MEET THE CURATOR

Steward of nature

For Refilwe Malatji at Pretoria National Botanical Garden, conservation of nature meets the art of horticulture to show the garden at its best

BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN. Photographs by SANBI

MEET THE CURATOR

Steward of nature

For Refilwe Malatji at Pretoria National Botanical Garden, conservation of nature meets the art of horticulture to show the garden at its best

BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN. Photographs by SANBI

The forest ecosystem is one of the natural features of Pretoria National Botanical Garden – here Refilwe Malatji admires a sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus).

Refilwe Malatji, garden manager at Pretoria National Botanical Garden, is in her best place – because to her, horticulture feels like home.

 

“When I was growing up, my father owned a small plant nursery,” she recalls. “That is how I got my hands-on introduction to horticulture, selling plants at the roadside, learning about propagation, how to feed plants properly and what their scientific names are.”

Left: Refilwe loves the way a good garden design can enhance a landscape – the visitor’s eye is wowed by the tree aloe (Aloidendron barberae) and then challenged by the intriguing pachypodium behind it. Right: a close-up of the pachypodium’s rippling stems. Photos by Linette Ferreira

EARLY CHALLENGES

Refilwe was born in Boyne, Limpopo, which she recalls as “a serene village.” It is close to the town of Moria, a place of pilgrimage for the Zion Christian Church. Refilwe remembers that at her primary school, they had to attend church every Friday and that girls had to learn how to wear head wraps.
Soon her family moved to Nobody Ga-Mothiba, about 40 kilometres outside Polokwane. There she enjoyed Thomo Primary School academically – despite the one-hour walk to reach it.

FINDING THE WAY

At Krugersdorp High School in Mogale City, Refilwe faced an initial challenge of catching up on Afrikaans as a medium of study but succeeded so well that she went on to begin studying engineering. Then health issues intervened.

“This was when I realised that thanks to my father, I already had a start towards a career in horticulture – an occupation that I have always loved,” Refilwe says.

In 2009 she began her journey with SANBI as a horticulture volunteer at Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden in Roodepoort. In just 13 months, she became estate foreman through an Extended Public Works Project post.

She succeeded in completing a national certificate in general management at Boston College and followed this with a horticulture diploma at UNISA through distance learning, which she completed in 2013. In 2014, Refilwe joined Pretoria National Botanical Garden as a horticulturist. She continued her studies as well and graduated with a BTech in horticulture from Unisa in 2017. Then, in July 2021 and aged only 33, she was appointed garden manager.

“My current position is dynamic and fulfilling, the culmination of years of dedication and passion for horticulture,” she says. “The satisfaction of completing plant installations fuels my dedication to horticulture. My passion lies in witnessing the transformation of landscapes and implementing intricate garden designs.”

FAMILY PRIDE

One of Refilwe’s proudest fans is her father – “the most significant influence in my life,” she calls him.

“He is a humble and community-focused businessman,” she says. “His commitment to creating job opportunities and treating people with respect has shaped my belief that one person cannot navigate the world alone – we thrive when surrounded by a supportive community.”

Whether family history will repeat itself remains to be seen. Refilwe is the mother of twin six-year-old boys, Kgomo and Kgotso, who are her “constant source of joy.” One is drawn to nature and animals, making Refilwe wonder whether he will have a future in nature conservation or veterinary science. The other is keenly interested in maths and problem-solving games.

The waterfall is a favourite tranquil spot for many visitors to Pretoria National Botanical Garden.

GARDENING IN PRETORIA

In her own work, Refilwe is particularly impressed by the innovative methods of international botanical gardens and believes SA gardens can learn a lot from them.

Pretoria’s climate is semi-arid, she explains, making it particularly important in the 76-hectare national botanical garden to use sustainable practices to cope with the conditions. These include water-wise gardening, organic fertilisation and careful plant selection.

“Our horticultural team faces several challenges, including adapting to climate change, water scarcity and the need to conserve threatened plant species,” she says. “We continually explore new ways of mitigating these challenges, such as introducing drought-resistant plants and implementing efficient irrigation systems.”

Top left: Refilwe confers with colleague Tintswalo Mkhari about garden operations. Right below: she checks out the Ndebele hut at the heart of the medicinal garden.

 

“Beyond recreation, the garden serves as an outdoor classroom,” says Refilwe. “We host workshops and programmes that cater to the local community’s interest in nature, promoting biodiversity conservation and environmental awareness.”

“In this way, we take part in local and national efforts to preserve Gauteng’s biodiversity and South Africa’s broader ecological wellbeing.”

GARDENING FOR SA

“We aim to educate and inspire visitors about some of our country’s unique ecosystems – here we particularly showcase savanna and forest,” says Refilwe. “We are keen to communicate why it is important to conserve South Africa’s biodiversity.”

In an urban setting, where green spaces are at a premium, she explains, local residents enjoy the Pretoria NBG as a green refuge and recreational space where they can connect with nature, relax and nourish their wellbeing – for instance, following the garden’s nature trail, the Dassie Trail, along a low koppie. This ties into the garden’s work as a hub for community gatherings, events and initiatives that aim to cultivate a harmonious relationship between the urban population and the natural world.

The cycad collection at Pretoria National Botanical Garden showcases this flagship group of plants. Photo by Linette Ferreira

LIVING MUSEUM

The botanical garden is a living testament to Gauteng’s biodiversity, providing a green corridor for wildlife and a sanctuary for a wide range of indigenous South African plant species.

Among the special displays that Pretoria NBG showcases are grassland plants – especially when in full bloom after the controlled veld fire every three years – as well as succulents and a wetland. However, the garden’s main threatened flagship plant group is cycads.

“We house significant collections of this plant group which is highly threatened in South Africa and globally,” says Refilwe. “This is mainly due to illegal harvesting and trade of these species from their natural habitat. Habitat loss and climate change makes the threat to cycads even worse.

“Our display collection is like a living museum. Cultivating various cycad species like this is part of our strategy of conserving them away (ex situ) from where they grow naturally and are at risk. We also collaborate with conservation organisations and research institutions to contribute to the body of knowledge on successfully propagating cycads.”

INSPIRING THE FUTURE

Passion and dedication are vital for success in horticulture, Refilwe believes. The wealth of opportunities range from research to plant breeding. She sees the dynamic nature of horticulture offering a variety of career paths, allowing individuals to carve out their niche and make a meaningful impact on the environment.

“Horticulture is not merely a job but a vocation for which you need a genuine love for plants and the environment,” Refilwe says. “Technology has a role in making processes more efficient but the essence of nature conservation and horticulture lies in human creativity and a connection to the environment.

“As stewards of nature, we are responsible for inspiring the next generation and instilling in them a sense of environmental consciousness. Together, we can create sustainable and aesthetically pleasing landscapes that contribute to the wellbeing of communities and the planet as a whole. I envision a future where African designs take centre stage, embracing the richness of our local flora.”

The furnishings at Refilwe’s office at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden pay tribute to the artists who depict South Africa’s fascinating flora.
The Charles and Elsie Ceronio bonsai collection consists of indigenous South African tree species in bonsai form. The close-up shows a monkey thorn (Senegalia galpinii). Photos by Linette Ferreira

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