Martin Smit, curator of the Stellenbosch University (SU) Botanical Garden, was recently appointed curator of collections at the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam.
Fortuitously he will then be in charge of one of the world’s most valuable pelargonium collections, which contains some of the original genetic material collected by botanists from Stellenbosch University in the 1970s and 1980s.
Described as South Africa’s “gift to the world’, pelargonium varieties are cultivated all over the world and are very popular as bedding plants and in flower boxes.
Mr Smit says the collection was originally started by Professor Adri van der Walt, then professor of botany at SU. Professor Van der Walt collaborated with Gerhard Fischer in Germany, and a large part of the South African collection was sent to Germany.
In 2007 the company he founded, Fischer Pelargonium, became one of the world’s largest suppliers of pelargoniums.
In his farewell message, Mr Smit emphasised the uniqueness of the SU Botanical Garden: “Few people realise that this is the only botanical garden in the Cape Floral Kingdom associated with a university. This creates unique opportunities for research and training. In other floral kingdoms around the world, you would typically find ten times and sometimes even hundreds of botanical gardens associated with universities.”
He also singled out his staff and the volunteers for their hard work and support.
At a farewell function recently, several of his colleagues and Friends of the Garden recognised Mr Smit’s contribution towards restoring the status and research value of the SU Botanical Garden, often with limited resources.
Over the past five years Mr Smit initiated several projects to restore neglected parts of the garden. The heating system for the lily dams was renovated to accommodate the specific needs of the giant water lily, Victoria cruziana. This is now the only garden in Africa, apart from Madagascar, where visitors can observe this unique lily.
The tropical glass house was renovated and enlarged and is now home to the world’s smallest water lily, Nymphaea thermarum. This critically endangered water lily disappeared from the Rwandan wild a decade ago, and there is only a handful of botanical gardens worldwide who have succeed in propagating and growing this sensitive little plant.
On Mr Smit’s initiative the long-forgotten underground water reservoir was renovated, just in time to keep the plants alive during the current drought.
He introduced new standards of recordkeeping in the garden. The database has been digitalised and via the IrisBg database the garden is now connected with other botanical gardens worldwide. Local visitors can learn more about the plants in the garden by downloading the Garden Explorer app on their smartphones.
Viola Calitz, administrative officer, thanked Mr Smit for his energy, commitment and drive: “He created several growth and training opportunities for his staff, including opportunities to visit gardens overseas. He managed to get the garden back on the international radar, which led to a significant increase in the number of international visitors. There is no doubt about his vision and passion for the garden.”
Bonakele Mpecheni, horticultural assistant, wished him well with his new career and said he hoped the new garden will value Mr Smit for what he can contribute.
Professor Léanne Dreyer spoke on behalf of the Department of Botany and Zoology when she thanked Mr Smit for his support for research and training: “Martin realised the value of the unique scientific collections which have been built up over many years.
“He was proactive in safeguarding the collections and making sure they are well looked after. He also used his contacts worldwide to further expand existing collections. He understood the value of the garden for tertiary training in botany, and went out of his way to ensure that practical material from diverse and unique plant families in the garden was made available for several modules in botany.”