Veld & Flora Feature



Earth mother Nomama Mei

In the first of Veld & Flora’s new series on curators, get to know Nomama Mei, who has the exciting challenge of developing the new Kwelera National Botanical Garden



Nomama Mei


Above: “Treat plants with respect,” says Nomama Mei, here getting up close with a giant redwood (Sequoiadendron gigantea) at the RHS Wisley Garden in the UK.


GIVING BIRTH TO A GARDEN is packed with thrills and fraught with fears. Since 2018, Nomama Mei has been the person entrusted with the daunting task of establishing the new national botanical garden, Kwelera, in East London.

The 10 hectares of the managed section of the new garden embrace five important plant habitats – grassland, dune forest, strandveld thicket and coastal forest. It is also the first NBG to run right down to the coast and include this fascinating borderland of land, sand and sea. Like Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay, for example, it also includes a 160-hectare nature reserve.

The name Kwelera is derived from the old Khoe word ‘Goerecha’, meaning many aloes – and startup has certainly proved spiky during this time of Covid. An immediate setback was getting the land fenced, which was finally achieved in March 2021.


Top left and below right: Explore Kwelera’s secret garden – 10 hectares flanked by grassland, forest and strandveld thicket. Photos by Christopher Willis. Top right: Nomama Mei has gardening in her blood and was taught to nurture plants by her grandmother. Below left: Kwelera runs right down to the beach, where this flame lily (Gloriosa superba) has made its home. Photos by Monki Siza

‘Why Kwelera is important’

I love the Department of the Environment’s goal of having a botanical garden in every province to conserve SA’s flora sustainably for future generations. The plan is to collect some of what is in the wild and showcase it at a central point. The Eastern Cape is very rural and most people use medicinal plants so Kwelera will showcase medicinal plants. We are also conserving threatened species, including establishing a seed bank at the gardens to preserve the genetic purity of the plant species. – Nomama Mei


Above: Monki Siza (in black jeans), Kwelera’s acting estate manager, guides local learners round one of Kwelera’s nature trails. Photo by Nomama Mei



But Nomama is used to overcoming obstacles and capitalising on opportunities. She was born in Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape, close to Bloemfontein and about 50 kilometres from the Lesotho border.

“I went to boarding school and loved being there and the independence that I had to manage my own time,” she recalls. “I studied agriculture from primary level – I was used to people producing their own food in their own yards,” she says. “Where I grew up, everyone grows food. Plants are part of your daily life.

“Granny had fruit like pears, as well as vegetables, chickens, pigs, cows, everything. Her routine was to water morning and evening.

“I would say, ‘Always spend time gardening with your grandmother.’ She was my maternal grandmother and played a huge role in my upbringing. Grandmothers are very strong women – the providers who make do with nothing.”



Nomama’s mother, Esther, was a working mom. “My mother is very resilient,” says Nomama. “She is very motherly, very kind – very little like her own father.

“I see myself in her many times. As the first born, you do most of the things your mum does, including household chores, of course.” Nomama’s father, Simon Moorosi, was a farm worker and skilled mechanic, fixing tractors in the workshop. When Nomama matriculated in 1994, achieving an exemption, her mother wanted her to be a teacher. While looking for a place to train, Nomama moved to join her father, who was then working in the Western Cape, and he paid the fees for her to do a one-year certificate in agriculture at Elsenburg.

“Protea cultivation was introduced there for a semester and I fell in love with it,” she says. “It was ornamental horticulture rather than production of food and so pleasing to the eye – you could feast with your eyes.”



Above: On a 2015 study visit to England, Nomama was impressed by what she saw and the lively and engaging approach to environmental education.



After completing an agriculture diploma at Elsenburg, Nomama worked in the fruit industry apples and pears as a quality controller. She went on to work as a research technician and propagator at the Agricultural Research Council in her specialist area of viticulture.

But often seeing the beauty of proteas in their natural habitat was a constant reminder of her plant love. She decided to go further in horticulture and did a degree in horticulture with UNISA. She ultimately became senior horticulturist at the plant collections nursery at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden before being given the challenge of being the founding curator of the new Kwelera garden.

