Botany, bribes & benefits
Updated: Jan 27
This article describes an expedition I undertook to help establish a cacti and succulent garden at the Jardin Botanique de Kisantu (Botanic Garden of Kisantu) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), when I was Curator at Botanic Garden Meise (BGM.
BGM plays a significant role in managing the restoration of the Botanic Garden of Kisantu, two hours’ drive south west of the capital Kinshasa. My specific role was to restore a cacti and succulent garden, provide horticultural training and begin the process of creating an outdoor dry garden. It is hoped that these efforts along with others would help safeguard the garden’s future and the livelihoods of all those it employs.
Work started about a month prior to the trip, when over 400 different cacti and succulent types were taken from BGM’s collection. These were carefully prepared, documented, labelled, and left to dry on the glasshouse bench. Cacti and succulent cuttings often need to be left in the open air to naturally callus before rooting. In fact, these cuttings were going to be rooted in the DRC.
As some might know, the DRC and neighbouring countries were involved in several bloody wars at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, the country remained politically unstable and not on many people’s bucket list for holiday destinations. Many of its inhabitants remain at or below the poverty line. Understandably, people seek to find money where possible. With this in mind, we arrived at Kinshasa Airport and proceeded to collect our botanical freight from arrivals that we previously delivered at Brussels Airport. Our shipment comprised five large boxes of cacti cuttings, nine boxes of botanical books and additional containers of gardening boots.
After waiting a long time, it was evident our consignment was not going to appear anytime soon. On enquiry we were told they had not arrived; this was surprising because we saw our boxes being loaded on our plane before we left Belgium. We were left no alternative but to pay bribes that enabled us to enter the dimly lit cargo hanger alongside the runway. After a few minutes searching we found our goods! That was the easy part. It took a further four hours to obtain our boxes, after negotiating discrete payments to airport staff and smart military officials armed with AK47s and then only after a phone call was made to the European Union’s Ambassador in the DRC. Finally, we could leave the airport with our boxes, or should I say some of our boxes. We were refused the botanical books and garden boots (boxes that had already been ‘inspected’), for what reason I fail to recall. I’m not sure whether these items ever made it to Kisantu Botanic Garden. The important thing, for the purpose of our expedition, was that the perishable cacti cuttings were now safe in our hands.
We arrived in Kisantu the following day, and were confronted with a splendid, garden in the process of re-awakening. Many of the tree specimens were magnificent and there were new, once hidden areas, being re-discovered by machete to marvel at.
The area where we spent most time was the former cacti and succulent house, a brick-pillared, covered structure, that kept off much of the tropical rain. No original specimens remained except for a few straggly cacti. Incredibly, we unearthed many hand-sized flat stones, with carefully painted plant names on them that had survived from the previous collection dating from the 1950s and acted like gravestones to a once thriving collection.
The 750 cacti cuttings, comprising of 412 different taxa, were carefully removed from the five boxes. Initially, we intended to place them into a nursery area to root. However, a suitable site had not been constructed. Working in Africa is all about adapting to changing circumstances, so we decided to position the cuttings into their final planted locations using ‘propagation holes’, areas filled with a course mixture of sand and grit, where they would root. This was probably a more sensible approach because it ensured the individual labels did not become separated from the plants.
I gave instructions to garden staff to clear area and develop a pleasing design for the new display with the invaluable help of Kisantu Botanic Garden’s Project Manager, Francesca Lanata. Once a plan was decided we demonstrated what we needed the gardeners to do and they all sprang into action. Unlike developed Europe, all work in the DRC is manual, and without a welfare system there is no retirement age, so many grey-haired gardeners steadily maneuvered large rocks to create the new design. Meanwhile, other staff carefully unpacked the cuttings and laid them in carefully regimented order on the guest house floor. Once the hard landscaping was complete, we taught the gardeners an appreciation of how to place the (would-be) plants in a way that showed them off to their best. This was a new exercise to them. However, eventually they got the hang of it and achieved fine work.
By the end of our short stay a new garden was born, horticultural instruction given, and we like to think, an added appreciation of plants and horticulture. This collection currently represents Kisantu’s most detailed living collection and is undoubtedly the richest and best documented resource of living cacti and succulents anywhere in Central Africa.
This information was originally prepared for my guest lecture at the University of Vienna Botanic Garden in Austria. Much appreciation to all the garden staff at Kisantu and to its Project Manager, Francesca Lanata.