Cape Town - Heritage and health come together in the indigenous medicinal garden at Montagu’s Joubert House.
And what a delight when I not only discover this museum garden on a visit to the town, but also meet local resident Pieter Burger, who discovered a new pelargonium near his farm in the Koo Valley in 1992.
The garden is a delight for those who know the plants, and a discovery for those who don’t. Neatly laid out with name boards, and tended by Jerome Douw, it is kept well trimmed so that it is easy for visitors to see the plants.
Paths are made of peach and apricot pips, and there’s a wetter, marshy area down the centre. Right now some of the aloes are in flower and the orange flower of wilde dagga (Leonotis Leonurus) is starting to unfurl from its spiky head. Young fennel with its feathery leaves grows profusely.
There are many kinds of aloes, and the melktou (one of the Euphorbias) named for its milky sap, grows in its unruly fashion.
There’s lot of wilde als (Artemisia Afra), a popular herbal remedy for many ailments, and one you’ll find in many a garden of those who know herbs.
The medicinal garden has its roots in the 1980s when the museum trustees decided to gather information from the older generation before the knowledge was lost.
Herbal remedies of the Khoi and San who lived around the Langeberg mountains have been passed down through generations to farmworkers in the area and in 1982 the curator and chairman of the trustees of the museum paid a visit to one Cornelia Swart in Bredasdorp, who had found great relief from the herbs she had learnt about from a Khoi man who worked on her farm. These herbs came from the Montagu mountains.
That was the beginning of the museum’s research into the medicinal plants, and just more than 10 years later, in 1993, on a dusty bare piece of land behind the museum, the garden was started. Paths were laid out and beds established.
Remedies for ailments were written down based on the elders’ knowledge and the museum published a book, Herbal Remedies. The local names of plants were noted as well as the area they were found in.
As many as possible of the indigenous herbs are grown here, but many, like buchu, are habitat specific. Only 10 percent of the area’s herbs can be grown here and the museum’s list of herbal remedies is 115 long.
“When this project was started, it was also a project of job creation in the area,” says curator Annette Cilliers. “Several local people went on training courses to learn about the herbs and were taken on as workers.
“Today we have only one gardener, Jermaine Douw, and one herb cutter (due to lack of funds) who keep us going. Fortunately we have a team on our staff that can help out if necessary, but it can become hectic.”
Many people are involved with the garden, and Pieter Burger is one of them, playing an ongoing role.
He has been largely responsible for identifying the plants, matching their common names with their botanical names and verifying them. He also keeps an eye on the garden.
“I also go with the museum workers to collect plants. I am of this earth and know where the herbs are,” he says.
He shows me some of his piles of old telephone directories at his home, in which he dries the herbs requiring identification.
Using the local names as a guide – and the same plants can have different names depending on the area – he takes the books to the Herbarium in Kirstenbosch, and if they can’t identify the plants, they are sent to other people to do so.
In the museum garden there are many varieties of pelargoniums: lemon-scented, night-scented, gooseberry-leaved and five kinds of “wildemalva”.
Other plants that catch my eye are Krudijie-Roer-My-Nie (Melianthus Major), which is a poisonous plant as its name suggests, but is used as a poultice or a soak.
The common Bulbine grows well here, its sap the best remedy for burns, although its listed as good for eczema as well.
The garden is well established now, with large trees, and it’s a pleasure to go through it slowly with the list of plants and put the folk names to the plants. Uses for plants like Gifbol, Ghoenavy, Kooigoed and Kougoed, Kanniedood and Harpuis are fascinating to read up about.
There are some familiar ones, like kankerbossie (Sutherlandia frutescens), subject to research for its immune-stimulating properties.
Cilliers has many anecdotes to tell of the people who come to buy the herbs sold at the museum, made up for various remedies according to the old recipes.
The museum collaborates with a research project with the SA National Botanical Institute and UCT.
The University of the Western Cape, which has an indigenous phytotherapy centre, buys its herbs from here. These herbs are collected, under permit, from the wider area and dried.
Serendipity has it that Antoinette Pienaar, apprenticed for many years to her teacher Oom Johannes Willemse, is in Montagu to talk about her book, The Griqua’s Apprentice. She talks about the rich heritage of our indigenous herbs.
The Joubert House’s medicinal garden makes this cultural heritage all the more accessible to us.
Right spot, right time for unique plant find
Pieter Burger grew up in the Koo Valley and farmed there all his life. His passion is “plant spotting”. Wife Elise says: “When we drive he’ll suddenly slam on the brakes – he’s spotted something at the side of the road that’s interesting.”
The pelargonium he discovered grows on rough terrain, and is endemic to a very small area of the Koo Valley.
“I can remember that day well,” he says.
“We saw some pelargoniums and my daughter Celeste, then 10, asked: ‘Papa, what is this then?’ Instinct told me it was something new, something I hadn’t seen before, so I took it to Professor Adri van der Walt (a pelargonium expert).
“There was great excitement in the botanical world, it was sent to Germany to see if it matched other varieties, and it was unique.”
The pelargonium was named Pelargonium burgerianum, after Burger, and has a delicate white flower, flushed with pink, with a wine-red centre.
There are almost 40 kinds of pelargoniums in the Montagu area alone. “I was in the right spot at the right time,” says Burger.
He has tried to grow it in his garden in Montagu, but it won't take.
It likes north-facing slopes with rocky, gravelly soil.
But, he says, he knows of people who have managed to grow it in their yard in Paris.
How strange is that. - Cape Argus