Growing resilience

Walking into the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay to a view stretching from a lily pond to the Kogelberg is a peaceful moment – but succeeding as curator of this fire and flood-prone garden requires a stout heart and creative energy



Growing resilience

Walking into the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay to a view stretching from a lily pond to the Kogelberg is a peaceful moment – but succeeding as curator of this fire and flood-prone garden requires a stout heart and creative energy


One of Berenice Carolus’s earliest memories is her parents packing everything on to a truck as the little pre-schooler and the rest of her family left Cape Town’s District Six, among the last families to be forcibly removed to Mitchell’s Plain in the early 1980s.


“I can still feel that sense of community we had in District Six and lovely memories of my grandparents living just round the corner,” Berenice says pensively.


The family also left behind a great veggie garden that her father Ronald, a plumber, had created in their back garden. But undaunted, he started again in Mitchell’s Plain, eagerly and energetically helped by Berenice especially.

The resilience that Berenice Carolus learned growing up has helped her withstand the ravages of fire and flood as curator of the fynbos gem, Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay. Photos by Loretta Floors


“I was the middle of three girls and a real tomboy,” Berenice recalls. “I remember mowing, picking tomatoes, cherries and chillies.

“Dad’s garden was important to all of us and we still have lemons and a curry-leaf tree there even though he passed away in 2019. He had strong values and took a lot of pride in his work, which is very much part of our lives today as his children.”


At Lentegeur High School, biology was so much Berenice’s favourite subject that she really looked forward to the days that it was on the timetable.

“Physics and science in general I also enjoyed,” she says, “but I did not like geography or business studies. I ditched them as soon as I could!”

Berenice was determined to develop a career that suited her and not just follow others into basic office jobs.

“I was against anything where I needed to wear high heels, makeup and nail polish!” she laughs.

After only about 30 minutes’ walking through shady forest areas at Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, the lovely Disa Kloof trail brings you to this lovely waterfall where the spectacular red disa (Disa uniflora) bloom in December and January. Photos by Loretta Floors and Ebraime Hull


Eventually, when Berenice had been out of school for a few months, she discovered what the job of her dreams could be – a horticulturist. Suddenly, she found that she could build her career on one of her favourite activities, planting and growing things, getting her hands dirty with a green purpose.

Berenice studied for a horticulture diploma at the Peninsula Technikon (now Cape Peninsula University of Technology), during which she was fortunate enough to do two six-month studentships at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. After graduating, she was back to do a two-year internship at Kirstenbosch – but there would be a twist in that tale.


Berenice Carolus (right) and colleague Cathleen Floris pause to admire March flowers (bloedbloem; Haemanthus coccineus) which have just made a seasonal appearance – rock crevices are one of the plant’s favourite sites. Photo by Loretta Floors


Berenice left Kirstenbosch a few months early in 2001 to move nearly 90 kilometres east to Harold Porter National Botanical Garden in Betty’s Bay on the southern Cape coast – a rarity among national botanical gardens in South Africa because it was established in a biosphere reserve. It covers about 200 hectares, including a 10-hectare garden area devoted only to fynbos plants, as opposed to Kirstenbosch which showcases indigenous plants from throughout South Africa.

Berenice was taking on her first full post as horticulturist. Her then boss, the curator, was today’s BotSoc CEO Antonia de Barros.

“I was very introverted and I remember Antonia urging me to face challenges and stand up for myself,” Berenice recalls. “She pushed my boundaries and made sure I went beyond my comfort zone.”

 Some favourite flowers from Harold Porter NBG – (clockwise from top left) March lily (Amaryllis belladonna) flowers in late summer and autumn before its leaves have developed; Kogelberg blue stars (Nivenia stokoei) looks luscious but thrives in nutrient-poor, sandstone-derived soil; blood flower (Haemanthus coccineus) is a late-summer bulb whose flowering often takes you by surprise; cat’s tail (Bulbine frutescens) produces a juice like jelly that is used medicinally to help heal burns and sores. Photos by Loretta Floors

Spread the love

Berenice found that mentoring invaluable, especially when she was promoted to curator in 2011. Now Berenice finds her work days are a mosaic of budgeting, HR and meetings – but it all still revolves around the garden.

“We are always trying to think ahead, asking ourselves what we can do differently to attract people to the garden,” says Berenice. “We do need to generate income to keep the garden going but we make sure to focus on our core role, which is to grow and develop the love of plants and to give the experience of nature.”

