Durban Botanical Gardens | General & History
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General & History

Africa’s oldest surviving botanic garden

The Botanic Gardens have played a vital role in the life of Durban since its establishment in 1849. It had its origin in a garden that was primarily established for the cultivation of vegetables, fruits and other agricultural crops. It developed through these successive stages until it became an important botanical station, achieving local and international recognition through its research, plant collection, educational outreach and connecting people and plants.

The Gardens during the early years

The Durban Botanic Gardens was established by the Natal Agricultural and Horticultural Society as early as 1849. The settlement of D’Urban at the time was little more than a village with three or four sandy tracks, an assortment of thatched cottages and huts, and one-double storey house on the corner of Anton Lembede and Dorothy Nyembe Streets (Smith and Gardiner).

Founding a botanic gardens had been inspired by Cape Town’s revival of the old Dutch East India botanic gardens in the centre of the Mother City. At first, Durban’s botanic gardens was situated on the south bank of the Umgeni River, but it had to be shifted from this hippo- and croc-infested site to the lower slopes of the Berea forest in 1851. There it languished in splendid isolation, still visited by roaming lion, though somewhat cut off from the growing town by the famous Eastern Vlei, an extensive wetland which ran from the Umgeni right up to near the present-day Warwick Avenue.

The Durban Botanic Gardens began as an agricultural research station for the trial of agricultural crops that included tea, coffee and arrowroot. However, it was sugar that proved to be the most successful and resulted in the development of the sugar industry in KwaZulu-Natal. Mark McKen, who was Curator of the Gardens at the time, was instrumental in bringing sugar to South Africa. McKen, having spent time at Bath Botanic Gardens in Jamaica, knew the sugar industry well and varieties such as Uba found their way into the Durban Botanic Gardens during his time and the time of Medley Wood. It was the Gardens’ early association with sugar industry pioneer, Edmund Morewood, who established the first sugar mill on the Colisheen Estate near Ballito.

For a more detailed history of the Botanic Gardens, please read the New History of the Durban Botanic Garden by Prof Donal. P. McCracken. This book can be purchased from the Durban Botanic Gardens Information Office.

Back in the day

Some key milestones

1849: Botanic Gardens established on bank of Umgeni River

1851: Botanic Gardens transferred to site in Berea forest

1881: Running of DBG transferred from Natal Agricultural & Horticultural Society to the Durban Botanic Society

1882: Colonial Herbarium established

1889/1890: New curator’s house erected

1894: Durban Botanic Gardens linked to town by telephone

1898: Jubilee Conservatory erected

1902: New Herbarium building erected

1906: Tea room erected

1907: Wood’s cycad transported from Ngoya forest

1913: Durban Botanic Gardens transferred to trustees to be maintained by town council, now known as the EThekwini Municipality

1913: Herbarium transferred to government control – South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

1946: Conservatory demolished because unsafe

1963: The Charles James Tea Gardens were opened by the Natal Anti Tuberculosis Association.

1993: Durban Botanic Gardens Trust established

1995: Music at the Lake Concert series launched by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust as a fundraising initiative

2000: Establishment of the Visitors Complex by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust

2012: John Medley Wood Medal awarded for first time

2012: Living beehive erected (first scientific construction in Gardens in 90 years). This was later redeveloped into a Butterfly Habitat Garden in 2017

2013: Celebration of the Centenary of the Durban Botanic Gardens under eThekwini Municipality

2013: Launch of the Woodiana publication by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust

2015: Publication by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust of the Durban Forest as the first book in the uMkhuhlu Series

Some prominent previous curators

Mark McKen (1850s/1860s): ‘A fiery Scot’. Laid out the gardens and collected indigenous plants from the wild.

Robert Plant (1854-1856): ‘A human oyster’. A superb plant hunter who wrote the first botanical account of Zululand.

John Medley Wood (1881-1913): ‘The father of KwaZulu-Natal botany’. Self-trained botanist, excellent indigenous plant collector. The first person living in south-east Africa to describe indigenous plants scientifically. Founder of the KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium (1881) and author of the region’s first flora, Natal Plants.

Ernest Thorp (1936-1975): ‘Shepherd through the difficult years’. Planted many trees and established the famous orchid collection.

Christopher Dalzell (1996-2010): ‘Sowing seeds of the renaissance’. Under the direction of Parks Department chief and founder of the Durban Botanic Gardens, Trust Errol Scarr, he undertook the initial stage of the gardens’ renaissance.