The Botanical Society of South Africa turns 110

The Botanical Society of South Africa is celebrating its impressive 110th anniversary this year, marking over a century of remarkable achievements.

Commonly known as BotSoc, this organisation is dedicated to conserving the indigenous plants of South Africa through various programmes aimed at enhancing knowledge, cultivation, sustainable utilisation, protection and appreciation of our natural ecosystems.

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BotSoc, which was founded on June 10, 1913, is a member-driven organisation that provides opportunities for citizen scientists, amateur nature enthusiasts, the general public and environmental experts to collaborate and contribute to solutions for biodiversity challenges across the country, according to environmental writer Dominic Naidoo.

According to Naidoo, the establishment of BotSoc coincidentally aligns with the founding of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in the same year. The government granted the land for the garden’s development under the condition that a civil society organisation be established to support it.

During the challenging period of World War I from 1913 to 1920, BotSoc volunteers actively collected and sold firewood, soil and acorns to generate revenue for the development of Kirstenbosch. Remarkably, their efforts accounted for 31% of the total funds raised. In 1914, William Duncan Baxter, the inaugural chairman of the BotSoc Council, expressed his belief that the Botanical Society had played a significant role in the notable progress made at Kirstenbosch.

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He foresaw that, with uninterrupted dedication, Kirstenbosch would become one of the world’s most renowned botanical gardens. In the subsequent year, the Journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa was established, featuring a range of articles on South Africa’s flora, activities at Kirstenbosch and the society’s annual reports.

BotSoc emerged as a pioneering force in the fledgling field of conservation in South Africa. In 1939, the society assumed responsibility for flora conservation, taking over from the Wildflower Conservation Society. BotSoc played a vital role in promoting and enforcing legislation against the unsustainable harvesting of wildflowers. During its early decades, BotSoc operated from private homes and offices until 1949, when purpose-built offices were constructed at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. These offices still serve as hubs for members today.

In the 1950s, Edith Stephens, a botany lecturer at the University of Cape Town and a member of the Botanical Society Council, led an initiative to purchase the Isoetes Vlei on the Cape Flats with the support of other members. This acquisition prevented the loss of a valuable remnant of Cape Flats habitat which was later transformed into the Edith Stephens Wetland Park.

BotSoc continues to make significant contributions to biodiversity and conservation in South Africa through collaborations with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the highly regarded citizen science programme known as Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW). The CREW programme engages volunteers in monitoring and conserving threatened plants in South Africa, providing valuable data for land management strategies.

From its humble beginnings intertwined with the founding of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, BotSoc has expanded its reach across South Africa as new national botanical gardens emerge and public interest in plants continues to grow.

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