This meant moving to a coastal village in the Eastern Cape – “which is definitely not as cold as where I grew up!” she says. Nomama has two children, daughter Zenande (23) and son Neo (16). “Neither are into natural science at all,” she says. “Neo hardly goes walking and would even kill a spider! He is at high school and studying accounting and auditing. Zenande is studying to be a chef at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and is in Cape Town full time.”


Above: Workers from the Expanded Public Works Programme are lending a hand to get Kwelera up and running. Photo by Monki Siza.


Above: Conservation worker Eric Phete checks out the nursery at the Kwelera National Botanical Garden. Photo by Siyasisanda Tom



If she were to advise a young person interested in becoming part of the plant world, Nomama would emphasise that passion comes first. “You must be passionate about plants – it must come from your heart. There are lots of opportunities – running your own business, tissue culture, your own horticultural production nursery, for instance – but you must love what you do.

It is not just about your own knowledge and being able to grow plants – what are you going to do about it? Teach people about plants, right down to which pot size a plant needs, and also remember to teach how to conserve plants for future generations.”

When she was sent to England in 2015, Nomama was particularly impressed by the way environmental education was handled. “I loved the conservatory with its many tropical plants at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley Garden. And the way they did environmental education – very practical, with foods to show the children, for example, was amazing.”


Above: The Kwelera nursery grows local indigenous plants for sale to the public such as (top) Cape primrose (Streptocarpus meyeri), (below from left) gladioli (Gladiolus ochroleucus), Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and mesembryanthemum (Caprobrotus acinaciformis).



Back at Kwelera, even though they are in such early stages that getting fences erected in March 2021 was a major landmark, the developing garden has already had a lot of visitors. As well as seeing how the garden is progressing, plant enthusiasts enjoy the lovely sweet thorn (Vachellia karoo).

“There is a beautiful peak about 45 minutes’ hike into the nature reserve and plenty to see on the trail, including beautiful orchids,” says Nomama. “There is lots of biodiversity in the reserve, including bushbuck and porcupine. People love it.” Another feature of Kwelera is a nursery containing local indigenous plants for sale to the public that Nomama established when she arrived.

“We have collected a lot, including low-growing succulents and herbaceous perennials – the nursery is full,” says Nomama. “There are many other beautiful things around but we can’t take them all!” Nomama’s mother wanted her first born to be named Zukiswa, meaning ‘to praise’, but it was the baby’s nickname that ended up on her baptismal certificate. Her mother can be proud that, whatever her daughter’s name, Nomama’s foundational work steering this new national botanical garden through such difficult times will be remembered with praise.


Above: As well as producing local plants for sale, propagating plants for landscaping the garden area and assembling a living plant collection are also priorities at Kwelera.


‘My typical day’

I make a To Do list the previous day – what still needs to be sown, potted up, the hardening off area. Most plants are in planting bags. We cannot wait until 2022 until we are open to start bulking up trees, shrubs and slow-growing species. At the moment, we have no horticultural assistants so I am doing that as well, including working weekends to make sure the plants are wet, checking the plants and the propagation area. I’m also involved in Kwelera village to promote indigenous planting and to remove exotics to plant South African plants. Then I do some planning – I do a new workplan once a week. I also have to oversee our adjoining nature reserve, from clearing alien plants to law enforcement. We do joint patrols with the nature reserve.

I receive a report from the estate manager on what has happened and what we can do to strengthen law enforcement to stop abalone poaching particularly, fishing without permits and dogs not being walked on the leash. I look at the admin-related issues – petty cash, COVID documents when applicable, restoration work and collaboration with other stakeholders. It is important to do policies and meetings and all the admin of procuring goods and services but I still enjoy the horticultural part most – getting in touch with plants. I want to be stay involved when the garden is up and running, probably not doing so much but still supporting our horticultural staff and being very involved.

This article was featured in Veld & Flora in the June 2022 edition.

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1 Comment

  1. Well done animals and wow would love to turn up to see this beautiful botanical garden for myself as I have a Cuz who moved to Darling and now a good excuse to visit this beautiful garden and pay a visit to my Cuz too💞💃🌿🍂🌾

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