Binational Cooperation Yields a Wealth of New Blooms for
The U.S. National
Arboretum in Washington, D.C., is a unique installation in the
Agricultural Research Service. Of around
100 ARS locations worldwide, it is the only one that serves as an education
center and national garden, as well as a federal research laboratory.
King Protea, Protea cynaroides, the national flower of South
This year, the U.S. National Arboretum, one of the largest arboretums in the
country and the only federally funded one, celebrates its 70th anniversary.
The anniversary celebration began in March with the unveiling of
"Celebrating Science: 70 Years of Discovery" by arboretum director
Thomas S. Elias. "This exhibit highlights the many accomplishments of the
arboretum since it was established," he says.
The celebration continues this fall with special exhibits of fresh and dried
floral plants, highlighting exotic and rare cut and potted plants from South
Africa. Sponsored jointly by USDA's Agricultural Research Service, the South
African Embassy, and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa,
the month-long autumn exhibition will showcase the great floral diversity of
South Africa and the progress of mutually beneficial collaborative activities.
According to Elias, one of the highlights of the exhibit will be the
introduction of potted bulbs of a new Ornithogalum. It was developed and
named by researchers at the ARC Fynbos (pronounced FINN-bose) Unit near Cape
Town. These plants will be brought from South Africa by a contingent of the
"South Africa is noted for its tremendous diversity and richness of
flowering plantslike nowhere else on the planet," says Elias.
"It's especially rich in an assortment of bulb plants such as gladiolus
and amaryllis. Several South African plants well known to U.S.
gardenersmembers of the genera Gerbera, Sansevieria, Aloe, and
Plumbagowill be featured in the exhibit."
Unusually Varied Flora
Although South Africa occupies less than 1 percent of the world's land mass,
it contains 10 percent of all the Earth's species of plants. In an area smaller
than Vermont, the so-called Cape Floral Kingdom hosts more than 8,600 plant
species, 5,800 of which are unique to the area.
South Africa has a third of the world's succulent plant species, over 2,000
Mesembryanthemaceae species, and more than 100 Pelargonium
Aloe growing in the wild in the Drakensberg Mountains of South
"The South African exhibit will feature plants that show the area's
unique diversity and richness of flowering plants," says Elias.
"Especially interesting is the incredible assortment of exotic bulb
plants. Many are virtually unknown to U.S. growers, nurseries, and
According to Ruxton H. Villet, ARS Deputy Assistant Administrator for
international programs, "In 1995, nine animal and plant projects with
South Africa were implemented by ARS and funded by the U.S. Agency for
International Development. Their objective is to develop small-scale farming
with high-value agriproducts that could lead to small business enterprise in
rural areas. Ornamental plants is one area of focus."
This year, ARS will begin a cooperative project with South Africa to develop
and introduce these many new plants to U.S. consumers.
The project's mission:
- Identify high-potential plants for cooperative research with South African
- Develop them as new ornamentals and cut flowers for South African small
- Introduce the new plants into U.S. markets.
"What's disconcerting," says Elias, "is that about 1,700 of
the 8,600 flowering plants indigenous to the Cape are listed as being
critically rare, endangered, or vulnerable. An appalling 29 of these are known
to have already become extinct." This loss is the result of alien plant
invasion, uncontrolled fires, injudicious flower pickingas well as
agricultural and urban expansion.
But because of the great variety of plants and animals found in South
Africa, important segments have been protected by an extensive national park
system and progressive conservation practices.
Leucadendron, an indigenous member of the Protea family.
Visitors to the arboretum exhibit will discover the seven major types of
ecological communities, or biomes, in South Africa. They are forest, thicket,
grassland, savanna, nama karoo, succulent karoo, and the fynbos. Much of the
country's floral diversity is found in the Cape region in the fynbos (Dutch for
fine-leafed plants) biome.
A Magical, Botanical Land
The Cape Floral Kingdom, or Fynbos,
contains an exceptionally diverse and biologically unique flora. The Fynbos
comprises about 17,000 square miles of the southern and southwestern Cape. It
is located at the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic
The Cape Floral Kingdom is both the smallest and richest floral kingdom,
with the highest known concentration of plant speciesabout 1,300 per
4,000 square miles. Its nearest rival, the South American rain forest, has a
concentration of only 400 plants per 4,000 square miles. The total world range
of some of these plant species is an area smaller than half a soccer field.
Fynbos vegetation is an unusual mixture of plant types of different shapes
and sizes, though trees are rare in natural fynbos. Four plant growth types
occur: tall protea shrubs with large leaves, called proteoids; heathlike
shrubs, the ericoids; wiry, reedlike plants, called restioids; and bulbous
herbs, or geophytes.
The abundant ericoids comprise more than 3,000 species, including the 627
different species of the Erica family. Erica species are used in the
international horticultural trade as potted plants. Currently in South Africa,
Ericas are harvested only in the wild for the cut flower industry.
ARS and ARC will begin a 3-year study in 1998 to develop new potted plants
of Erica species, Elias says.
