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MEET THE ALBERTINA SISULU ORCHID

This year’s centenary celebrations for our former President Nelson Mandela and struggle stalwart Mme Albertina Sisulu have certainly shone the spotlight on the importance of South Africa’s historical heritage.

There is simply so much to learn about the men and women who in one way or another played a role in leading the country to its current democratic dispensation. Today, in different provinces and localities, there are museums and places of interest where all learn about where we come from as a nation.  In addition, there are botanical gardens open to all. Not forgetting, parks and game reserves where we can also learn about our natural heritage.

Amongst the centenary events, which brought this perspective, is the recent unveiling of the Sisulu Circle, wherein a statue of Ntate Walter Sisulu is located. The aptly named, Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort is situated to the west of Johannesburg.  Although I had visited Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town and have frequented the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, I must admit it was my first visit to this specific garden prior to this event.

Did you know that the gardens were almost named the ‘Walter and Albertina Sisulu Botanical Gardens’? “After all, Ma Sisulu was the gardener in the family” quipped Elanor Sisulu, as she delivered a message from the family, at the launch.

Nonetheless, recognising her passion as a gardener, there is a much more profound way in which the life of Ma Sisulu has been commemorated – a reminder that natural and historical heritage goes hand in hand.

Meet the Brachychorythis conica subsp.transvaalensis – the botanical name of a rare and critically endangered orchid we can now simply refer to as the Albertina Sisulu Orchid.

“After much research, the Proteadal Conservation Association and Wild Orchids Southern Africa (WOSA) decided to name the species the Albertina Sisulu Orchid” said WOSA Vice-Chairman, Karsten Wordrich, in commemoration of Ma Sisulu’s life – she would have turned 100 years old this year.  The two organisations saw this as “a match that was meant to be” comparing Ma Sisulu’s journey to that of the orchid which now to fights for its own survival.

  • The orchid first discovered in 1918 – exactly the same year that Ma Sisulu was born in the Transkei;
  • The orchid gained its botanical name (by a botanist from Kew Gardens in England) in 1955 – the year that Ma Sisulu joined the ANC Women’s League and took part in the launch of the Freedom Charter;
  • The orchid was last seen a year later in 1956 – this is the year that Albert Sisulu joined Helen Joseph, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and a number of other women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to protest against the apartheid pass laws;
  • The orchid was not seen or recorded again until the year 2007 – 51 years later. That was just four years before the sad passing of Ma Sisulu, when it was rediscovered by Andrew Hankey at its current location over a ridge on land bordering the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens.

The Albertina Sisulu orchid was once known from a few locations in Gauteng and in Mpumalanga. However, urban development has virtually wiped out all but one last viable colony of about 120 plants bordering the Gardens.   This area also happens to be hunting ground for the black eagle that draws many tourists to these Gardens.

The orchid itself is not easy to cultivate.  According to Wodrich, the plant cannot be relocated because of its fragility: “Once you start digging you will damage the plant from the roots – thus there is no way of moving these plants into a protected area”.   Another characteristic is that the seed is depended on fungus for germination and in the last four years attempts to grow the orchid from seed have to date been unsuccessful.  “Further attempts to germinate the seed from the orchid will be made in the next flowering season”, indicated the WOSA Vice-Chairman.

There are currently plans to develop a housing complex in exactly the area where the orchid is found.  This means the orchid runs the risk of being wiped out due to this development.   In this case, striking the delicate balance between addressing the growing needs of communities for housing and environmental needs for sustainability of our natural flora will not be easy.  However, it is hoped that dialogue between all parties involved will find a way to resolve this matter.

Just imagine, your next visit to the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens – what you will learn and the stories to share.  Not only about the beauty of the Gardens or the life and times of the man whose name the Gardens carry.  But also, the fascinating story of a woman whose own life journey inspires current efforts to ensure the sustainability of an orchid.

Indeed, it is this mix of our natural and historical heritage that adds flair and richness to South Africa’s tourism offering.  Ends.

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Kagiso Mosue, is the Corporate Communications Manager for the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA).  She recently represented the Tourism Business Council of South Africa at the launch of the Sisulu Circle, at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens on 10 July 2018

This blog post emanates from a speech made by the Karsten Wodrich, Vice Chairman of the Wild Orchids Southern Africa.

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