 Berenice looks over the garden with colleague Cathleen Floris – it is always a pleasure to be in the garden and important to check on any maintenance that needs to be done, says Berenice, but she finds that this is also when inspiration can strike for interesting new ways to enhance the garden and its plants. Photo by Loretta Floors

Blending garden and nature

In Betty’s Bay, this experience is an enlightened three-way partnership between the garden, the municipality and the Stony Point penguin colony rehabilitation project.

“The ecosystem here has dune, forest, wetlands and mountains all in delicate balance,” says Berenice.

“But there was a time when many people building new homes would clear their plots from boundary to boundary and the town was losing its characteristic fynbos and wildlife.”

Berenice has led from the front in building links and sharing critical environmental information between all involved.

“Now people do not usually clear plots so much or even build fibrocrete fences that block the movement of wildlife. Estate agents and the municipality join us in reinforcing the importance of protecting fynbos in private residential gardens and maintaining habitats for wildlife from birds and bokkies to porcupines.

“At the garden, we offer the public and local communities advice on how to maintain their gardens in keeping with the fynbos setting – what plants to grow where and how to look after them. The plants and the garden’s informative storyboards about why fynbos is important hit home for a lot of people. In fact, Tim Attwell, the local BotSoc branch chair, also did a great book on this which we have even found useful in our garden!”

 Views at the Harold Porter NBG run from the Kogelberg across the green oasis of the town of Betty’s Bay to the ocean – this aerial shot also highlights just how close the garden is to the shoreline. Photo by Loretta Floors


Sometimes, however, nature is so unpredictable that it can wreck your best-laid plans. The garden’s precious fynbos biosphere setting, perched between the ocean and the river, has created plenty of natural crises for curators to handle.

Soon after Berenice joined the staff, she found herself helping protect the garden’s treasures from a major fire that swept through in April 2003. As another fire took hold one night in April 2011, Berenice had to evacuate her then six-month-old son Mason from her nearby house. Fortunately, Mason (now 13) and his brother Seth (nine) remain keen garden explorers!

More fire came in July 2014 and in between the fires came severe flooding – in April 2005, for instance, then in November 2013 the damage was so great that it took years for some of the infrastructure to be put right. The most devastating fire so far was in January 2019 when 31 residential properties in Betty’s Bay were destroyed.

Disa Kloof lies in the foothills of the Kogelberg – and only three or four kilometres from the ocean, which can be seen in the distance in this vista (top). Photo by Patricia McCracken. 


The garden is naturally prone to fire and flood, explains Berenice, because of the combination of flammable fynbos and a high water table. The key is to plan ahead for it, she says, and know what you are willing to sacrifice.

“Obviously, we would always protect staff or buildings,” she says. “But fynbos regenerates after fire so we can accept the loss of some plants. We do try to protect our centrepiece, however – all the plants within the circular route in the middle of the garden.”

Berenice has rebuilt before in her life and she takes these new challenges to her resilience in her stride. Sometimes calamity has resulted in helpful advances.

“All the metal information boards were so damaged by fire, for example, that they also had to be completely replaced,” says Berenice. “They have been beautifully updated to capitalise better on the information they communicate and also include QR codes for visitors to retrieve more information.”

In recent years, sturdy decking has been installed in some parts of Harold Porter NBG to help wheelchair users and parents bringing children in pushchairs to reach some of the garden’s scenic areas. Photo by Loretta Floors


The garden continues to develop new attractions as well. Last September it opened a geological garden and currently it is redeveloping the Khoisan garden with new storyboards and plants.

Being in the garden, even for a few snatched moments, is still one of the best times of the day for Berenice.

“And my day is made when I can hear schoolkids enjoying a lesson in the garden or see them lying on their little tummies, checking out the tadpoles in the reflection ponds,” she smiles. “Then I know we have reached the next generation.”

(Top) Special moments like presenting merit and long-service awards enhance the meetings, HR and budgeting that dominate much of the other side of Berenice’s working life as a curator. (Below) Harold Porter NBG is considered one of the more accessible places to view the stunning red disa (Disa uniflora). Photos by Loretta Floors

Contact Berenice Carolus and colleagues at: Harold.Porter.NBG@sanbi.org

Tim Attwell’s book, Your place in the Kogelberg, was published by the Botanical Society in 2015. It introduces the seven different vegetation types of the southern coastal transition zone of the Kogelberg biosphere reserve, discusses how private gardens can complement this natural landscape and recommends the local sport of hacking. 


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