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Seed conservation training in the South African wilderness

Wolfgang Stuppy
29 May 2014
Blog team: 
In March this year Kew's South African partners organised an ex situ conservation workshop and asked Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank to send a member of staff to provide specialist teaching. As a result, the MSB's seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy was lucky enough to experience an unforgettable week in South Africa’s wilderness.


Photo of Soutpansberg mountain range
The view across the Soutpansberg mountain range from the summit of Leshiba Wilderness

Wild Africa

Anybody who has travelled in South Africa would agree that it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The country owes its beauty to its marvellous diversity in landscapes, animals and, of course, plants. One of the most biodiverse countries in the world, South Africa is home to more than 20,000 native plant species (ten times the number that you find in the UK!). Many of them are endemic which means they are found nowhere else. For example, of the Cape’s 9,000 plant species, 6,210 – that’s almost 70% - are endemic.

With its unique flora South Africa has been, from the start, one of the most important countries to join the international Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. At the heart of this collaboration is the South African National Biodiversity Institute, SANBI. Apart from managing South Africa’s network of national botanical gardens, most notable Kirstenbosch in the Cape, SANBI leads and coordinates research, and monitors the state of biodiversity in South Africa. Recently, SANBI has also embarked on a most laudable training initiative involving young people.


Photo of marula plum (Sclerocarya birrea, Anacardiaceae)
Marula plum (Sclerocarya birrea, Anacardiaceae)

The delicious marula plum (Sclerocarya birrea, Anacardiaceae), a relative of the mango and cashew, has been enjoyed by people for thousands of years. When visiting South Africa, one cannot escape the famous ‘Amarula’ liqueur made from this ‘wild’ fruit.

Groen Sebenza – getting young people into jobs in conservation

Since 2013, SANBI is leading Groen Sebenza (Afrikaans: groen = green + isiZulu: sebenza = work), a major training and job creation programme for 800 unemployed graduates. The aim is to help young South Africans from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to develop skills in biodiversity conservation and to create job opportunities for them. In 2013, SANBI’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and Gardens Conservation Programme Manager, Livhuwani (‘Livhu’) Nkuna, found that more than 60 SANBI and Groen Sebenza interns would greatly benefit from specialised training in plant conservation. Therefore, Livhu decided to organise the ex situ plant conservation training workshop that took place at Leshiba Wilderness on Soutpansberg Mountains in Limpopo province. A total of 14 Groen Sebenza interns and 10 permanent SANBI employees attended the training which took place from 23 to 28 March 2014.


Photo of participants in SANBI plant conservation training
The participants of the SANBI ex-situ plant conservation training workshop in the Leshiba Wilderness before the backdrop of the backdrop of the Soutpansberg mountains.

An incredible venue - Leshiba Wilderness

Leshiba Wilderness is a private game and nature reserve on the summit of the western Soutpansberg mountain in Limpopo Province, close to the border with Zimbabwe. Besides offering basic but very good accommodation for students which makes it an affordable venue for our training course, the relatively unspoilt African bush of Leshiba with its over 360 different species of trees is an ideal training ground for budding botanists and horticulturists. Just watch out for the big game - Leshiba is also home to free-roaming antelopes, warthogs, porcupines, giraffes, leopards and white rhinos!


Photo of Leshiba Wilderness nature reserve
Inside Leshiba Wilderness nature reserve which is home to some of Africa’s big mammals such as antelopes, warthogs, giraffes and white rhinos.


The view from the house at Leshiba where the training lessons were held
The view from the house at Leshiba where the training lessons were held.

Inspiring training

In a place like Leshiba, so close to nature with all its beautiful and wondrous diversity of life, it is hard not to be inspired to love and protect the plants and animals with whom we share the planet. After two mornings of talks and lectures by various members of SANBI staff and myself, the course participants went out and about to apply their newly acquired knowledge. One objective was to learn and practice the taking of cuttings in the field to propagate wild plants vegetatively.

The other main objective was to teach Groen Sebenza interns and SANBI staff in seed conservation techniques. The training addressed all aspects from planning a seed collecting trip, identifying fruit and seed characters, assessing the quality and quantity of a potential seed collection, post-harvest seed handling and processing as well as preparing herbarium vouchers, and collecting relevant associated data.

In order to be able to make good quality seed collections in the field, collectors must be able to judge when fruits and seeds are ready for collection and whether the available seeds are good quality by cutting some of them open. This is where my fruit and seed morphological training kicked in. A basic understanding of fruit and seed structure and dispersal not only helps to make better seed collections, it also allows a deeper understanding of the ecology of a species. The field work was followed by Livhu’s very competent and entertaining afternoon lessons in seed processing and preparing herbarium specimens.


Photo of South Africa trainer Livhu
Livhu’s enthusiasm and vast knowledge of South African plants made the training a fascinating experience.


Photo of Livhu demonstrating the processing seeds after returning from the field
Livhu demonstrating the processing seeds after returning from the field.


Photo of the preparation of herbarium specimens
The preparation of herbarium specimens is part of the scientific documentation of any seed collection.

Some amazing African plants

Much of the training course took place outdoors, in the wilderness of Leshiba and some other places in Limpopo Province. Here are just a few examples of amazing plants we encountered. From most of them, we also collected seeds for the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.


Photo of Aloe cryptopoda (Xanthorrhoeaceae)
Aloe cryptopoda (Xanthorrhoeaceae), a common species of aloe in South Africa


Photo of Eriosema preptum (Leguminosae)
Flowers and fruits of Eriosema preptum (Leguminosae), a member of the bean family


Photo of Dicerocaryum seneciodes (Pedaliaceae)
Flowers and fruits of Dicerocaryum seneciodes (Pedaliaceae), a member of the sesame family.

For obvious reasons, the vicious fruits have earned this species the name ‘devil thorn’. Stepping on one of these without proper shoes can be extremely painful!


Photo of maroon bells (Tinnea rhodesiana)
Flowers and fruits of maroon bells (Tinnea rhodesiana), an interesting shrub in the mint family (Lamiaceae)


Photo of African myrrh (Commiphora afriana, Burseraceae)
African myrrh (Commiphora afriana, Burseraceae)

After the fruits of the African myrrh (Commiphora afriana, Burseraceae) have dropped their outer shells they reveal a stunning stone adorned red fleshy ridges. The purpose of the striking red-and black display is to attract birds for dispersal.

Each one teach one!

At the end of the week, we all left in great spirit. I have seen many amazing plants and their fruits and seeds but what I was most impressed with was the mutual respect, keen interest and dedication of the people on the course. Much of the good atmosphere came down to Livhu’s friendly and open personality (not to mention his incredible knowledge of South African plants!) but others left lasting impressions too, most notably Eugene Marinus. Eugene is curator of Hantam National Botanic Garden in Nieuwoudtville, the bulb capital of the world. During our time in Leshiba, he provided excellent professional advice on practical leadership.


Photo of Eugene Marinus
Eugene Marinus (right): 'Each one teach one!'

At the end of the workshop, Eugene appealed to all participants to pass on their newly acquired knowledge and skills to someone they know so that more people can improve their plant conservation skills. May ‘each one teach one’ was his wise plea and I shall remember Eugene’s insightful words for future workshops!

- Wolfgang Stuppy -

This work is supported by a grant from Arcadia.

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