A gardening legend remembered

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Gardening legend Una van der Spuy (20 July, 1912 – 16 July, 2012) has passed away, just four days short of her 100th birthday.

As the author of 10 books devoted to gardening, she leaves a formidable legacy to SA gardeners.

A close family friend, SA’s Mr Gardening, Keith Kirsten, recalls that in the days before her sudden heart attack on Monday, she was still driving to friends, scheduling tour groups to visit her garden this September and looking forward to a big family party planned to celebrate her 100th birthday.

As part of the celebrations, Cape journalist Glynis O’Hara recently interviewed Una for a profile. “She even climbed on to a wall of her stoep to perch there for our photographer’s picture, with her favourite oak tree behind her,’’ recalls O’Hara.

Born in East London, Una matriculated from a high school in King William’s Town in 1928 and went on to Rhodes University where she studied economics and international politics.

In November 1942, Una and her husband, General Kenneth Reid van der Spuy bought Old Nectar, a 12 hectare property with a historic Cape Dutch homestead for £3 200 in the picturesque Jonkershoek Valley, Stellenbosch.

Born in Stellenbosch in 1892, General Van der Spuy, after a distinguished flying career, retired to Stellenbosch, where he and Una delighted in growing roses and writing books.

As a young wife and mother in the 1940s, Una set about creating a garden worthy of their historic home at Old Nectar.

She had little knowledge of plants, but by the 1950s had developed a garden that would be declared a national monument, the only private garden to have been so honoured to date. From 1950, she opened the garden each spring to raise funds for various charities.

Ten years after she arrived at Old Nectar, Una started contributing gardening articles to magazines and, a few years later, wrote her first book, Gardening in Southern Africa.

“In order to illustrate her books she learnt photography and, over 12 years, she took about 10 000 pictures of flowers,” says her Randburg-based son David van der Spuy.

The Van der Spuys were also passionate about roses. “I visited Una at Old Nectar many times and was always impressed by her 65-year-old bed of Crimson Glory, which must be the oldest in the world by now,” says rose grower Ludwig Taschner.

The pink Una van der Spuy rose was named in her honour.

For many years Una was active in the field of conservation and preservation, particularly of old buildings. In 1992 the Cape Tercentenary Foundation gave her an award of merit for outstanding services to conservation in the Cape. She also received the highest honours from both the SA Nursery Association and SA Green Industries Council (Sagic).

“It is now 42 years since my two books on indigenous plants were published, the one dealing with trees and shrubs and the other with wild flowers,” reminisced Una on receiving Sagic honours in June.

“I still remember lying flat on the ground to take a close-up of some small but stunningly beautiful flower growing in the veld,” she said.

“I also recall being tired at the end of a day because of the weight of the large camera plus two tripods,’’ she laughed.

Looking back, Una said: “I often wonder why it has taken so long for gardeners to become enthusiastic about our indigenous plants.

“At least two other writers produced books about them in the 1970s when my first book on wildflowers appeared.”

“Una was already a pillar of the Cape gardening community when I started my business in 1962,” recalls Robert Stodel of Stodels Nurseries.

“Her garden in Jonkershoek was a must-stop for any serious horticulturist and she was always willing to guide people through the garden, giving them insights into the plants she had there.’’

Nick Stodel, who now manages the family’s five garden centres and currently serves as president of the International Garden Centre Association, says the gardening industry in the Cape is greatly indebted to Una.

“Many of the industry’s current leaders have had their thinking shaped by Una’s love for gardening. Old Nectar and her many gardening books are her legacy to us,” he adds. - Saturday Star

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