We are lucky enough to live in a breathtakingly beautiful environment. We take delight in our mountains, the fynbos, the sea and the sunshine and we even make excuses for the wind that batters our houses and destabilises our sanity. We relish the solitude and peace that Betty’s Bay offers us, so different from the hurly burly of city life.
But this solitude comes at a cost. Now and again you will strike up a conversation with a complete stranger at the Centre Shop, seemingly a newcomer or a visitor. Then you discover that both of you have lived in Betty’s Bay for the last ten years and have never clapped eyes on each other.
We don’t get to know one another in Betty’s Bay and this is really sad. There may be any number of potential soul-mates out there, but we seldom get to meet them. Betty’s Bay’s missing sense of community could be the result of the unique layout of our town, a meandering strip with no true focal point.
Compare Betty’s Bay to Pringle Bay. Pringle Bay may not be as dramatically beautiful, it may be even windier, but what it does have is a vibrant village life. People interact more. They socialise and look out for one another.
From now on, MAY I INTRODUCE . . . will be a regular column in the Buzz and we would appreciate suggestions and contributions.
May I Introduce — Robbie and Vicki Thomas
Mimetes stokoei was thought to be extinct. First identified in 1922 by Thomas Stokoe in the mountains behind Kleinmond, it was rarely seen. Then it disappeared completely for more than fifty years. A huge mountain fire in 2000 triggered the germination of a handful of seed that had lain dormant for decades and suddenly this magnificent plant was
back. The precariousness of its continued existence led Cape Nature to approach Robbie Thomas to ensure its survival.
Mimetes stokoei [Vicki Thomas]
By grafting cuttings on to Leucospermum conocarpodendron rootstock, Robbie propagated a sustainable colony. As anticipated, the Kogelberg plants died off after about three years, falling victim to Phytopthora, as did the specimens in both Harold Porter and Kirstenbosch. At this point, the only known plants of M. stokoei are to be found in Robbie Thomas’s garden in Betty’s Bay. And it is thanks to Vicki Thomas that the world can appreciate the beauty of this rare species.
Robbie and Vicki are Betty’s Bayers of long-standing and both have played significant roles in ensuring the sustainability and glorification of our local fynbos. Robbie, like his mother before him, is a dedicated horticulturalist and propagator of endangered plant species, while Vicki is a renowned botanical artist, whose work has gained widespread recognition, both in South Africa and abroad.
A visit to their home, appropriately positioned next to the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, is testament to their work. The garden boasts an astonishing collection of rare fynbos and is a joy to behold.
A baboon-proof nursery area contains hundreds of young plants, mainly Proteaceae, that Robbie has personally propagated and reared. And, when you enter their house, you are welcomed by a breathtaking display of botanical art, the work of his wife, Vicki.
Robbie Thomas in his garden in Betty’s Bay, surrounded by mimetes plants.
Robbie is particularly interested in the propagation and cultivation of Mimetes and twelve of the fourteen known species are to be found in his garden. But, he has also played a role in the successful rescue of the Marsh Rose, Orothamnus zeyheri, the very rare and exceptionally beautiful member of the Proteaceae family that grows in the high peaks of the Kogelberg. Several plants grace his garden and are quite spectacular in their flowering season. Every year, Robbie propagates a new batch, always on conocarpodendron rootstock. In so doing, he plays his part in ensuring that the species will never again face extinction.
Robbie is constantly exploring ways to successfully propagate fynbos plants. He has devised a simple method of infusing water with smoke and has gallons at hand for the germination season. His watering system is extraordinary but effective, consisting of cunningly-connected hot water cylinder trays that drain into tin drums. The nutrient-rich water that he collects is then reused in a neverending cycle. Four or five earthworm farms on the property provide him with rich fertilizer.
The glorious Marsh Rose in full flower.
At present he is working on the propagation of ericas, notoriously tricky because of the dusty nature of the seed, and he is enjoying considerable success. In his garage is a fridge that has been specially adapted so as to produce daily cycles of heat and cold, emulating the daily temperature fluctuations in nature. It is in this fridge that his ericas start their life.
Robbie Thomas is an extraordinary man who is creating an enduring legacy in the botanical world. No less extraordinary is his wife, Vicki Thomas.
Vicki is a self-taught botanical artist. Her career took off in 1979, when she produced illustrations for prize cards at the annual flower show at Kirstenbosch . Her potential as a serious artist was spotted by Ernst van Jaarsveld, the eminent plant explorer and collector.
Vicki, at work in her Betty’s Bay studio.
Her years of hard work and dedication culminated in the inclusion of her drawings in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, the illustrated publication of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, that has been in print since 1787. It provides the definitive record of newly discovered species in the world.
Vicki’s latest inclusion is Cyrtanthus sanguineus, which was recently discovered in Southern Namibia and is a relation of the well-known George lily, which grows naturally in the Knysna area.
Vicki has even done work for Prince Charles’s charity, the Prince’s Trust. Her comment about Prince Charles, whom she met, was “. . . a really nice guy. He would have made a great gentleman farmer.”
Vicki explained why, in the botanical world, illustration is preferable to photography. With the curved lens of a camera there isn’t the necessary focal depth. In addition, it is near-impossible, using photographs, to present all the diagnostics of a particular species [its seeds, leaves front and back, bulbs, flowers and stems] on a single page. She also described the three types of botanical drawing: scientific illustration, displaying all the diagnostics, botanical art, where the illustration is aesthetic rather than informative, and semi-scientific, which is a combination of the two.
Betty’s Bayers with artistic aspirations and an interest in botanical illustration will soon be given an opportunity to learn the craft. Vicki is holding a three-day workshop in May at the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens.
The scientific illustration of Cyrtanthus sanguineus, as it appeared in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.