampson
The biennale's display hall also held one of the rarest plants on earth, a real-life Wood's cycad (Encephalartos woodii). It had been placed in the centre of the room and surrounded by a tsunami of hessian. The plant, which was discovered in 1895 by one John Medley Wood in KwaZulu-Natal's Ngoye Forest, dates from the Mesozoic Era, the age which began 250 million years ago and in which most dinosaurs evolved - and went extinct. As people revolved around it, the plant sat quietly - anachronistic, frozen in time, like the last of its kind on show in a Victorian display cage.
"This is the equivalent of having a dinosaur," said the bearded Anthony Hitchcock, Kirstenbosch's nursery and plant collections manager. "If you found a dinosaur in a pet shop, it would have the same value. In other words, it's priceless."
Cycads are extraordinary living fossils. They heat up like a common house cat when they're in the mood for love, and live for hundreds of years. They are such rare and coveted cult creatures that they are being collected to extinction - and yet it is illegal for them to be taken from the wild or to change hands without a permit. Kirstenbosch's horticulturalists protect the plant's location in the wild and their numbers as they would the crown jewels.
IN PERIL: (Clockwise, from top) Kirstenbosch nursery and plant collections manager Anthony Hitchcock with the Outeniqua pincushion; Janice Haug's painting of the Albany cycad; Linda Hampson with her aloe drawings and, inset, Kim Michele Squire Johnston's carrion flower
Kirstenbosch nursery and plant collections manager Anthony Hitchcock with the Outeniqua pincushion
Of all the biennale's illustrations of threatened plants, none seemed as lonely yet lovely as scraperboard artist Annali Delsink's Kraaifontein spiderhead, Serruria furcellata.
"I chose scraperboard, which is a black-and-white medium, to illustrate the spiderhead. There is just one individual left in the wild and I thought the scraperboard's sombre colours would do a good job of showing how it is teetering on a very dangerous edge," said Delsink, a retired architect's tracing assistant.
Scraperboards are cardboard-like engraving plates coated first in white China clay and then topped with black Indian ink.
"I tried to find out where this plant is but you can imagine the drama - some fool will try dig it up and plant it in their garden or something. People are hesitant to tell you where it is, but I've found out in a roundabout way, although I'm not about to tell you where. It was such a complicated plant to draw: so many things going on in that tiny flower."
Delsink's study specimen lives in Kirstenbosch's threatened plant stock beds for difficult-to-grow fynbos species, where around 400 Kraaifontein spiderheads, nearly wiped from their natural habitat by urbanisation, have been grown since 2003.
But Hitchcock warned that the garden's specimens "are all exactly the same. They all hail from just one clone of the very last specimen in the wild near Brackenfell. The genetic diversity is just not good enough. It's like cloning me in a test tube and putting 400 Anthonys here. But we are hoping to cross-pollinate these clones with clones from a plant that once lived in the University of the Western Cape's nature reserve and re-establish populations in nearby reserves." Kirstenbosch and Cape Town Nature Conservation's attempts to save the bit of land that sustains the last wild Kraaifontein spiderhead may have been kiboshed now the site has been earmarked for a new school.
"We're also collecting seed for storage at the Millennium Seed Bank in Kew," Hitchcock continued. The seed bank, a global project, has the seeds of 10% of the world's wild plants in its vaults and has asked partner countries like South Africa to house 50% of all threatened plants within their borders in botanical garden collections. So far Kirstenbosch has banked 30% of the country's threatened flora. "It's like an insurance policy - a bridge between the plant going extinct and being restored."
These stock beds are a crucial part of Kirstenbosch's threatened species programme, which houses and cultivates collections like its cycad garden - the world's most genetically diverse assembly of cycads - and restores critically endangered and extinct-in-the-wild plants to rehabilitated habitats in the Cape lowlands and the Renosterveld.
But you wonder how long it will be before South Africa's rarest beauties are gone from the unfenced wild forever - we may even be looking at a mass extinction of fynbos in our lifetime. Only 13% of Cape Town's natural lowland habitat remains, which is a tragedy considering it once housed one of the richest concentrations of flora in the world. It seems only a tipping point in public consciousness will change this, without which the threatened species programmes and biennales of this world look about as lonely as the last Kraaifontein spiderhead buried underneath a Brackenfell school cricket pitch.
·                     The Kirstenbosch Botanical Art Biennale 2010, a project by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, is on show until September 24 at Kirstenbosch. Entrance is free.
Danger Zone: SA's most iconic threatened beauties
·                     Wild ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus): SA's most highly prized medicinal plant, critically endangered by the muti trade, forestry and agriculture.
·                     Golden gladiolus (Gladiolus aureus): Urbanisation, alien invaders and flower pickers have driven this fynbos species down to just 50 individuals in its native Cape Peninsula habitat.
·                     Albany cycad (Encephalartos latifrons): This endemic cycad is critically endangered by the illegal trade in plants.
·                     Blushing bride (Serruria florida): Severely threatened in its natural area in the mountains of Franschhoek, although it is a high-profile cut flower.
·                     Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis): Iconic species of the Cederberg that has declined by 94% in less than a generation as a result of too-frequent fires. - Source: SA National Biodiversity Institute

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