Press "Enter" to skip to content

Learning not to hate bluegums

Are you a nationalist gardener? Do you plant water-wise indigenous plants representing our diverse and beautiful flora?

Plants and nationalism are not a subject that has come in for much attention in academia. Which is a pity, because there would be fertile ground for research into the discursive construction of responsible, morally appropriate indigenous gardening versus the invasive and alien “other”.

In South Africa over the last decade or so, we have seen a marked shift towards gardening with indigenous plants. It has not simply been a matter of pragmatic embracing of water-wise plants that can handle low rainfall and general neglect. There has been a distinctly nationalist tone to the indigenous gardening movement. A rediscovery of pride in what was formerly dismissed as failing to reach the standards of European or South American imports, especially in Johannesburg with our gardens of tipuanas and plane trees and grevilleas.

Karee, bushwillows, wild olives, stamvrug, proteas: I love South African trees, especially those of the Waterberg, and all things being equal, that is the one place in the world I would love to live (and if it weren’t for farm murders, that’s where I would be right now).

Beyond the private, contained space of the garden, there is the heroic Working for Water programme, which eradicates invader plant species that choke up our waterways and suck the life out of the land. Wattles are the chief culprit, and here in Australia it’s a real challenge for me to not look at a Port Jackson or a gum tree and not feel an involuntary surge of horror. I keep having to remind myself that here, these trees belong. They’re indigenous, or “native”, the term the Australians use.

Given the biological tit-for-tat that characterises botanical history in South Africa and Australia — I’ll trump your wattle with our bitou bush — it’s interesting that so many South African plants can be found in gardens in Sydney. Every second flowerbed is home to a Strelitzia regina. There’s more agapanthus in Wahroonga than there is in Houghton. Clivias jostle in verdant groves under Japanese cherries. Aloes and cotyledons are common in sunnier spots.

In the botanical gardens in Sydney, there’s a monstrous example of Olea europea subsp africana, our little wild olive that struggles against rocky hills in the Waterberg. It seems the wild olive is a weed in Australia. So now I must reprogramme myself, and stop finding them beautiful.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.