Global Gardens: Plants of Africa
This week, on our Global Garden tour, we explore the diverse flora of Africa. Throughout the Park and within the decorative planters, you will find a variety of these unique plants. Africa is a huge continent consisting of 20% of the world’s landmass; Northern Africa is primarily desert while its central and southern areas contain both savanna plains and dense jungle. Africa is also one of the hottest continents on Earth with 60% of the entire land surface consisting of drylands and deserts. Both its landscape and resources have been greatly influenced by its colonial history.
Egyptian gardens were cherished as early as the 4th Century BCE. Gardens in private homes and villas were mostly used for growing vegetables and located close to a canal or the river. Over time, their purpose went beyond utility to incorporate pleasure and beauty. Temple gardens, on the other hand, had plots for cultivating special vegetables, plants or herbs that were considered sacred to a certain deity. Sacred groves and ornamental trees were also planted near temples. As temples were representations of heaven and built as the actual home of the god, gardens were laid out according to the same principle. Avenues leading up to the entrance could be lined with trees; courtyards could hold small gardens and between temple buildings gardens with trees, vineyards, flowers and ponds were maintained. Due to the arid climate of Egypt, tending gardens meant constant attention and depended on irrigation. Skilled gardeners were employed by temples and households of the wealthy.
Ornamental horticulture became highly developed during the development of Roman civilization. The administrators of the Roman Empire actively exchanged information on agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, hydraulics, and botany. Seeds and plants were widely shared. The Roman Empire depended on Northern Africa for much of its supply of grain. The city of Carthage in modern day Tunisia was an agricultural mecca.
European powers set out to explore the heart of Africa for nearly 400 years. The rainforest regions of Africa contained many hunter gatherer societies that depended on the rainforests for food, medicine and other goods. Products like gum, copal, rubber, cola nuts, and palm oil still provide steady income revenue for the people in this region. Africa is losing over four million hectares of forest per year, which is twice the average deforestation rate for the rest of the world. There is a fine line between traditional agriculture and ecology. Plantation forestry used with non native African trees is starting to damage regional ecosystems.
Southern Africa has flora unlike anywhere else in the world due to the fact they had to adapt to rainfall shortages. Many of them utilize features like modified leaves, spines, and alternative photosynthetic pathways to accommodate the low rainfall. Many of these species have extensive and modified root systems that can take advantage of underground water and store water in their roots and stems for dry periods. Some can even absorb water through their leaves.
Garden and ecology tourism has become popular in Southern Africa. In 2019 Cape Town, South Africa won the iNaturalist: City Nature Challenge, setting a new record in plant, insect and animal observations. Their challenge helped identify that three species of seed bearing plants have gone extinct in South Africa every year since 1900 setting a new community drive for conservation work.