Text by Jana Eleanor
Photos by Stephan Brückner
The National Botanical Garden of Namibia is a real sanctuary for anyone interested in Namibia’s indigenous flora. An exquisite piece of nature right in the heart of town, the garden offers visitors the opportunity to meander along the self-guided trails and learn something about more common plants, which have been clearly marked and identified.
The garden is home to a quiver-tree forest and also has a number of bottle trees. A very attractive feature is the dense stand of Windhoek aloes, Aloe littoralis, the plant featured as the symbol of the City of Windhoek. Anyone driving along Sam Nujoma Avenue from the city to Klein Windhoek (or vice versa) during April and May has probably noticed the vibrant spectacle of hundreds of blooming aloes. The garden comprises eleven hectares of land and is managed by the National Botanical Research Institute.
The Desert House, which was developed over the past three years, is a magnificent addition to the garden, offering a glimpse into the intriguing world of Namibia’s desert flora. It is the only part of the Botanical Garden where desert plants can be grown and displayed, as most of the species need to be protected from rain and cold and the rock hyraxes that roam the outside garden. Most of the plants were rescued during mining operations in restricted areas such as the Sperrgebiet. This makes it even more of a privilege to be able to view them, as these rare and interesting species occur only in remote and inaccessible places which tourists and even locals are unlikely to visit.
The Desert House is a veritable wonderland. Nature has the ability to constantly surprise and astonish us with its creations and the collection of desert plants displayed here once again confirms this magic. By looking closer, you can’t help but experience an overwhelming sense of amazement at the strange forms and mechanisms that many of the plants have developed to guarantee the survival of their species in the inhospitable environments where they grow.
The garden is divided into summer- and winter-rainfall sections. Seventy-five per cent of the plants occur in winter-rain areas like those found around Lüderitz, Aus and the Orange River, stretching over into the Succulent Karoo. The majority of plants are from areas that receive less than 50 millimetres annually. The garden has been landscaped to simulate the sandy plains, rocky outcrops and mountains where the plants occur naturally. Truckloads of dolomite rocks from the Namib Desert have been incorporated to make the desert plants feel more at home.
This is what makes a visit to the desert house so special. It provides a golden opportunity for locals and tourists to see these rare and interesting species without having to travel far distances. The most unusual plants are found among the succulents alone, accounting for the ecosystems where they grow. One of these is a succulent called halfmens (Afrikaans for ‘half man’).
Pachypodium namaquanum with its tall spiky stem is crowned by a ball of strangely shaped leaves. This plant grows against mountains in the Orange River valley and around Rosh Pinah and closely resembles a human figure from the distance. Another phenomenal desert succulent is the ‘stone plant’ Lithops karasmontana, which is expertly camouflaged to look like the pebbles it grows between, but turns into ‘flowering stones’ when in bloom. Just as strangely beautiful are the ‘button plants’ Conophytum, small round succulents that look like buttons stuck on the ground. The ‘window plant’, Fenestraria, is another masterfully adapted succulent. The plant’s fleshy leaves each sport a window-like marking, designed to optimise conditions for photosynthesis by catching the light directly.
Eye catchers at this time of year are the different forms of ‘vygies’, Lampranthus, which form part of a dominant succulent family. These plants have fleshy leaves, but are otherwise extremely variable in shape and size. They flower in the wintertime from around 14:00 and provide a colourful alternative to the mostly muted colours of the other desert plants. Most fascinating are the dwarfed shapes of many of the plants hosted here, such as the elephant’s foot, Adenia pechuelli, which anchors itself in rock crevices and bears a close resemblance to a real elephant’s foot. This sturdy plant is one of many exotic plants that can only be found in remote areas such as the Skeleton Coast. The garden also displays a range of Bushman candles, Sarcocaulon patersonii, another intriguing desert plant. The San people have traditionally used parts of the dried plant as candles, which is possible because of a waxy layer around the stem. Other highlights of the Desert House’s collection are the many different kinds of aloe, euphorbia and geraniums.
One of the objectives of the Desert House is to foster an appreciation and awareness of the Namibian desert flora in its visitors. It contributes towards plant conservation and research through its ex-situ collections, but also has a strong educational purpose for schools and students from tertiary institutions and members of the general public. For Windhoek residents and Namibians in general, the garden serves as an excellent example of water-wise gardening.
It is also very popular with tourists. The garden is open on working days from 8:00 to 17:00 and guided walks are offered every first Saturday of the month from 8:00 to 11:00.
Flamingo July 2008