BRANCHING OUT | Inspiration from BotSoc branches

Singapore sling

Stops and starts stretched the project to nearly a decade but visitors to the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens can now enjoy a new photo opportunity beside leafy flower arches inspired by a visit to Singapore and brought to life by a dedicated duo from the Lowveld branch of the Botanical Society

REPORT & PHOTOS BY WENDY WILLIAMS 

Singapore sling

Stops and starts stretched the project to nearly a decade but visitors to the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens can now enjoy a new photo opportunity beside leafy flower arches inspired by a visit to Singapore and brought to life by a dedicated duo from the Lowveld branch of the Botanical Society

REPORT & PHOTOS BY WENDY WILLIAMS
The Lowveld branch’s first series of three arches at the Lowveld National Botanical Garden have been such a success that more will probably be built.

 

Back in 2014, on a holiday visit to the beautiful, original tropical Singapore Botanic Gardens, founded in 1859, Mpumalanga botanists John and Sandie Burrows found that the Lowveld National Botanical Garden was not far from their minds.

“Stepping up from the underground station to the Singapore gardens entrance, we were impressed to be greeted by a procession of arches over the path,” recalls John. “They signalled a marvellous welcome to the gardens, really setting the scene with their beautiful display of climbing plants in many colours and textures.”

John and Sandie had for many years been closely involved with the Loweveld NBG, providing seeds of trees and shrubs from south-central Africa to the garden’s then horticulturist Willem Froneman. John had also been a committee member of the Lowveld branch of BotSoc for many years. So the inspiration quickly struck that the branch could organise a showpiece like this for the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens and use it to showcase African climber plants.

Curator Taki Mamatsharaga foresaw the arches being a hit in the Lowveld NBG and especially popular for the weddings held there so it was decided to place the arches on the northeast side of the gardens, just beyond the concert stage and braille trail.

Inspiration strikes – the arches that greeted BotSoc Lowveld’s John and Sandie Burrows and sparked an intriguing project for the branch at the Lowveld National Botanical Garden.

 

FITS & STARTS

The Lowveld branch has a long history of assisting with projects at the Lowveld NBG, from pathways to building a children’s play area. But as the cheapest initial quotes for a stainless-steel arch structure were more than R600 000, that plan had to be put on hold while alternative designs were discussed.

Lowveld NBG horticulturalist Willem Froneman started propagating appropriate climbers.

Then, as we all know, when Covid hit. Life stopped for a while. During this time relatively new branch committee member Stephen Mallory came up with a different design based on the Da Vinci arch concept.

 

HISTORICAL INSPIRATION

This uses wooden poles which interlock together, enabling the structure to support itself and be constructed without heavy lifting equipment. The total cost would be less than a tenth of the steel structure.

With renewed vigour, the work at last began. Funds came from the annual Sappi Mpumalanga’s Mother’s Day concert organised by the branch at the Lowveld NBG.

Stephen Mallory works with staff at the farm where the poles were donated, preparing them for construction of the first arch at the garden.

 

POLE POSITION

A local farmer was keen to donate trees for the arch’s poles. He wanted to clear an area of alien trees on his farm and saw the arch project as an opportunity to give back to the botanical community at the same time. But the branch had to find a way to cut down the trees and prepare the poles.

Branch members Stephen Mallory and Wendy Williams took on the project and found themselves hands on with everything from helping cut down the trees, prepare and select the poles and organise them for collection to building the arch itself.

ARCH CHALLENGE

The Lowveld NBG collected and stored the poles until Stephen and Wendy were available to start building the arch. They began during the sweltering Lowveld December heat with the help of Lowveld NBG staff.

But the heat was not the only challenge. There was no scaled design for the arch so building it was a case of trial and error and many ‘test runs’.

The first arch was built from a selection of frames made on the ground first and then interlocked together to about two metres high on each side. Finally the top three frames were hoisted up and locked into place.

STEP-BY-STEP

STEP 1

The frame of the arch was laid first out on the ground.

STEP 2

The arch was carefully raised into position.

STEP 3

Once it had been stabilised, the wood was retreated.

STEP 4

Mesh was attached to the sides of the arch to help the climbers grow upwards evenly.

Tweaking the prototype

Once the arch had taken shape and each frame was firmly in place the whole structure was then slowly moved into the pre-dug post holes. Although each piece of the structure does balance and support the others without being interconnected, for safety reasons each piece was reinforced with bars through each joint. 

Other minor adjustments were made to this prototype, such as accommodating the slight slope on which the arch stood to ensure that it was balanced and level. Ultimately, the arch grew taller but became narrower, making it about four metres high and six metres wide.

Finally, the wood was treated again and wire mesh was placed over it to give plants something to grow up. 

ARCHING ON

After the first finished arch had been approved by the branch committee, Lowveld NBG curator Taki Mamatsharaga and current acting curator Carona Mathipa, local building contractor Cornel Coetzee was hired to build the remaining two arches to this prototype.

When the rainy season started in October 2022, the arches were ready and so were the plants. Lowveld NBG staff planted up the arches, with each plant specifically chosen for its flowers, aroma and weight. As the plants grow in size, you do not want them to increase too much in weight and put strain on the structure.

Within a year of being planted, each plant has taken shape with some already almost covering the top. To quote our present branch chairman Frank Webb, when blooming, the arches “will be a magnificent show”.

There are plans to build more arches elsewhere in the botanical gardens.

Our next branch project is to build domes to attract visitors to the insect area of the garden.

 

Scroll through to see African climbing plants chosen for the arches at Lowveld NBG

Left: The tubular blooms of the parachute flower (Ceropegia sandersonii) detain insects to enable pollination. Middle: The sweetly scented climbing wild apricot (Ancylobotrys petersiana) is found as far north as the Congo and Somalia and east to Madagascar and the Comoros. Photo @troos iNaturalist. Right: The common poison rope (Strophanthus speciosus) flowers from September to December, followed by seed pods that distribute wind-blown seeds. Photo @troos iNaturalist

Left: The flowering ivy (Senecio macroglossus) blooms all year round and is actually a member of the daisy family. Photo @ robert_taylor iNaturalist. Right: Roots of the white-banded ceropegia (Ceropegia nilotica) are eaten raw or roasted and are said to have a horseradish-type flavour.

Left: Monkey rope (Secamone alpini) grows on the edges of forests and thickets from Kenya and Tanzania, south to South Africa. Photo @troos iNaturalist. Middle: The baboon grape (Rhoicissus digitata) produces bunches of small grape-like fruit that can be used to make jam. Photo by Stephen Mallory. Right: The well-known canary creeper (Senecio tamoides) attracts butterflies. 

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