Heavy hearts as Plant Fair cancelled

Some of the volunteers who participated in setting up and selling at the event in 2014.

The Kirstenbosch Plant Fair has been cancelled and people want to know why.

Among them was Gustav Nauhaus who expressed his disappointment on social media, saying he had already paid for his return flight from Gauteng, his accommodation and car rental.

Gail Pergent who until recently was on contract with the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society (BotSoc), who organises the plant fair, said on Facebook that they had been “subject to structural changes which has seen the office staff reduced from three to one”.

“Without the necessary branch support staff in place, it is impossible to successfully host this event,” he added. “It was a very sad and traumatic month for Kirstenbosch branch staff when head office decided to retrench staff.”

Commenting on social media, Gaby Meyer said she thought that the plant sale was an important source of revenue, while Diana Studer added that it was damaging to all the nurseries that had stock prepared for March, and then for May, after the sale was initially postponed.

The plant sale happens every year, usually held over a weekend at the end of March in the grounds around the Stone Cottages across Rhodes Drive from Kirstenbosch. People arrive during the night, waiting for the gates to open wrapped in blankets, with flasks, chairs and catalogues marked with rare and exotic indigenous plants (“The theme of the Kirstenbosch Plant Fair was Feast of Fynbos”, Bulletin April 23, 2015).

This year it was due to take place over March 18 and 19, then rescheduled, they said because of the drought and water restrictions. Then, on April 12, Diana Thomson who is one of many BotSoc volunteers, notified the Bulletin that it was cancelled. That’s it, no reason, just cancelled.

Asked for further information, Ms Thomson sent a media release which BotSoc’s Kirstenbosch branch office manager Catherine Gribble had sent to all the growers, vendors and participants associated with the plant fair.

“It is with regret and a very heavy heart that I write to let you know that the Plant Fair, rescheduled for (the weekend of] May 13 and 14), will not take place.”

The release went on to echo the information about the impact of the staff restructure, which Ms Pergent had posted on Facebook.

Having sent questions to Botanical Society executive director Zaitoon Rabaney, BotSoc member Rob Baird then called saying he would forward a statement “in order to clarify certain factual inaccuracies that may be circulating around the Kirstenbosch Plant Fair cancellation”.

Glenda Thorpe, secretary of the Cape Horticultural Society, said some of its members were already aware of the situation. “One of our members who was going to have a stand (at the Plant Fair) is now trying to sell her plants to our members. And many of our members are also BotSoc members so are usually doing duty over that weekend,” she said.

According to Ms Rabaney a decision had been made not to renew the contracts of two staff members whose appointments had not been properly authorised in terms of the BotSoc code of good practice and constitution.

The land for Kirstenbosch was granted by the government on condition that a civil society organisation was formed to support its development, leading to the establishment of the Botanical Society on June 10, 1913.

Apart from the plant fair creating awareness about South Africa’s rich floral kingdom, it also raises funds for the development of Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. The plant fair is BotSoc’s most important fundraiser of year.

In return, Kirstenbosch provides products from its extensive nursery, giving gardeners a rare opportunity to acquire indigenous plants produced within Kirstenbosch itself. Two other botanical gardens – the Karoo Garden in Worcester and the Harold Porter Garden at Betty’s Bay – also provide specialised products. Indigenous plant wholesalers also supply indigenous products as well as hobbyists who bring their surplus treasures for sale to discerning buyers.

These include cycads, the most endangered of all plant species.

Also at the fair are vendors selling garden equipment, fynbos-inspired arts and crafts, compost, food and drinks, professional horticulturalists and experienced volunteers who help customers make their choices at the fair.

Kirstenbosch were asked to comment about cancellation of the event but did not respond by the time this edition went to print.