Restioids, members of the Restionaceae family, resemble reeds or rushes and
consist of 310 species that include Elegia (32 species). Potted plants
of this interesting South African family will be part of the arboretum exhibit.
"These plants are a new substitute for ornamental grasses," says
South Africa has the richest geophyte flora in the world. It is home to over
2,000 flowering bulb species, of which more than 1,400 are found in the Cape
Floral Kingdom. Many of these bulbous species have been collected by visiting
botanists and then cultivated in foreign countries. They include some of the
most popular bulbous plants in the world, belonging to genera like
Freesia (iris family), Nerine (amaryllis family), and
Watsonia, a common bulbous herb.
Elias says that South Africa has 96 of the 160 Gladiolusspecies found
throughout the world. "The country also boasts 88 recorded species of the
lily Lachenalia, out of an estimated world total of 110. Several
examples of new Lachenaliahybrids developed by the ARC-Roodeplaat in
Pretoria will be displayed at the arboretum," says Elias.
A Boon to Small Growers
Realizing the inherent potential of
small-scale floriculture farming to improve the economic situation of
previously disadvantaged people, ARC has redirected the focus of its Fynbos
Unit. "This unit has taken the lead in applying science, together with
economics and community development, to form a comprehensive regional approach
to conservation," says Villet.
Flowers most commonly associated with the Fynbos are proteas. Aptly named
after the Greek god Proteus, who could assume many different forms at will,
proteas come in many shapes and sizes.
Native to the southern hemisphere, the proteas found in South Africa number
about half of those found in the world. The curious diversity in form and color
of the Proteaceaeis evident in the majestic King Protea, P.
cynaroides, which is the South African floral emblem; the delicate Blushing
Bride, Serruria; the fascinating Pincushions,
Leucospermum; and the Cone Bushes, Leucadendron.
"The flowers and fruits of certain proteas are attractive and unusual
in form and color, making them ideal for fresh or dried flowers and for use in
artistic arrangements," says Elias.
In all, South Africa has 15 indigenous genera and more than 400 species.
Over 50 different cultivated forms of proteas will be featured in the arboretum
Says Villet, "South Africa's diverse and beautiful groups of flowering
plants can bring excellent prices in international markets. But there are
Spring wildflowers bloom along the Cape of Good Hope coast.
"The wildflower industry in the western Cape has a long history. Fresh
and dried flowers, valued at about $20 million a year, are exported annually to
Europe and the East and involve about 20,000 people dependent on the industry.
But since flowers are still largely picked from plants in the natural habitat,
this ultimately has a negative environmental effect," says Villet.
"And the product rarely meets the stringent quality requirements for
So ARS, in collaboration with the ARC Fynbos Unit, is working to co-develop
technologies that will permit establishment of cultivation systems leading to
high productivity and quality that meet exacting standards required for
The unit has set up well-organized programs to train small farmers. It also
has an active research and development program to boost the industry. The
collaboration with ARS will lead to new cultivars, new links with U.S.
industry, and environmentally satisfactory farming operations in South Africa,
"It is important to have an efficient chain of operationsfrom
production to processing and from packaging to marketing. The Fynbos Unit
provides expertise and guidance in production and processing; the small farmers
have taken the responsibility on themselves for marketing their attractive
products," he says.
And We Gain, Too
Elias says the South African cooperative research program is "another
step in the arboretum's mission; that is, to develop and implement new and
innovative technologies for U.S. floral and nursery industriesto keep
them competitive in world markets."
Bird of Paradise.
Over the years, the arboretum has genetically improved major cut flowers and
flowering plants, including carnations, chrysanthemums, gladioli, hydrangeas,
irises, lilies, poinsettias, roses, and many other plants.
"During the last 10 years, the laboratory has developed several new
research programs involving both basic and applied research to improve floral
crops," says Elias. "The result has been development of many new
technologies in tissue culture, biotechnology, and entomologyas well as
new floral and nursery plants.By Hank Becker, ARS.
Cooperation Begins at Highest Levels
Research cooperation between
the Agricultural Research Service and its South African counterpart, the
Agricultural Research Council, had its beginnings in a U.S.-Republic of South
Africa Binational Commission that Vice President Al Gore and South African
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki signed into being in 1994.
The agreement provided a framework to facilitate collaboration in business
development, energy, the environment, human resources and education, and
science and technology that would be of benefit to both countries and help
enhance the stability of democracy in South Africa. Agriculture was added as a
specific focus in 1995.
Exchanges of scientists, coordinated research projects, joint seminars,
shared research facilities, and other partnerships between ARS and ARC are all
encouraged under the Binational Commission. Current projects include
commercialization of indigenous goat farming products, developing high-value
indigenous ornamental plants, and enhancing earnings for small-scale farming.
Other partnerships have been created to help enhance small-scale farming
between ARS and other South African institutions including universities, small
farm cooperatives, and local businesses, as well as the Ministry of
Agriculture. Many projects involve developing high-value products such as novel
biopesticides for sustainable agriculture. By Hank Becker
Elias is at the USDA-ARS U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave., NE,
Washington, D.C. 20002; phone (202) 245-4539.