Flora that's spread a long, long way

In the first of three features on gardening around the world, Mary Keen finds colonialism dug into the dirt of South Africa, where stunning indigenous species are ignored in the struggle for the perfect English garden
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The Independent Online
Nelson Mandela's autobiography seemed the obvious book to take on a recent lecture tour of South Africa. In Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Dur-ban and Cape Town, I followed the Long Walk to Freedom, but the gardens on the trip were far from liberated. No one has gone native on the wave of new republicanism: instead of Strelitzias and Proteas, there was a horticultural apart-heid of rose gardens and lavender. In England, gardening crosses all classes and creeds, but there it seems as though the reactionaries still have a firm hand on the hoe. So firm, that without the book to prove that things have changed, the visitor might wonder if the clocks had stopped in the Fifties.

Natal is often described as "the last outpost of the British Empire". There, the people were friendly and welcoming in an old-fashioned, delightful way. Their garden show was sponsored by South Africa's oldest newspaper, The Natal Witness, whose young proprietor went to Cambridge. This flower show majors in the sort of displays that might be consigned to the margins of similar events in Britain. At Hampton Court and Chelsea the marquees are crammed with stands that display plants, in Natal there were few. One nurseryman, exhibiting indigenous plants, attracted less attention than several tents that were temples to the creativity of ladies with time on their hands.

In the cake decorators' tent were to be found some of the best flowers in the show. A whole branch of frangipani; a stem of mimosa with one tiny brown faded blossom among the golden puff-balls; a wreath of blackberries and forget-me-nots - and all of these marvellous blooms were spun from sugar. It was hard to believe that everything, pots, branches, roots, leaves and petals had been created out of confectionery. The judges were much less impressed than the spectators. In neat labels lying under the near perfect creations they had written "try to copy the real flower" or "pay more attention to the stamens". The foot-tall frangipani had a mark of 99 per cent, only God, one judge explained gets the full 100.

A bridal marquee was filled with wedding settings. Gold was the favourite colour scheme and a dummy bridegroom in morning dress waited nonchalantly for his bride, with a rose between his teeth. The flower arrangements, tiered like traditional cakes, towered over tables with toning cloths.

The flower arrangers' Mecca was a monument to those with plenty of leisure. Here, there were set pieces with titles like "To the Beat of a Different Dream" which might have been interpreted as a bow to the new republic, but was executed with drums and military insights of a distinctly colonial flavour. In another class, competitors were striving to depict "Stand out. Don't blend in" and their arrangements did contain the revolutionary and flamboyant Strelitzia - orange bird-of-paradise-like flowers named after George III's consort, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. At the end of the 18th century, exotics were all the rage. Everyone hates them now. However, Strelitzias, Shona sculpture and African slate were used in an imaginative garden stand arranged to suggest "New Directions". Much more popular than this was a potager-style town garden featuring reproduction York stone and clipped lavender bushes. Pine seedlings had been used to edge the beds. They looked very green and feathery but their maintenance as a dwarf hedge would have been impossible. Everyone asked about box hedges, would they grow? Why were they not available? If no garden could be considered complete without formal hedges, I wondered why myrtle was not an option. Was myrtle used for hedges in England, they asked?

At a reception in the evening, where I had to make a speech, I picked the wrong display. My favourite garden, "New Directions", failed to win the best exhibit prize. This was reserved for the flower arrangers' tent. In the audience a sympathetic pair, the Natal Parks' ornithologist and his wife, volunteered a trip to an indigenous garden the following day. On the way we drove through the Larny district. Larny means posh, and posh means azaleas and roses and locked gates with high security fences. Up in the hills behind Pietermaritz-burg, where the porcupines dig up what the bucks don't eat, we visited the indigenous plot belonging to the big mammal expert. The work there only takes an hour a week and they can grow Buddleia auriculata, which is a plant to turn most English gardeners green. Agapanthus and Clivias looked glossy and comfortable under the trees, but as the garden is strictly for the birds, the flowers, the owners said, were not their prime concern. The big mammal expert's children were busy feeding a carnivorous snail with a captive lunch.

The Botanic Garden at Pietermaritz-burg was full of Watsonias and weaver's nests but I saw nothing so exotic in the gardens of Kwa Zulu Natal. "a little bit of England", "design inspired by pictures of Sissinghurst", said their descriptions. I had to see Sissinghurst, but I doubt Vita would have recognised this homage to her poetic place. Formal bedding and standard roses were the key features. The prettiest of the open gardens was a shady terraced plot, dominated by a giant multi-stemmed avocado tree, underplanted with pansies and delphiniums and plenty of places to sit.

In Cape Town a visit to Kirstenbosch, which is the National Botanic Garden of South Africa, produced a cornucopia of plants to inspire the non-imperialist gardener. No roses but plenty of species from the Fynbos, which is South Africa's Mediterranean-type territory. Hot, dry summers and wet winters suit Proteas and silver trees (Leucadendron agenteum), but it was the bulbs, orchids and annuals that made me wish I could garden in South Africa. Ixia, Lachenalia, Veltheimia, Nerine, Amaryllis, Gladiolus and Schizostylis grow wild in the Cape. We struggle to please them here, growing them singly and feebly instead of in sheets and drifts. They had, too, banks of annuals - mainly daisies in clear pinks and oranges that suit African skies much better than pastel shades. The Cape Anchusa, intensely blue, seemed happier than the forget- me-not that I kept seeing in the "nostalgic for England" gardens. The area that I most admired at Kirstenbosch was a stone-sided bathing pool in a dell of tree ferns where an early curator used to wallow.

If there were lessons for South African gardeners at Kirstenbosch there were also some for us. When plants are happy in their native habitat, it feels like cruelty to grow them in less friendly surroundings. I thought with guilt of my Schizostylis in the Cotswolds, planted on the dry edge of a flower bed, it hardly ever flowers well. When I saw them growing in running water I knew I could not offer this late summer bulb what it really needs. West Country gardeners with damp summer places might succeed in pleasing Schizostylis, although their lack of drainage in winter would probably be less suitable than the free draining conditions here.

It was impossible to convince an audience that growing roses is as hard for them as growing fynbos bulbs and orchids might prove in England. At the lectures, slides of the cottage garden at Hidcote designed to illustrate how not to garden south of the Equator were greeted with gusts of rapture. The suggestion that the supplies of labour and water now expended on gardens of English flowers might not always be unlimited, provoked dismay and disbelief. Too cowardly to imply that it might be politically more acceptable to grow native rather than colonial flora, I explained that it would be easier to use more indigenous plants. "You don't understand", they said "we love English gardens".

The ultimate ex-pat garden adorned the Roedean of South Africa, in Johan- nesburg, sister school of the famous establishment here. Among "Peace" roses and irises, arranged by an old girl, there were pupils in gym tunics, like the one I used to wear - about the time Mandela was first tried for high treason. But outside the junior school, by special request from the mistress in charge, orange Alstroemerias had been planted - to the beat of a different dream? !