Floral Gems Coming To D.C.: Flower Power Saves South African Ecosystem
October 10, 1997
WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct. 10--The Ceres Karoo
mountains in South Africa's Fynbos region are covered with gems--not the kind
you dig from the earth, but those that grow from the soil.
At one time, Derick Ontong and his workers rose before dawn each
day to comb the rocky mountains for red, pink and creamy white wildflowers.
Now, to protect the rugged but fragile ecosystem--and for economic
reasons--Ontong and other South Africans are switching from flower picking to
The transition is being nurtured by a partnership between South
Research Council (ARC) and researchers at an urban garden half a world
away: the U.S. National
Arboretum operated in Washington, D.C., by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. The arboretum, part of USDA's Agricultural Research Service, will be the
site for this country's largest-ever South African flower exhibit starting Oct
"I have visited South Africa many times and am always struck by
that country's natural beauty," said Vice President Al Gore.
"I'm encouraged that this partnership will allow Americans to enjoy the beauty
of South Africa's flowers and that our technology will help the South Africans
preserve their land and its native plants."
The floral research is part of the
Africa Binational Commission, initiated by Gore and South Africa Deputy
Mbeki in 1994. The commission provides a framework for collaboration in
agriculture, business development, energy, environment issues, human resources,
education and technology to benefit both countries and strengthen democracy in
Wildflower harvesting in the Fynbos provides income for 20,000
people. But even in a land desperate for new jobs, it is viewed as a high-risk
way to make a living. Besides the heat and difficult terrain, fires frequently
scorch the grassy plateaus, halting flower growth for up to 6 years. Bugs and
disease can leave blossoms unfit for international markets.
The work is not easy on the environment, either. Researchers warn
that wildflower harvesting depletes seed reserves, tramples plants, disturbs
the soil and spreads the root rot disease Phytophthora.
Ensuring that the flowers--and the Fynbos ecology--have a healthy
future is what led to the partnership between the National Arboretum and South
Africa's Agricultural Research Council (ARC).
"This partnership will provide American florists and their
customers with these stunning flowers and also provide rural South Africans
with the technology they need to help protect the delicate ecosystem of South
Africa's Fynbos region, " said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "Clearly,
such scientific cooperation benefits both of our countries."
Cultivation is the key to preserving the floral splendor of the
Elton John Jefthas of the ARC is helping Derick Ontong and other
South Africans raise flowers in an agricultural setting. There, fires don't
threaten, pests can be controlled and workers don't face the hardships of
The cooperative agreement means Jefthas will be able to draw on
the horticultural expertise of the National Arboretum to boost flower
cultivation in the Fynbos and ease the pressure on the region's wildflowers. He
will travel to the United States on a Cochran Fellowship to learn cutting-edge
cultivation techniques from arboretum scientists. In turn, arboretum
researchers will gain insights from Jefthas and others on developing new floral
hybrids for U.S. markets.
To celebrate this cooperation, the largest collection of
cultivated South African flowers ever assembled in the United States goes on
display at the arboretum Oct. 17 through Nov. 16. The display will feature the
cream of South Africa's floral beauty including the breathtaking King Protea
and several hybrids never seen before in the U.S.
Co-sponsors of the exhibition are the National Arboretum, ARC and
the South African
The research agreement has implications far beyond floriculture.
South Africa holds 10 percent of the world's plant species on only 1 percent of
the earth's land mass. About 100 different botanical products are currently
harvested from its wild areas, many with medicinal value. The research
agreement opens the door to studying and preserving South Africa's wild plants
and their untapped pharmaceutical and industrial treasures.
Scientific contact: Tom Elias, director, ARs U.S. National
Arboretum, Washington, D.C., phone (202) 245-4539, fax (202) 245-4575,