The History and Amazing Story of The Durban Botanical Gardens.
Did you know that the Durban Botanic Gardens is Durban’s oldest public institution and Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens? The beautiful, lush gardens cover an area of 15 hectares in warm, subtropical climate.
The Durban Botanic Gardens was founded by Kew Gardens to establish a series of botanic gardens across the world which would help in the introduction of economically valuable plants, and to supply plants to Kew that were new to science.The first garden was established in December 1849 by Dr Charles Johnston on the edge of the Berea Ridge next to the Umgeni River (near Quarry Road).
He was in charge of the gardens for less than 1 year. A Scot called Mark McKen then took his place and began to establish gardens of plants of economic value such as sugar cane, tea, coffee and pineapples.
In 1851 the botanical gardens were relocated closer to town, to its present site. From 1853 to 1860 there were various curators, the most notable of which was Robert Plant, who died of malaria while collecting plants near Lake St. Lucia. McKen then returned in 1860 and was the curator for the next 12 years; until his death in 1872.
The Story behind the Cycad Emblem
A local farmer and rural trade store owner John Medley Wood who was a self-trained botanist took over the curatorship from 1882 to 1913, and the Durban Botanic Gardens was said to have enjoyed its heyday. John Medley Wood discovered many new species of plants which he sent to Kew Gardens. His most famous discovery was a clump of a large species of cycad in Ongoye Forest in 1895. This cycad was subsequently named in honour of him in 1908 as Wood’s Cycad (Encephalartos woodii) by the English horticulturalist Henry Sander. Wood’s Cycad is now the emblem of the Durban Botanic Gardens, where the original specimens are still growing.
In 1913, most of the Garden was transferred to the Durban Municipality, but about 0.5 ha, including the Herbarium and Medley Wood’s house was transferred to the Union Department of Agriculture, the following year.
Among later curators was Ernest Thorp (from 1950 to 1975) who oversaw the construction of the orchid house at the Durban Botanic Gardens in 1962. The orchid house was named after him as the Ernest Thorp Orchid House. Around 1965 the Durban Botanic Gardens was noted for its collection of Cannas, and Ernest Thorp sent rhizomes of 3 varieties to Longwood Gardens in the United States upon request.
Generations of curators have left an invaluable resource in the form of plant collections at the Garden.
In 1999 the gardens were surveyed and mapped so that the various plants and their relevant information could be traced with the aid of GIS software.
Being over 150 years in age, the Gardens play a unique role in eThekwini’s cultural landscape with substantial national and international tourism value. The Venue is also used to host amazing weddings, music and cultural events.